From Professor to Textbook Author

A graduate in history, Nancy Hewitt went on to earn her doctoral degree in the then-emerging discipline of women’s history before beginning her career as a professor at public and private universities and as a textbook author.

Nancy Hewitt ’74 took a circuitous route to SUNY Brockport, her mother’s — Irene Takacs Hewitt’s — alma mater. After graduating from Spencerport High School, she attended Smith College on a scholarship, leaving after two years to attend the University of Toronto, prior to attending Brockport. After earning her bachelor’s degree in history at the college, she enrolled in the doctoral program in history at the University of Pennsylvania. From there, she has gone on to teach at the University of South Florida, Duke University, Rutgers University, and the University of Cambridge. She also has written several books on women’s history — Radical Friend: Amy Kirby Post, Southern Discomfort, Women’s Activism and Social Change, and Women Families and Communities as well as a survey course text Exploring American Histories co-authored with her husband, Steven F. Lawson, now in its IVth edition.

In 2010, she delivered the Commencement Address at the SUNY Brockport commencement, and at the ceremony received an honorary doctoral degree from the State University of New York. She taught American History at the University of Cambridge in the UK in the 2009-10 academic year, and in 2000, she received a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship in American History.

How did you make the decision to attend SUNY Brockport?

After my experiences at Smith College and the University of Toronto, my parents told me that my college education was my responsibility. I was back home and took a job at Scrantom’s, a stationery store in downtown Rochester. Brockport had an early outreach program in the 1970s in Rochester that was within walking distance from Scrantom’s. I took a class on history’s outcasts, women, children and criminals taught by Robert French Smith. Dr. Smith suggested that I enroll at Brockport and major in history. When I transferred my credits from Smith, it seemed that a history major would allow me to graduate in the shortest time possible.

I took a women’s history course from Dr. Susan Stuard. It was primarily European women’s history. What I wanted was women’s history from a different perspective. I was inspired when I went to Brockport. I also was taking education courses. I went to school full-time beginning in the spring semester 1973 through 1974. I was working full-time and going to school full-time. I had to change my schedule at Scranton’s every semester.

What happened to your plan to teach?

In fall 1974, I returned to Brockport to student teach. I couldn’t work until I found a position at Eastman Kodak from 11 pm to 7 am so I could student teach. I taught during the day and worked at night. It was a crazy time.

My student teaching assignment was at a middle school in the Gates-Chili School District. I watched a great teacher there make social studies fun through games and exercises. She convinced me not to be a middle school teacher. I was very shy and the time and was not sure I could [teach]. Then I found out I was two credits short on converting my classes from Smith to Brockport so I ended up not getting my teaching certificate.

Why did you decide to earn your PhD?

Dr. Stuard suggested I get a PhD. I wondered what that would look like. She thought I should apply to some prestigious schools. I was especially interested in the History of Women program offered at the University of Pennsylvania. I also applied to Harvard and Berkeley. I was back at Scrantom’s while I worked on my applications and took a master’s level course on historical approaches.

The chair of the Department of History at Penn called to tell me I had received a fellowship. I also was accepted at Harvard and Berkeley. I stayed in touch with Dr. Smith and Dr. Stuard while I worked on my doctorate. I was interested in their take on my progress. They both left Brockport. Dr. Stuard took a position at Haverford College outside Philadelphia, and we are still in touch.

What was your goal for your graduate studies?

My goal in my PhD program was expanding the study of women’s history. I saw specializing in that aspect was my best chance of finding a position. Thanks to my Brockport faculty, I had a good grounding in European history. In one of my early classes, I studied comparative American/French women’s history, using French sources. I used newspapers as my original sources since they were written at about sixth grade level and I only had two years of French. After that, I stayed with American women’s history. I was fortunate that there were so many women’s activities in Rochester and upstate New York. I could live at home and do my research.

Where did you start teaching?

I actually began teaching college courses while I was working on my PhD. I was a teaching assistant at the University of Pennsylvania, and then I taught a two-semester survey course in women’s history at Stockton (NJ) State College and a one-semester United States survey at Philadelphia Community College.

After graduation, I received an offer for a tenure-track position at the University of South Florida, where there were a lot of older returning students and a young women’s study program. I was there for eleven years and then accepted a position at Duke University. Six years later, I moved to Rutgers University. I have been fortunate to teach a wide-range of students, from older returning adult students to traditional undergraduate and graduate students. At USF and Rutgers, I taught many first-generation college students while at Duke, I often taught third, fourth, and fifth generation college students. Because I have taught such a variety of students, I have had to think about reaching students at their own level.

How did you spend your first summer as a professor?

My first summer as a professor, I needed to work, and I received a call from the National Parks Service about working at the new Women’s Rights National Park in Seneca Falls, NY. Because we were a new park, we were creating exhibits and planning tours. The location is on the Erie Canal so we incorporated information on it. There was a retired couple across the street from our building who had known Susan B. Anthony.

What is your preferred teaching style?

I like interactions with students. Not only do I think that students retain more information, but I can see where students are at and how they are processing the information from the lectures or assigned readings. My ideal class was about two-thirds lecture and one-third group and discussion work. I had group projects where groups were asked to answer questions and class discussions so I could see student progress.

How does your survey textbook differ from others?

The textbook that my husband Steven Lawton and I have written is designed to include primary sources. It began as a book of readings, articles and chapters, and it expanded to become a textbook. We list sources in every chapter to encourage students to read original materials for themselves. I like to think of it as more of a book of readings than a textbook.

What are your plans now that you have retired?

Steven and I are revising and updating our textbook. We moved to Florida from New Jersey, and I am still doing research on women’s history in upstate New York. Since we are in Florida, getting back is now a challenge. I am still in touch with a large community, people I’ve met through Brockport, like Alison Parker and Jennifer Lloyd; people from the state university systems; and people from the history profession. I am very fortunate.

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Posted: July 25, 2023