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The Ties Between Research and Teaching

The Ties Between Research and Teaching

Chafe honored with 2011 University Scholar/Teacher of the Year Award

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Chafe award
President Brodhead presents William Chafe with the annual University Scholar/Teacher Award Thursday. Photo by Les Todd/Duke University Photography.

Durham, NC - For historian William Chafe, research and teaching are inextricably bound.

"[Teaching] basically affects everything I do," Chafe said, the Alice Mary Baldwin Professor of History and a faculty member since 1971.

Chafe is being honored with the 2011 University Scholar/Teacher of the Year Award, which recognizes outstanding faculty members for their dedication and contributions to the learning arts and to the institution. The award was established in 1981 by the Division of Higher Education of the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry of the United Methodist Church.

"It's terrific," says Chafe. "I won a teacher of the year award in my first or second year at Duke, so winning the Scholar/Teacher Award now is a wonderful way to conclude a career at Duke," Chafe said.

"What is particularly striking about Bill," former Arts and Sciences dean Al Crumbliss wrote in his nomination letter, "is that he maintained this very high level of service (to the discipline) while sustaining an equally uncompromising track record of historical research and an unfailing capacity for effective teaching."

Chafe's leadership of the innovative DukeImmerse Program, a four-course cluster established in 2010, provides a case in point.

"We are trying to compare the civil rights movement in America and its origins, and the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa and its origins," he said. "I've just come back from South Africa with our students, and I'm teaching a class on this whole notion of comparison. We are also writing a book with colleagues at Wits [University] on this subject. So there's always a link of some significance in what one does in research and how one teaches and what one teaches about."

Chafe's influence at Duke extends beyond scholarship and the classroom.  In the nine years in which he served as dean of Arts & Sciences, he oversaw development of Curriculum 2000, a new residential plan and helped increase minority faculty by 140 percent.

Although Chafe will retire in August, he will remain at the university, teaching a class and a research seminar as part of DukeImmerse.

For the past four decades, Chafe, a Boston native who earned his Ph.D. at Columbia, has studied the origins of 20th-century social movements, principally the women's movement and the civil rights movement. He has been a prolific author of influential scholarly works, including Civilities and Civil Rights and The Unfinished Journey: America Since World War II.

Chafe said his broad range of scholarship is unified by an underlying desire to get to the heart of events, rather than just look at their consequences.

"We are in a very different position, and have been for the last 40, 50 years, when we've been able to take a fresher look at the multiplicity of sources, particularly doing interviews and talking to people who were not famous but who nevertheless made famous things happen."

With advances in technology, Chafe believes that identifying the root causes of history is within our grasp.

"We are blessed with that opportunity, and I think that if we don't take advantage of it, we're not really doing a good job as scholars or teachers."

Whether the subject is the role of women in the wake of the suffrage movements, patterns of discrimination, or the history of sit-ins, Chafe's work is imbued with a restless curiosity, a basic questioning of "what it means to be human and how much freedom human beings are able to exercise to make a difference."

As a post-graduate he considered joining the seminary, and he said he knows that his students are grappling with big questions of their own.

"I think that's very much what teaching is all about," he says. "In South Africa we have a lot of experience with people who are on the edge of major social justice reforms, so we spend a fair amount of time visiting with people who have been religious members of the anti-apartheid movement, including bishops and churches and people who are at this point, for example, housing over a thousand Zimbabwean refugees in the central Methodist church in Johannesburg.

"We actually go help teach the students, and then we have a session with the minister of that church, and that kind of brings home the question of the tension between religion and society."

"In the end, I may not have become a minister, but I'm not sure that's true," he says with a laugh.

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