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Since 2001, I have taught at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, the flagship campus for the SIU system. Founded as a normal school in 1869, SIUC has a long tradition of providing an affordable, accessible education to first generation college students. At SIUC, I teach courses in modern U.S. history, as well as the histories of women, gender, and the family. I am proud of having helped introduce two new courses into the curriculum: an introductory American Studies course and a Modern Lesbian and Gay History course. Both are the first of their kind to be taught on our campus. I have been moved by my students, who often arrive at the university against the cumulative odds created by poverty, geographical isolation, and underfunded public schooling. Their passion for history, their commitment to education, and their basic decency have been an inspiration.

Natasha Zaretsky with student at Morris Library at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.

My pedagogy has been shaped by my location in the most literal sense. Bordered by Appalachia to the East, the Mississippi Delta to the South, and the Ozarks to the West, Southern Illinois is surrounded by some of the poorest rural peripheries in the country. Many students come from white farming communities and are the first in their families to attend college. Others are African American, and their parents and guardians have sent them here to remove them from urban gun violence. The outside world does not disappear at the classroom door, however: the Iraqi war veteran who emails me to tell me that he suffers from PTSD; the student from a nearby town who is trying to help a brother in the throes of amphetamine addiction; the African-American student who is homesick and misses her family and community. Many students have gone through hell and high water to get here, and once here, they often struggle to make it to graduation—either because they are unprepared for the rigors of college, or because they are working long hours to pay their bursar’s bill.

In this precarious setting, my most urgent charge as a teacher is to endow my students with a sense of belonging. I aim to create a classroom in which each of my students can say: “I belong here.” At a time when public education is under assault, instilling this sense of entitlement in my students feels like a radical act. So many contemporary forces are conspiring to do the opposite: to remake the humanities into the sole provenance of the elites and to transform institutions like SIUC into vocational training grounds. I see my task as a teacher as one of beating back against these currents. Sometimes, it feels like a losing battle. What to do about a senior who never learned to write? While I cannot undo sixteen years of neglect in sixteen weeks, I can help her to see that her limitations are not her fault.

My students are living the history that I chart in my classes: the unending war on terror; the sharpening divide between urban metropolises fueled by finance and high-tech and rural regions limping along after decades of divestment; a racial regime in which mass incarceration has displaced Jim Crow segregation; and the rise of a service-based, low-wage economy that hobbles so many working class families. In my courses, I use historical narrative to pull back the curtain on the larger political, economic, and cultural constraints bearing down on my students, and to convey to them that it is these constraints—rather than personal failure—that structure their lives and determine certain outcomes.

To learn more about my teaching or to request a course syllabus, please email me at zaretsky@siu.edu.