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Carol Berkin: History’s Advocate

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Carol Berkin“I have always had an interest in the past. It began when I was a young girl as a naïve and romantic vision of princesses and castles and heroes and heroines, but it evolved pretty quickly into a conviction that studying history was a rare experience, the closest to time travel I would ever get,” says Carol Berkin, Baruch College Presidential Professor of History and one of the most well-known and well-respected members of the College faculty. “Carol Berkin has occupied a very special niche in our department,” says Cynthia Hyla Whittaker, professor and chair of the history department. She describes Berkin as “a dedicated public historian who has brought early American history to a very wide audience and a pioneer in the field of women’s history.”

Berkin is perhaps best known as an historical commentator for over a dozen television documentaries, most recently PBS’s Dolley Madison: America’s First Lady, which aired in March. Yet her career encompasses many roles: she’s an author, editor, master teacher, and mentor as well. Her expertise and versatility go hand and hand with a personality that is spontaneous, funny, generous, and unpretentious.

Berkin has been an award-winning author throughout her career. Her Columbia University PhD dissertation won the Bancroft Dissertation Award, and last spring her most recent book, Civil War Wives, received the annual book award from the Colonial Dames of America. (The book was also recently reviewed in the Spring 2010 issue of CUNY Matters) Currently, she is working on two projects: editing a new series of biographies about famous and unknown American women and writing a biography of Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte (1785–1879), an American who was one-time sister-in-law of Napoleon Bonaparte and later a successful Baltimore businesswoman. What still excites Berkin about writing? “I write for myself, to puzzle out an historical issue, to try to understand a biographical subject, to re-create a past event.”

Berkin has no doubt that the public’s interest in history is growing. “PBS and the History Channel have helped; writers like David McCullough and Ron Chernow have helped. More than that, however, is the increasing number of historians who have begun to reach out to the general public — through public lectures, documentaries, trade books — and serve vital roles as public intellectuals. The public response suggests a deep desire to explore and understand the American past.”

Berkin herself is one of those public historians. A self-described “talking head,” she sees documentaries as “teasers, designed to draw viewers in and prompt them to learn more about the subject. She has proved especially successful in the documentary medium. “You have to get to a key point fast, be succinct, and, hopefully, show some verve and wit. Your answer can’t provide extensive background. You’d be surprised how hard it is for an historian to get right to the point!” she teases.

Berkin’s generosity shows in her commitment to improving the teaching of history. Each year she gives dozens of talks to teachers participating in the U.S. Department of Education Teaching American History grant program and runs a one-week summer institute for elementary and middle school teachers for the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. She also edits the institute’s online journal, History Now, a major service to the field of history teaching.

Not surprisingly, Berkin creates working groups and communities wherever she goes. Mentoring is key to her efforts. “It is vitally important for senior scholars to mentor junior colleagues,” she states. “I take this responsibility very seriously and find it incredibly rewarding. For example, years ago, I invited five grad students working on their dissertations to meet at my apartment once a month to discuss and critique each other’s work. It was so useful that we just kept it going, though all are professors now and working, in some cases, on second books. I helped and advised them when they were students, but soon enough they were reading my work and helping me.”

Three decades into her time at Baruch, Berkin remains devoted to the College and its students. “I still love every day in the classroom,” she says. “I absolutely love the students at Baruch. They can be blunt [“This book was boring”]; they can be enthusiastic [“Wow! I never realized that!”]; and they can reveal a deep desire to learn and to grow intellectually, which thrills me.”

Diane Harrigan