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Grinnellians you should know (or know about): Sarah Purcell ’92, L.F. Parker Professor of History

Part of an ongoing series on the people inhabit or who have inhabited this College.

When I think of real Grinnellians [1], one of the first names that comes to mind is Sarah J. Purcell, class of 1992, L. F. Parker Professor of History [2]. Why Sarah? Well, I think all those suffixes should tell you one reason: She’s a Grinnell graduate who came back and excelled in her faculty position. As both graduate and faculty member, she is closely tied to the Grinnell culture. She knows the history of the College, its students, and its possibilities.

I intended to write this essay right after the installation ceremony in which Sarah was designated L. F. Parker Professor of History. Her speech in that ceremony helped show one of the reasons I think of her as a real Grinnellians: She was mentored or taught by the previous four holders of the Parker Chair [3]: Joe Wall, Al Jones, Don Smith, and V. Brown. That group sets high standards to meet, and I know that Sarah meets them.

In part, I know that she meets them because she’s already had high standards to meet. In particular, she took over responsibility for the Rosenfield Program in Public Affairs, International Relations, and Human Rights from Rosenfield Professor Wayne Moyer, who was long associated with the program and may even have been the founding director [4]. Those are big shoes to fill [5]. Sarah has done such an awesome job with the program that now, when you think about the program, the first name that comes to mind is Sarah’s.

But I also know that Sarah meets those standards because I’ve seen her for most of her career at Grinnell. She’s one of the top faculty at Grinnell, one of those who cares about her students and pushes them hard [6]. She’s very active in shared governance. For example, she serves as alternate parliamentarian [7] and she’s been chair of the Faculty Organization Committee [8]. I served on FOC when Sarah was chair, and I was always impressed not only by her knowledge of policy and procedure, but her ability to manage our committee and keep our workload reasonable, and, even more importantly, her ability to work with President Osgood, who I think she met with weekly. I pride myself on my knowledge of the faculty handbook, but Sarah is one of the few people who I think knows it better than I [9].

Sarah also meets the standards of her Parker predecessors in the creativity of her scholarship and the ways in which it can involve students. There are too many things to list them all [10], but I can say that I’ve been particularly impressed by the various things she’s done with sites of memory, which I’m pretty sure have included MAPs, course trips, cool Digital Humanities stuff, and more. All of those show a historian [11] who is willing to explore new things and to take risks.

Beyond all of that, I find Sarah someone I appreciate talking to about a wide variety of topics, both on campus and off. And, if that weren’t enough, she’s also responsible for us having Ed and Mary [12] in town!

This essay, like many of my profiles, is woefully incomplete. I know that one could easily write another dozen or more paragraphs on her contributions to the town, the College, its faculty and staff, and its students. One could write about her work on the Grinnell Prize, her husband, her other forms of scholarship, the other committees we serve on together, and much, much more. But I’ve written enough.

Sarah Purcell makes Grinnell better, in small ways and large. I feel so very lucky to have her as a colleague.

I do have one hope, though: I’ve been waiting nearly twenty years for Joe Wall’s History of Grinnell College in the 20th Century; can I dare to believe that now that Sarah is L. F. Parker Chair, someone might encharge her with completing that work?

[1] Whatever those are.

[2] Another is Henry Rietz ’89, Chair of the Faculty.

[3] It took way too much effort to look up those holders. Why don’t we have public Web pages about the Parker Chair, and the other named Chairs and Professorships at the College?

[4] Another part of Grinnell history that’s hard to find on the Web site.

[5] Figuratively. I have no idea what Wayne’s real shoe size is.

[6] Yeah, those are the two characteristics I tend to identify in faculty. I think students focus on them, too. Our students like to be challenged (and supported in those challenges) and like to know that their faculty care about them as individuals. Some faculty are better than most at the ability to challenge and support. Sarah, like Erik and Monessa, is one of our best.

[7] After Wayne Moyer.

[8] I’ve done the joke about union songs, right? Would it be any funnier given that Sarah’s research area is the Civil War, so I could contrast union songs (e.g., Joe Hill and Union Maid) and Union songs (e.g., When Johnny comes marching home again)? No, probably not.

[9] Who else would I include in that list? Definitely Elaine Marzluff, Paula Smith, and Monessa Cummins. Probably Wayne Moyer and J. Pablo Silva. Perhaps a few others I’m forgetting.

[10] In addition, I don’t know them all and I’m old enough that I’ve forgotten many of the ones that I do know.

[11] Or is that supposed to be an historian?

[12] Sarah’s parents, who are awesome people.

Version 1.0.1 of 2016-11-09.