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Elizabeth Studley Nathans '62

I entered Vassar in 1958, from a small but academically strong independent school in Massachusetts, planning to major in History but totally ignorant of the differences between history as it was then taught in even the "best" secondary schools, and what I would encounter at Vassar.  My freshman schedule placed me in History 120, a traditional "Western Civ" course, in a section taught by "Mr. Degler."  And a small card handed to me upon my arrival at Josselyn, announced that my faculty adviser would also be "Mr. Degler."  My "Welcomer," an otherwise somewhat detached and self-important junior, looked at the schedule and the adviser assignment in horror.   I should change everything immediately, she urged, doing whatever was necessary to avoid "D+ Degler."  So it was with real trepidation that I slunk into my first class, taking an aisle seat in the back row of the then-traditional classroom on the second floor of Swift.  And there was scant comfort in the first handout we received:  a 3pp. list of the week's reading, headed by what seemed to be cosmic questions to guide our work.  Well-accustomed to my secondary school's insistence that we should master everything presented to us, and already persuaded that "D+ Degler" would catch and penalize the slightest dereliction, I recall nothing substantive of that first class, or of subsequent classes during which Mr. Degler led what to me were incomprehensible discussions about the intellectual and social transformation of western societies from the medieval period through the Renaissance and the Reformation.  In class, I dutifully opened my spiral-bound notebook each day, headed each page with the date (as I had been taught to do) but then could discern nothing upon which to take notes as the sophomores and a couple of juniors in the class discoursed seemingly eloquently on the assigned reading. 

 Meanwhile, I haunted the stacks and the reserve room in the library, convinced that if I could somehow read absolutely everything on each week's reading list, I could somehow master the material of the course.  I purchased a dozen of the History Department's prescribed "History note pads" and took reams of handwritten notes, stashing them in neat little green boxes sold at the Bookstore for the purpose.  And then, in October, came the midterm.  I prepared for hours and on the dreaded day could, indeed, easily "identify" John Calvin, Machiavelli, and Leonardo.  But with one look at the essay question, I panicked.  It was a typical Vassar essay question, demanding a response demonstrating synthesis, interpretation, and a coherent argument bolstered by evidence from the readings.  I wrote next to nothing.  The next week, anticipating the day when "D+ Degler" would return the blue books, was torture.  When my blue book came back, it was without a grade, but it bore a firm "suggestion" that I visit Mr. Degler's office hours.  Trembling, I made the appointment and showed up at the appointed time.   Mr. Degler was sitting behind what seemed an immense desk, puffing on a pipe whose bowl was carved in the shape of a bull, complete with horns. The setting did little to lessen my terror. Nor did his opening question.  Why, he wanted to know, hadn't I been doing the reading for his class?   That did it.  Between choked sobs, I blurted out that I had done the reading, all of it.   Mr. Degler seemed incredulous.  All of it?  Yes, sir, all of it.  I had feared the equivalent of an academic flogging.  But Degler turned the meeting into something very different.  Doubtless stunned by my reaction and my response, he pointed out gently that no student was expected to read everything on every list But if I wanted to do that, he would show me how to do it in a manageable way.  And he did, pulling a couple of books from a pile on his desk and "walking me through" how to extract the essence of an author's argument quickly, and explaining where to go for the "foundation" of factual information on which to build the scaffold for my own interpretations. 

That half hour in Carl Degler's office was without doubt the most pivotal of my academic career.  It didn't make me more confident about venturing my own arguments in class discussions, but the techniques I learned eventually brought me to the start of a doctoral program far better-prepared than my graduate student colleagues, for the announcement that general exams would require candidates to demonstrate "mastery" of all the significant source materials and the published works in our chosen fields.  What Degler taught me in a half hour on an October afternoon of my freshman year eventually got passed on to generations of students with whom I worked as faculty member and then as academic dean, over four decades.  "Mr. Degler" left Vassar in 1966 for a position at Stanford, from which he is now long retired.  He and I remain in touch.  The history I learned in his classes shaped my academic direction.  The humanity of his lessons on that October afternoon taught me far more than any books, and it is something for which I have always remained profoundly grateful.

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