Natasha Zaretsky, 38
Associate Professor of History, Southern Illinois University Carbondale, August 2008-Present
As a teenager, I showed no signs of one day becoming a historian. My parents had been left wing political activists and intellectuals, but I did not appear to be poised to follow in their footsteps. My time was spent watching John Hughes movies like The Breakfast Club and Sixteen Candles, and somberly listening to The Police and Prince on a very bulky Sony Walkman I lugged around with me everywhere. A mediocre student who graduated from high school with a B average, I struggled with my schoolwork. At the time, I lived alone in a small apartment with my mother, who battled chronic health problems. The particular challenges of my home life, combined with the everyday preoccupations of adolescent girlhood, made it hard for me to focus on my studies.
After graduating from high school in 1988, I left my native San Francisco and went to college at the University of California at Santa Cruz. San Francisco and Santa Cruz were only separated by seventy miles of Pacific coastline, but I felt as though I had entered another universe. I would sit in the library with my books in front of me, staring out the window at a canopy of Redwood trees. My dormitory room was steps away from a panoramic view of Monterey Bay. I encountered roaming deer as I walked to and from classes. Freed from the confines of a challenging home life and transplanted into what felt like an enchanted forest, I started to see myself anew--as someone who actually cared about reading, writing, and critical thinking. I blossomed academically as my instructors told me that my interpretations of books mattered and praised my writing. Leaving home for college was the turning point for me: a moment when I simultaneously broke free from my family and experienced the healing power of nature. The combination unlocked an excitement about ideas that had been buried but has been with me ever since.
Now, twenty years later, I am a scholar of contemporary American history whose work focuses on U.S. political culture, gender, and the family. The decades during which I came of age-the 1970s and 1980s- have become more than the stuff of personal memory for me. They are now also objects of scholarly inquiry. As such, they have allowed me to see my own personal past in a different light. Yes, I was a girl who was preoccupied with clothes and make up, intent on rebelling against my politically left, intellectual parents. But all along, I was also bearing witness to history. I remember listening with keen interest as my mom and dad expressed their dismay when Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980. And I remember in the years that followed, walking through the city streets and seeing young gay men who were dying. My work as a scholar has enabled me to see that even the most intimate dimensions of my childhood-the dissolution of my parents' marriage and my experience living with a single mom-were rooted in larger transformations in gender roles and family life in the closing decades of the twentieth century. My study of history has enabled me to cultivate more compassion and respect for all the people-big and small--who populated my childhood and who had to navigate a changing world. History, at its best, has the power to do that.
By Natasha Zaretsky
About Natasha Zaretsky
"She was a great teacher. She got me interested in American History. I would definitely reccomend her, and would take another course that she taught."
Dr. Zaretsky is a great professor. She's helpful and fun. Her lectures are interesting and informing. I recommend her to everyone. I hope to get to take her again." -- Anonymous Students
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