The spring 2020 semester marks the 17th edition of the most distinctive courses at the University of Mary Washington—or at any other institution, for that matter: Great Lives, Biographical Approaches to History and Cultural.
Several elements make the course distinctive. First there is the basic concept: The study of some of history’s most extraordinary eras and events through examination of individual lives central to those developments.
This concept leads to a second distinctiveness: extensive multidisciplinary content. Topics for the 2020 semester lectures in the area of women’s and black history, science, music, literature, sports, politics, and entertainment, as well as social and cultural history.
A third—and perhaps most distinctive—aspect of the course is that, in addition to classroom lectures by the instructor, public lectures are presented by guest speakers from across the country and beyond who are the foremost authorities on their topics. Among these have been a number of Pulitzer Prize recipients, including two in the upcoming series (Yale Professor David Blight on Frederick Douglass and Amherst Professor William Taubman on Nikita Khrushchev).
While the course is offered for credit to UMW students, lectures presented by the distinguished guest speakers are also open to the public free of charge. Those lectures are held in Dodd Auditorium, and normally attract around 600 people, sometimes as many as 1000.
Regis Keddie, Managing Director of Davenport and Company, was one of the first series sponsors. To him the program represents a prime example of good town/gown relations. In his view, “No other University activity has greater and more consistent positive engagement with the community that lives outside the gates, helping them feel that Mary Washington is, indeed, their University.”
The first three of the guest speakers, all during January, illustrate the diversity of topics: Ronald Reagan, by his most prolific biographer, Craig Shirley; Tiger Woods by Jeff Benedict, co-author of a recent widely acclaimed biography of the golfing legend; and the D-Day Girls, Sarah Rose’s group biography of the 39 women who volunteered as allied saboteurs in France during the prelude during the crucial Normandy invasion.
Though most of the lectures examine the lives of single individuals, several topics in 2020 will focus on groups of interesting people (e.g., duelists, pirates), some of whom are not widely known, including female pioneers in the areas of aviation and the internet.
Students who take the course are impressed by what the unique course offers. Megan Williams, for example, who took the course in 2019, appreciated the opportunity to interact with local residents. She also praised “the extensiveness and diversity of the topics. . . . Each week brought a new and fascinating figure for us to consider. In all the speakers were top experts in their fields. . . My only regret is that I cannot take the course again!”
Coincidentally, the 2020 course marks the 50th year on the UMW faculty for its instructor and creator, Professor Emeritus of History, William B. Crawley. He brings to Great Lives not only lengthy experience in the classroom, but a number of awards for excellence in teaching.
The entire schedule of public lectures including some previews of the lectures and biographical sketches of the speakers can be found at umw.edu/greatlives.
Ali Hieber, Coordinator of Community Events, University Events and Conferencing