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A Contemporary View of History

New regents professor Elaine Tyler May explores the links between politics and family life

New regents professor Elaine Tyler May is a renowned scholar of 20th century U.S. history and American studies.

Elaine Tyler May
Photo by Patrick O'Leary

By Rick Moore
September 4, 2007

The post-World War II years mark a time that Americans are fond of reminiscing about—a time of relative peace and prosperity, of vets taking advantage of opportunities through the G.I. Bill, and of families plotting a life in the suburbs. Some have taken to calling it "the greatest generation."

Elaine Tyler May takes a somewhat different view of that historical era: "It just sort of sits there like this demographic and culturally mutant moment."

It's a moment May, a U professor in American studies and history who grew up in the '50s and '60s, has examined from many scholarly angles and with a view that has drawn praise both nationally and internationally. She has written, coauthored, or coedited six books including Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era, which is considered a fixture on reading lists for courses in American history and American studies.

May is "an internationally renowned scholar of 20th century United States history and American studies," according to Riv-Ellen Prell, professor and chair of the Department of American Studies. And May's scholarship is said to have transformed American history by linking the family to the public world of politics.

This summer, she was named one of five new regents professors, the University of Minnesota's highest faculty honor.

"I learn from teaching," May says. "I think that's the most exciting part for me. I really like the give-and-take from teaching, and the teaching I enjoy is where I'm in conversation with the students. "
Early in August she took some time to chat in her living room about the award and what has helped shaped her career.

"I'm still completely stunned by this news and it's hard to believe, but [it's] obviously thrilling and an amazing honor I never imagined in my life I would have."

Growing Up in an Era of Ferment

Perhaps one reason she may not have imagined a distinguished career studying and teaching American history is that May grew up in Southern California with, well. . . an aversion for history. "'History' wasn't really taught in my high school at the time I was there," she says. "It was about memorizing names and dates and the comings and goings of presidents and generals..." It wasn't until later in college that she figured out the field's potential. "I discovered that history is an interpretive art—it's about real people doing lots of different types of things," she adds.

In 1968, as an exchange student in Japan during the height of the Vietnam antiwar movement, May found herself immersed in a politically charged atmosphere and looked upon as being, first and foremost, an American.

For May, it was a defining experience. It "taught me how little I knew about what [being an American] meant," she says, and "started me on my quest to understand American history."

May says she was also shaped by the activities of her parents. Her father was a physician in reproductive medicine and a pioneer in infertility research and oral contraception, and her mother was active in the birth control and sex education movements.

"This was the stuff I grew up with," she says. "It's no accident I became interested in changing gender roles and that I would be intrigued by the connections between people's most private and intimate lives—including marriage, sex, and child bearing—with the larger social and political issues going on in the world around them."

Hers is a very contemporary look at U.S. history. Homeward Bound is an eye-opening examination of how the political realities of the Cold War era infused the daily life of Americans. And May's book Barren in the Promised Land: Childless Americans and the Pursuit of Happiness examines childlessness in the context of the politics and culture of reproduction.

May is the recipient of numerous awards and honors, including the Distinguished Woman Scholar Award in the Humanities and Social Sciences, the Fesler-Lampert Chair in the Humanities, the College of Liberal Arts (CLA) Dean's Medal for Excellence in Scholarship and Creativity, and the CLA Scholar of the College Award. She has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Philosophical Society, and the American Council of Learned Societies, to name a few.

All About Interaction

Colleagues also note that May is dedicated to the notion that teaching and scholarship are two sides of the same coin and she has been a leader in developing pedagogic strategies suited to the U's mission as a research university.

May, in turn, feeds off of her interactions with students. "I learn from teaching," she says. "I think that's the most exciting part for me. I really like the give-and-take from teaching, and the teaching I enjoy is where I'm in conversation with the students."

Exchanging ideas, learning from students, and introducing them to new ways of approaching their world give her the most satisfaction, and she says she is "renewed, rejuvenated, and reeducated" every time she teaches a course.

May is also more than happy to discuss her latest research—and its ramifications for Americans—with a visitor. A book in progress will examine the legacy of the post-World War II movement toward personal security and away from public life.

She says it's a movement to "farther and farther outlying areas, and larger and larger and more fortified homes, and the epitome of this trend, in my opinion, is the huge explosion of gated communities," which she says are the fastest-growing trend in the American housing market.

"The rise in gated communities, McMansions, super-fortified houses, and SUVs—all of these—reflects an increasing obsession with privatization, personal security at the expense of civic and public life, and an approach to social problems that is one of retreat and 'take care of yourself.'"

But that doesn't mean there won't be an end to the trend.

"Being the eternal optimist I am, I keep hoping America will embrace a sense of the common good that is truly at the base of the country's founding principles," May smiles. "I cling to my shred of optimism that somewhere along the way, Americans will wake up to what's at stake and reach to those ideals of the common good."