Before They Were Educators: Dr. Elizabeth McRae

Dr. Elizabeth McRae, an associate professor in history, has done everything from working on a farm to bartending to teaching. As an Appalachian native, she grew up in a small town in Virginia named Pounding Mill.

McRae stated, “It was interesting. Pounding Mill was known for the rock quarry that was near, and I grew up on a sheep and cattle farm. As a kid, I spent my time riding horses and working on the farm. I was in 4H and played sports like basketball and track. Since we really didn’t have TV, I read a lot.”

Reading is something that she still enjoys doing.

McRae said, “I really enjoy reading things for fun like Ron Rash’s short stories. One of my top five favorite books is Keri Hulme’s ‘Bone People.’ It is a really heavy book, but it is amazing. I also try to read the things that my daughters are reading.”

She does not just read for fun, though.

McRae stated, “I will always enjoy Hemingway. I admire the way he writes, so when I am seeking clarity and precision in my own writing, going back to his work helps a lot.”

After graduating from Wake Forest in 1989, where she said the classes were small and the people were smart, McRae worked in Washington, D.C. for an event planning company.

McRae said, “While with the political event planning company, I had to give tours of Georgetown to professional groups that came to D.C., planned parties at Union Station, inaugural balls. I ended up moving into logistics with things like busing routes because I couldn’t quite keep up with the minutiae of the social scene. After a while to move from the social setting of events in D.C. to teaching.”

She went to Marymount University in Arlington, Va. and received her master’s in education. From there, McRae began teaching history at the high school level.

McRae indicated that after teaching a while she realized “. . .I really enjoyed teaching, but if I wanted to be better, I needed to learn more.”

To do this, she chose to go back to school.

McRae said, “I needed to go back and pay a little better attention to my history courses. I continued teaching in the public schools, but I moonlighted as a bartender in a restaurant. There, the owner’s brother was an art history professor at Western, and he kept telling me that I should study here because they had a great history program. So, I came to Western to get my M.A. in history. It was not an academic decision to go to Western, but it was halfway between where I was and where my future husband was. It ended up being a wonderful choice.”

After receiving her master’s in history, McRae went to the University of Georgia where she received a Ph.D.

When asked what sparked her interest in history, McRae said, “When I taught public school, I taught in a suburban D.C. school, which was extremely wealthy, and I taught three years in the high school in my hometown, which was extremely poor. The populations of these two schools were extremely interesting. Because of this, I initially became interested in the role the school’s demographic plays in the inequity in public education funding, which is often related to race and class.”

She added, “[T]he problems you may see in poor urban public schools were not much different in degree than the problems we saw in poor rural schools, but the way we talk about those two groups is really different. Often in the public conversation the problems in urban schools is linked to specific racial or racist ideologies, and in rural schools, it is linked to specific class ideologies. Those experiences I had as a public school teacher led me to how that became so and why we talked so differently about children and public education.”

These experiences led to a master’s thesis where she focused on the conversation that occurred after the Reconstruction period, which was the first time the South really funded public education on a wide scale.

McRae said, “I started looking at the conversation there, and I was particularly interested in the white supremacist rhetoric and how it worked in the rural part of the state. As I moved on into my graduate studies, my focus shifted to this curiosity about how a nation [that] built on the ideas of equality perpetuate systems of inequality. I am also interested in grassroots politics not so much big ‘P’ policy, but the ways it affects the ground roots.”

When asked about her research, McRae stated, “I have really worked on one project my whole career. I’m revisiting my dissertation manuscript titled ‘Politics and Power: White Southern Conservative Women in the Age of Jim Crow,’ which is about white southern women and the politics of white supremacy.”

McRae greatly enjoyed the research and pulling together the information for the manuscript.

“I love archival research,” said McRae. “I have spent probably eight weeks in a little town in the Delta of Mississippi uncovering all sorts of things, interviewing family members and spending time in public libraries. I’ve spent years reading microfilm, and I don’t know how many archival collections I have been to, but I just love them. It’s like being an investigative reporter into the past. I loved the time I spent in the Delta and in Jackson, Mississippi. My most recent trip was with Dr. Mae Claxton of the English Department in Jackson.”

McRae expressed, “I feel like if you sit long enough in the archive something good comes to you and so, I think there is clarity that comes in the archive. I really enjoy digging to find out the intricacies of the lives these people led.”

McRae gave surprising advice, some statements that promote awareness for students about faculty on campus.

McRae advised, “To ask around and find out who the best teachers are, not the easiest but the best, and take those teachers, even if the subject or the title of the class does not inherently interest them. Most anyone can come up with a sexy title for a course, but a great teacher will challenge and engage the student, no matter the course topic. If you just want an A, stay home and sign up for easiest classes you can find at some online school-it’s cheaper and easier.”

She also said, “College is a time to work your mind, body and soul. If possible, try to take advantage of that, go listen to speakers who come to campus, attend performances, athletic events, gallery openings, poetry readings, intramural contests, religious services that are outside your faith. Learn to do something you have never done before, rock climb, read a book that your professor suggests, watch a movie that you would not normally watch and take risks. And finally, try to study abroad for a semester, a summer or a year.”