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Professor's generosity, encouragement draw students to history

February 28, 2011

This article is part of a series that looks at ASU's 2010 Regents' Professors and President's Professors. 

Among her graduate students, Rachel Fuchs is known as much for her coq au vin as she is for her inspirational example and her warm encouragement of their research.

A true Francophile, she welcomes them into her home once or twice a year for a meal of her gourmet cooking. But the real draw is her bright intellect and sense of humor, and a sparkling enthusiasm for her subject matter that rubs off on her students.

“She is at once approachable and extraordinary, and her kindness, her humor, her ceaseless intellectual curiosity and generosity are wonderful qualities,” says Amy Long, a doctoral candidate in history who took her first class from Fuchs as an undergraduate.

“Before I took her class I had become disenchanted with history, wishing I could start over in a different discipline," Long says. "Her course made me remember all of the reasons I loved history. She offered endless amounts of guidance and encouragement, and her teaching stirred enthusiasm in the hearts of her students. My experience in that class was life-changing.”

As a professor in the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies, Fuchs’ pathbreaking investigations of family life in France have made her one of the world’s most eminent social historians of modern France. Her six books and numerous articles which illuminate the lives of poor women and children through the techniques of social, political and cultural history are widely cited and used as textbooks around the world.

Her accomplishments have earned her the title of Regents' Professor – the highest faculty honor awarded at ASU, conferred on faculty who have made pioneering contributions in their areas of expertise, who have achieved a sustained level of distinction, and who enjoy national and international recognition for these accomplishments.

Fuchs initially concentrated on Russian history, with a keen interest in the relationship between family life and the state. But as she began to focus on a graduate dissertation topic on the subject, her Russian history adviser sent her down the hall to talk to a French history colleague, who was strikingly persuasive. After that, her path was set.

Her doctoral dissertation at Indiana University, “Abandoned Children: Foundlings and Child Welfare in Nineteenth-Century France,” was published in 1983, and she accepted a faculty position at ASU the same year.

At ASU Fuchs took over the fledgling undergraduate history advisory program and helped revamp the undergraduate curriculum, identifying courses that would strengthen students’ research and writing skills. She also required all history majors to take six hours of study outside their main geographic focus.

“Her contribution provided the bedrock foundation for our thinking about how we make history available to students and for teaching excellence,” says Mark von Hagen, director of the school. “These organizational reforms partially explain why the department has always ranked well university wide in teaching excellence.

“In the history department Dr. Fuchs is a pillar of strength and caring. She is a teaching exemplar for all new professors coming into academia, and she has mentored junior faculty during the tenure review process. She has a generous spirit and wants her students to do well academically and to become better individuals. She is a teaching legend.”

Many students, including undergraduates, continue to stay in touch with her long after graduation. She acts as a strong advocate for her graduate students, helping them secure funding and internships, suggesting opportunities for future studies and employment.

Richard Hopkins, a former graduate student who now is an ASU faculty associate and colleague, says Fuchs not only inspired and encouraged him, she modeled the kind of discipline and dedication necessary in writing about one’s research.

“Even while teaching and fulfilling her departmental responsibilities, she carved out time to work on her book every day,” he says. “It provided an insight into how she has produced such an impressive body of published work over her academic career. I count myself fortunate to have benefited from her teaching, mentorship and example.”  

A self-described “archival rat,” Fuchs sometimes rents an apartment in Paris for the summer to pore over dusty cartons of documents. She is fascinated by the stories of lived experience and how social history intersects larger historical and political questions.

Her most recent book, “Contested Paternity: Constructing Families in Modern France,” won the Frances Richard Keller-Sierra Prize for the best work in Women’s History in 2009 and the J. Russell Major Prize from the American Historical Association the same year. She also is the recipient of three grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and a Camargo Grant.