By Cathy Cruise
It’s all about the stories for Mason history professor Marion Deshmukh. From early childhood, tales of the past were relayed to her by her “history buff” parents, which instilled in her a deep interest in earlier times, and a desire to pass that interest along to others.
“My parents read a lot and always told stories,” Deshmukh says. “So I think it was a natural gravitation for me to move toward history. I also had great teachers, and that was the key.”
Obviously another inspiration she’s passed along, to great success.
Deshmukh was recognized as this year’s Faculty Member of the Year at the annual Celebration of Distinction, held April 17. Each year, the Alumni Association, the sponsors of the award, recognizes one distinguished faculty member who exemplifies a commitment to scholarship, teaching and service. Nominations are encouraged from students, alumni and the campus community.
As this year’s honoree, Deshmukh largely credits her ability to motivate students to tell the stories that only they themselves can tell. “Everybody’s family comes from somewhere, whether it’s one generation or 12 generations back,” she says. “Why am I here, where did I come from? We start with the personal and sort of move concentrically out.”
It’s just one small example of her interest in and connection to her students, leading Brian Platt, chair of Mason’s Department of History and Art History, to state that Deshmukh “relishes getting to know her students and seeing them grow intellectually. When speaking with alumni about their experience at Mason, they mention Dr. Deshmukh more than any other faculty member.”
Deshmukh earned her BA in history from the University of California, Los Angeles, and MA and master of philosophy degrees in history (with a minor in art history) from Columbia University. She began teaching at George Mason in 1969, while completing her PhD work at Columbia.
She says she’s “grown up with this university” and has been witness to massive changes, many of which she’s played a large part. She chaired the Department of History and Art History for 11 years, successfully steering it from a small, teaching-oriented department to a large, research-oriented one.
She served as the faculty/staff chair for the Merten Campaign in spring 2012, successfully raising more than $5 million in support of the Merten Scholars Endowment. She also established a fully funded graduate fellowship in the History and Art History Department. And, most notably, she led a 20-year effort to successfully bring a Phi Beta Kappa chapter to Mason, for which the first induction of students takes place this month.
In 2010, Deshmukh was awarded George Mason’s first Robert T. Hawkes Professorship, an honor emphasizing extraordinary commitment to teaching. “It shows the department’s endorsement of Marion as a premier teacher,” says Jack Censer, dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences. “She is a university powerhouse and a treasure.”
With so many long hours devoted to work, Deshmukh uses her spare time for … more work, of course. She has published on 19th- and 20th-century German painters, museums, and art organizations. She has curated exhibitions and is currently organizing an art exhibit in 2014 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of World War I. The exhibit, “German and American Artists Visualize World War I,” will be displayed at the Pepco-Edison Gallery in Washington, D.C., and at the Museum of Print History in Houston, Texas. She’s also working with the Center for Global Education to conduct a student study tour next summer of the chronology of World War I, starting in Sarajevo, continuing to the battlefields of the Western Front, and ending in Paris, where the 1919 peace treaties were signed.
Deshmukh says she was “quite excited and pleased” at winning this award, one in a long list of honors that include a Fulbright grant, a J.P. Getty research grant, and the David King Award for University Teaching Excellence. But accolades aside, she’s quick to bring the emphasis on the rewards of her career back to her students. One of the best parts, she says, is hearing from those she taught years before. She tells of an alumnus who recently contacted her after he spotted some history books in a bookstore and was reminded of her class decades ago.
“To hear back from students and learn what they’re doing, and learning that they still remember one’s classes after all those years,” she says, “that’s the fun part. Those kinds of moments are why you teach.”