Widgets Magazine


Why we came to work with Edith Sheffer

Last week, we learned that our doctoral advisor Edith Sheffer, an assistant professor of modern European history here at Stanford, was denied tenure. We are shocked and saddened by this news and suspect that many Stanford students will feel the same way. Undergraduates will know her well-deserved reputation as a prizewinning and innovative teacher. As graduate students, we know her as an engaged mentor and the author of groundbreaking research in German history. The decision not to award her tenure is a profound loss for Stanford and its students.

Edith’s first book, “Burned Bridge: How East and West Germans Made the Iron Curtain,” is a pioneering social history of the Iron Curtain. It tells the story of two small towns separated by the border between East and West Germany. In addition to her  meticulous research in 14 archives, Edith conducted 50 interviews with local residents to uncover the “wall in the head” that kept East and West Germans estranged from each other for more than half a century.

The American Historical Review, the top history journal in the United States, deemed “Burned Bridge” “brilliant,” while the New Republic raved that it was “a model of the genre.” “Burned Bridge” is esteemed among scholars, and it is also assigned in many undergraduate lecture courses and graduate seminars across the country. The book won three awards, including the Paul Birdsall Prize in European Military and Strategic History from the American Historical Association. Edith was the first woman to receive this prize since it was established in 1985.

Edith’s second book, “Asperger’s Children: The Origins of Autism in Nazi Vienna,” will appear with W.W. Norton next year. This work uncovers the disturbing complicity of Hans Asperger, the Austrian physician best known for his work with autistic children, in the euthanasia machine of Nazi Germany. Edith is already hard at work on her third book, tentatively titled “Hidden Front: Switzerland and World War Two.”

Edith’s scholarly accomplishments are obviously considerable — but it is her work as a teacher and committed mentor that we know perhaps best of all.

Each of us has witnessed Edith’s passion for historical education firsthand, working with her on undergraduate lectures or leading seminars by her side. Her action-packed courses confront students with a vast and exciting array of primary sources, from propaganda videos to popular music, from recruitment posters to novels and photographs. Students in her classes are not presented with potted histories drawn from textbooks but rather with Edith’s own cutting-edge arguments and interpretations. As a result, Edith’s courses force students to think critically about the past and question their own actions in the present.

Edith delights in testing the assumptions of her students — suggesting, for instance, that most members of what she terms Germany’s “muddled majority” in fact supported Nazism — and raising important questions about the present. Indeed, Edith brings a real sense of urgency to her teaching, so convinced is she that the past matters profoundly. She insists that her students put their training and historical imagination to use, encouraging students in her surveillance seminar, for example, to write and publish op-eds informed by history. Over the course of her time at Stanford, she has won multiple major teaching awards, most recently Stanford Phi Beta Kappa’s teaching prize in 2015.

Nationally, Edith is known for her award-winning “Creating Lives” program. Edith asks her undergraduate students in German history to write imaginative, yet analytical and carefully documented, diary entries from the perspective of a fictional character they create at the beginning of the course. These entries allow students to follow their own research interests and delve more deeply into the world of Nazi Germany. It is an unparalleled way of helping undergraduates understand how atrocities came about through the everyday involvement of ordinary people. Edith’s “Creating Lives” approach has been adopted by teachers across the country and deployed in high schools, community colleges and universities.

As her doctoral students, we have been lucky to benefit from Edith’s historical expertise, excellence in teaching and compassionate mentorship. A fierce advocate for our interests, she has also constantly pressed us to become better teachers and more imaginative scholars. Her expectations for our work are high. So, too, is her confidence in our ability to contribute as historians. She has given us the confidence and support needed to rethink old assumptions and produce original work that we can be proud of. This kind of support is invaluable for young scholars.

Perhaps most remarkable, Edith’s high expectations for us have always been paired with genuine human interest and concern for our weaknesses and uncertainties. She cares deeply about our personal well-being and has been a remarkable source of strength, guidance and friendship for each of us as we have navigated our lives in academia. We cannot imagine our Stanford experience without her.

The decision to deny Edith tenure will deprive the University of a scholar, teacher and mentor of unusual brilliance, integrity and warmth. Inspired by her outstanding example as an historian and educator, we are proud to be Edith’s doctoral students. We know that many undergraduates and faculty will miss her presence on campus and her contributions to Stanford’s rich intellectual community. We’ll miss her, too.

Those who wish to express their support for Edith are invited to do so here.

 Ian Beacock, Michelle Chang, Benjamin Hein, Samuel Huneke and Michelle Kahn

The authors are doctoral students in Stanford’s Department of History.


Contact Ian Beacock at beacock ‘at’ stanford.edu.