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Humanity and Google Sheets 

History professor Julie Hardwick teaches students how to analyze evidence, link individual experiences to large processes, and communicate what they learn

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When one of Professor Julie Hardwick’s students recently got an internship at a local tech company, she was asked to compare the company’s benefits package with those of 60 competitors. Initially overwhelmed, she then thought, “I’m going to get my Google Sheet, get my evidence, look for patterns, get my data visualization, and then present an interpretation.”

This spreadsheet-based approach might seem like the plan of a good business student, but in fact, she was harkening to a different class. She said, “I’m going to do exactly the steps I did in my Thomas Jefferson project with Dr. Hardwick.” She was, to use the name of one of Julie Hardwick’s courses, Thinking Like a Historian.

When new students think about history, Hardwick says, they think merely about a list of facts about the past. “That’s the past. History is the way that we use evidence to explain and interpret what happened in the past. They need to shift from thinking about history as the facts they learned in high school — sometimes wrong facts — to understanding that we are an evidence-based discipline. That’s a big change for most undergraduates.” 

Looking at 100 court cases or 100 letters will reveal patterns, and in addition to anecdotal evidence and telling language, patterns are what Hardwick is looking for. That and helping students stay organized explains her enthusiasm for spreadsheets. 

In addition, Hardwick works to help students improve their writing. But she also tells them, “In my discipline, what I mainly do is talk about my research.” So she helps them hone their presentation skills, also highly transferable.

This rigorous, challenging approach — teaching skills critical to virtually any career her students might pursue — is one reason for Hardwick’s induction this year into UT’s Academy of Distinguished Teachers.

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“It was Wednesday, August 15, 1984,” Hardwick remembers. That’s the day when, at age 21, she left the University of Nottingham for a study-abroad program at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. That Friday, she met Robert Olwell, now her husband of 32 years. “My future was sealed very quickly,” she muses.

She moved to Austin in 1993 when Olwell, a specialist in early American history, joined the UT faculty. Hardwick found a teaching job at Texas Christian University and commuted to Fort Worth twice a week for eight years while also raising two daughters. In 2001, UT hired Hardwick as one of two historians brought on in her field that year. “I think it’s worked out well for UT and for me,” she says, adding, “I tell my students now to be careful about study-abroad programs. You never know where they’re going to take you! My parents will still ask sometimes, ‘What happened to the coming back?’”

Hardwick studies and teaches social history in early modern France (roughly 1500-1800) with a focus on family life, gender issues, law and economics. Her interest in France originated with family trips there she took as a child. But that interest took a scholarly turn when, during college in Nottingham, she took two courses in French history. In particular, she recalls an immersive yearlong course on Louis XIV’s France: 1661-1683. Diving so deep into such a specific time and place made her realize the power of scholarship.

Still fascinated with that time and place, she now says, “I read, teach and work much more broadly, in what I call global early modern. I work in big questions like state formation, history of capitalism, and history of the family.” One recurring theme in her teaching experience is helping students realize that everything — not just war and politics — has a history. 

Take capitalism. One of her students wrote a senior thesis on lacemakers and the transition to capitalism in 17th century England, then got a job right after graduation at a financial research company. Hardwick says that student just messaged her and said, “Guess what? I just talked about my thesis again at work five years later.” 

Take finance. Hardwick’s fourth book, now in progress, describes how bankruptcy became a capital crime in the 16th century. “Lawyers I speak to now are fascinated by the idea that somebody who went bankrupt could be hanged for it,” she says. “The families I study in the 17th century were totally embroiled in debt. They borrowed money because they had to get by, but they couldn’t pay it back. I think politicians sometimes believe a particular crisis is new. No — these have always been crises.”  

Take family life and gender roles. She teaches the history of domestic violence and the changing history of marriage. “Students haven’t thought of those kinds of things as having a history, and they are surprised both by the way things have changed and also by the persistence of these issues.”

She does teach about things that are largely of the past, such as witchcraft. “That’s what everybody knows about early modern Europe if they know anything.” But she also teaches about infanticide and brings it into the here and now by pointing out to students that there were so many infanticides in Houston in the 1980s that the Texas Legislature passed a law that anyone could leave a baby at a firehouse or police station without being prosecuted.

Although history shows us that many problems have been with us for centuries or millennia, it also has a hopeful side. “When we look back, we see that the capacity for change is there, so we can hope to have some progress in the future too.” 

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When Hardwick was inducted into the Academy of Distinguished Teachers, one of her former Ph.D. students tweeted, “She taught me to put humanity in the humanities.” That meant a great deal to the professor. “Even when I’m talking about big patterns, I’m talking about ordinary people’s everyday lives — their triumphs or challenges or difficulties, sometimes their tragedies.” 

And that human connection applies to her students most of all. “I do really love our students,” she says. “I think we’re really lucky to have these wonderful students. That’s a big part of my teaching too — that they feel like I appreciate them and enjoy them and care about them. I do. I love them.” 

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