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Shirley Eoff: Past Perfect

September 25, 2008

Shirley Eoff never really liked history until an excellent college professor opened her mind to the infinite permutations of the field.  As a result, she found not only a career but also a passion. 

Today, as a professor of history at Angelo State University, Eoff is sharing her passion about the discipline with a new generation of students.  That passion comes through in her classroom, helping her to be named a finalist for ASU’s 2008 Teaching Excellence Award. 

“History is more than names, dates, great men and wars,” Eoff said.  “Rather, it is the collective story of how people lived and thought and the consequences of the choices they made.  That allowed me to find in history the one field that could encompass my eclectic interests in everything from politics to literature.”

She aims to involve her students in history and, although she is a specialist in British history, she identifies local history projects her students can undertake.  In the process, they are not only learning how to conduct original research but also serving the community. 

“Using local resources,” she said, “I can provide first-hand training in methodology that reinforces classroom work and lets students become apprentice historians rather than just study historical topics.”

For instance, she assigned one graduate class in contemporary American history to explore the San Angelo polio epidemic of 1949.  The graduate students conducted oral history interviews with doctors and survivors from the epidemic.  Three of the students went on to present, as she described it, “an exceptionally well-received panel” at the annual meeting of the West Texas Historical Association.

The class’s work, which she shared with University of Texas history professor David Oshinsky, was cited in the acknowledgements of Oshinsky’s Pulitzer Prize-winning work, Polio:  An American Story.

For her Honors Program classes in America history, she has teams of students research and write substantive papers on the historic buildings in downtown San Angelo.  Using materials in the West Texas Collection, ASU’s regional historical archive, the students examine the origins and uses of those buildings over the years. 

Far from an idle classroom exercise, this student research is shared with local historical preservation agencies for use in developing grant proposals, preservation plans and publicity materials for the city.  As a result of their work, visitors to downtown San Angelo now find colorful banners hanging from adjacent light poles to highlight several historic structures.

“Most of the students really take pride in the work they have done and it links them to the community in a unique and special way,” Eoff said.

In many ways, history is about connecting the links in a never-ending chain between the past and the present. 

“There is always something new to discover, some new question to ask, some new way of looking at things,” Eoff said.  “I have a short attention span, so I need that dynamism and I need the human dimension to really connect with materials.  The combination of continuity and change intrigues me, and I like that historians deal in shades of gray rather than black-and-white explanations.  How can anyone not be fascinated and moved by those pieces of the past that people left behind to help us understand their lives, their triumphs and their tragedies?”

Her fascination with history began at Howard Payne University, where she graduated summa cum laude.  Eoff went on to earn a master’s degree from Hardin-Simmons University and a Ph.D. in history from Texas Tech University, where she served four years as a history instructor.  She joined the ASU history faculty in 1981 and has worked her way up the academic ranks to full professor. 

Whether studying American or British history, her primary teaching interests are in modern social and diplomatic areas.  Even so, she does extensive work in San Angelo and West Texas history.  Her contributions to area history earned her election earlier this year as president of the West Texas Historical Association.

History lessons, in Eoff’s passionate view, extend far beyond the classroom.

“I truly believe that studying history is excellent preparation for virtually any field and for life itself.  Beyond the obvious value of helping us understand the complexities of the world we live in, it provides essential reference points to help us make sound judgments on contemporary events.”

“The essence of historical study is examining, analyzing and interpreting evidence and using that evidence to craft a logical and persuasive argument,” she said.  “I can’t think of any aspect of life or any career that couldn’t benefit from those critical skills.”