By Emily Stifler Wolfe MSU News Service
BOZEMAN – Montana State University history professor Robert Rydell has received many awards in his 36 years of teaching, but the Mary C. Turpie Prize is different.
A group of his students nominated him for the prestigious award, which is run by the American Studies Association and recognizes outstanding abilities and achievement in teaching, advising and program development at a local or regional level.
“I had no idea that the students had nominated me, so it means a great deal to me,” said Rydell, who will receive the Turpie Prize at the association’s annual meeting on Nov. 18.
Rydell came to MSU’s Department of History and Philosophy after earning his doctorate from UCLA in 1980. Together with history professor David Cherry and English professor Susan Kollin, he built the university’s American studies program—the undergraduate degree in 2007, and the master’s and Ph.D. levels in 2009.
The interdisciplinary program investigates both historic and contemporary American life, tackling issues including racism, economic injustice and political corruption.
“American studies gives students exposure to multiple windows through which they can look at the complexity of American culture,” Rydell said, explaining that the field draws on methodologies from disciplines including anthropology, the arts, archaeology, Native American Studies, geography and history.
“[The] establishment and ongoing success of the American studies program at Montana State University are almost entirely due to the herculean efforts of Professor Rydell over the course of nearly a decade,” said Kollin, who is also director of graduate studies in the Department of English.
Along with the history department’s doctoral program—which Rydell was also instrumental in helping establish—American Studies is the only other Ph.D. in the humanities at MSU.
Rydell’s own research includes Buffalo Bill’s influence on globalization through international performances later in his career, as well as world’s fairs, in which he is a pre-eminent expert. In particular, he focuses on the cultural effects of the ghastly “human zoo” exhibits, in which different ethnic and racial groups were put on display and treated as subhumans.
“Our job is sometimes to take people into troubling waters and realize that those waters haven’t gone away—they’re still roiling in many places,” he said.
An accomplished scholar, Rydell has authored or co-authored many books. His first book, “All the World’s a Fair,” was based on his dissertation that received the Allan Nevins Prize. “Buffalo Bill in Bologna,” which he co-authored with Dutch scholar Rob Kroes, received the Ray Browne Prize from the Popular Culture Association.
His most recent, “Designing Tomorrow,” co-edited with Laura Schiavo, was produced in conjunction with a major exhibition on world’s fairs at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C.
Rydell also created MSU’s museum studies minor, the MSU Humanities Institute and is one of the principals of the Western Lands and Peoples Initiative. The latter highlights interdisciplinary research focused on the Western U.S. and Canada, aiming to become a center that draws international scholars.
He teaches honors undergraduates in the Honors College; serves as chair or member on dozens of graduate committees; has participated in 50-plus invited lectures and seminars; and has presented at more than 40 conferences. His presentations have been broadcast on C-SPAN and CNN, and he has been a guest on NPR and WNYC.
His current work includes updating a history of MSU that he originally co-authored, “In the People’s Interest,” in time for the university’s 125th anniversary in 2018, as well as building an exchange program with Utrecht University in the Netherlands. He is also writing a cultural biography of U.S. congressman Sol Bloom that he hopes will be in bookstores early in the next decade.
Beyond an insatiable curiosity, there’s something else that drives Rydell: He is teaching the next generation of intellectual leaders.
In one of the many supporting letters in the Turpie nomination, a group of students compared Rydell to the movie character John Keating, as played by Robin Williams in the film “Dead Poets Society.”
“Only in film do you encounter mentor-scholars like Dr. Robert Rydell,” they wrote. “After much reflection on the letters supplied by other students, it became clear that our affection and admiration ring in chorus, yet for reasons entirely our own.”