May 30 , 2006
English’s Foster receives award surrounded by love of family
BY Michael terrazas
As a young scholar confronted with a wide world full of history to study, Frances Smith Foster said she made her choices by keeping her nieces and nephews in mind.
“What kind of things would be helpful to them, to help them do what it is they were setting out to do,” said Foster, Charles Howard Candler Profesor of English and Women’s Studies, and chair of the English department. “I’m trying to give information to people that I think might help them make better use of their lives and come closer to getting their dreams without the hindrance of wrong or inadequate information.”
In other words, to Foster, scholarship is teaching, and that’s one reason she was honored at Emory’s 161st Commencement with the University Scholar/Teacher Award, awarded each year and supported by the United Methodist Church Board of Higher Education and Ministry.
In fact, the inverse—that teaching is scholarship—is also true for Foster, or at least it is now. She admits that with
greater tenure has come the freedom to pursue academically what interests her, and experiences in the classroom often lead to those interests.
“At one point I didn’t have permission [to study what I wanted],” Foster said. “I’m a much better teacher and scholar now that I’m grown up.”
Concentrating on feminist sexual ethics and antebellum African American families and religion, Foster has written or edited some 10 books, including Written By Herself: Literary Production by African American Women, 1746–1892. The titles of her seminars include “Becoming a Woman” and “(W)right Things Wrong in 19th Century African American Literature.”
Lately Foster has taken another project: Along with anthropology’s George Armelagos, she is co-leading Emory’s “Race and Human Difference” strategic initiative. And though she admits she accepted the duty at the behest of Provost Earl Lewis, she added that the University has a real opportunity.
“I think Emory can and already is a laboratory to work out its own theories,” Foster said. “In the old days, doctors used their bodies to test their vaccines, and had they not done that I’m not sure we would have had those vaccines. I’m not suggesting we put ourselves in harm’s way to test our theories, but if we’ve got good theories we ought to show that.”
As for the validation of her own “theories” that came in the form of the Scholar/Teacher Award, Foster said the occasion in which she received it meant just as much if not more than the award itself—and perhaps more than any previous award she’d received. Joining her at Commencement was a gaggle of family, including her 84-year-old mother who made the trip from Ohio.
“When she found out about the award, first she said, ‘That’s nice, dear,’” Foster said of her mother. “Then my sister said, ‘That’s a big deal,’ and [my mother] said, ‘If I can get there, I’m going to be there.’
“There’s nothing they could have done to make me happier,” she said of her family. “That was the most fun; that was what I loved. I don’t think I’ve ever had an award that gave me more personal satisfaction.”