As history scholar, alumna is teaching America’s untold stories
St. Olaf College graduate and history scholar Alexi Garrett ’12 is passionate about uncovering the past of the United States of America — especially the stories that are often left out of history textbooks.
Having just completed her Ph.D. in early American history at the University of Virginia, Garrett specializes in the revolutionary and early national periods of the United States and focuses on issues of gender and slavery in the South. Inspired after taking St. Olaf Professor of History Steve Hahn’s “History of Women in Early America” course in 2010, Garrett has been pursuing her goal of teaching history and enriching higher education ever since. Her dissertation examines how unmarried (feme sole) businesswomen managed their slave-manned enterprises in revolutionary and early national Virginia, considering how women gained economic agency in a patriarchal society while also perpetuating the system of slavery.
“One of my goals is to show how white women were active and complicit in the slave system of the past. I try to connect that with how white women today remain complicit in the oppression of people of color in the United States,” Garrett says. “Detailing how white women profited from black people’s unfreedom in the early Republic shows how identities such as gender, race, and freedom intersected to create levels of power and disadvantage in American society that still last today. I must personally stay committed to reminding white women (like myself) that our own gender struggles do not shield us from our ability to oppress others.”
In addition to conducting her own research, Garrett excels in teaching. Having taught as a teaching assistant as well as the instructor of her own early American history course at the University of Virginia, Garrett was awarded the University of Virginia’s All-Graduate Teaching Award. The university presents 10 of these awards to graduate students in the College and Graduate School of Arts and Sciences who demonstrate excellence in undergraduate instruction.
“My goal as an instructor is to have students understand the historical roots of familiar aspects of their everyday lives. Equipped with this knowledge, students can confidently challenge accepted truths, think about the world in new ways, and change that world using evidence,” Garrett says. “By unearthing the past, I shed new light upon modern-day race, class, and gender relations that some students have taken for granted for at least 18 years of their life.”
My goal as an instructor is to have students understand the historical roots of familiar aspects of their everyday lives. Equipped with this knowledge, students can confidently challenge accepted truths, think about the world in new ways, and change that world using evidence.Alexi Garrett ’12
Garrett’s experience at St. Olaf was incredibly influential in developing her career path and teaching style. She took advantage of St. Olaf’s variety of classes and student organizations, double majoring in history and English, concentrating in women’s studies, and leading several groups such as the St. Olaf Dance Team and Students for Reproductive Health and Choice. She also founded St. Olaf’s chapter of the international English honor society Sigma Tau Delta, served as a junior counselor in residence life, sang in Collegiate Chorale, and wrote for The Manitou Messenger. Within academics, Garrett particularly enjoyed St. Olaf’s liberal arts approach.
“One of the best things about small liberal arts schools like St. Olaf is the class sizes. For undergrads, smaller class sizes mean receiving more personal intellectual attention from professors,” Garrett says. “They give undergrads more of a chance to have their voice and perspectives heard when engaging in scholarly debates and discussion.” She tries to channel this personal approach into the discussion sections she teaches at the University of Virginia, where students are more used to being taught in big lecture halls.
Garrett was especially impacted by her faculty mentors at St. Olaf who ignited her passion for intellectual inquiry. “Every time I teach my own undergrads, I try to channel what I received from my favorite St. Olaf professors in their classrooms — being treated like an individual with something important to say, and like someone with the potential to become a scholar,” Garrett says. “I credit Dr. Steve Hahn of the History Department for encouraging me to pursue a Ph.D. in history. He is a lifelong mentor. I also credit two former English and women’s studies professors, Jan Hill and Dr. Jeff Solomon, for opening my eyes to the world outside of myself.”
Every time I teach my own undergrads, I try to channel what I received from my favorite St. Olaf professors in their classrooms — being treated like an individual with something important to say, and like someone with the potential to become a scholar.Alexi Garrett ’12
In addition to her academic and extracurricular experiences, Garrett pursued various research projects while at St. Olaf. In 2011 she interned with the Northfield Historical Society and was chosen as a Gilder Lehrman Institute History Scholar, a position that allowed her to conduct archival research in New York City. She also participated in the first Collaborative Undergraduate Research and Inquiry (CURI) program at St. Olaf the same year.
“My experience working as a research assistant under Dr. Hahn during the first CURI summer session prepared me for graduate work, as I researched how a British colonial governor tried controlling rampant piracy in the then-royal colony of Jamaica in the early 1700s,” Garrett says.
Garrett has continued to land exciting research opportunities: during the fifth year of her Ph.D. program, she was selected as a Mount Vernon Research Fellow. At the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington, located in Mount Vernon, Virginia, Garrett spent the fall of 2019 studying Martha Washington. She included this research in her dissertation.
This fall Garrett became the Institute of Thomas Paine Studies and University of Virginia Press Post-Doctoral Fellow at Iona College from 2020 to 2022, in which she will be turning her dissertation into a book to be published with University of Virginia Press as well as digitizing the manuscript holdings of the Thomas Paine National Historical Association. In the future, she hopes to help smaller colleges and universities weather the storm of closings that are occurring throughout the nation.
Garrett’s time at St. Olaf will continue to influence how she shares the stories of America’s early history. “The critical thinking and analytical skills I honed as a double humanities major at St. Olaf have proved invaluable to me in my career,” she says. “Understanding how to contextualize historical documents in their time and place helps me understand how Americans ordered their world then, and how we order our world today.”