Dr. Julie SweetHistory
[Story and photo courtesy of Baylor Magazine.]
It was on her family's vacation the summer before she went into fourth grade that Julie Sweet discovered what she wanted to do with her life.
"We went to Gettysburg, and there was this park ranger under a tree telling us about Pickett's Charge," she recalls, "and I just knew, that's what I want to do. I want to tell stories."
She bought her first book about the Civil War on that trip and read it cover to cover, many times. It now sits in her office at Baylor, where Dr. Sweet came in fall 2002 as an assistant professor in history, shortly after finishing her PhD at the University of Kentucky. Sometimes mistaken for a student, she says Baylor is her "first real, full-time teaching job."
Think freshman college history. If you were like the majority of your classmates - knocking off a required course - your memories may not be too kind. Sit in on Dr. Sweet's class and think again. You may find yourself cast as a Loyalist debating Patriots or as a Cherokee arguing with the Georgia Legislature about why your people should not be deported. Or, you might find yourself sampling hardtack and goober peas and marching in drill formation in front of Miller Chapel - all common experiences since Dr. Sweet came to campus.
"I realized walking in the first day of class that most of my students, if not all of them, hate history. They're there because they have to be, and they're not happy about it. One of the things I really try to do is to help the students connect," she says. "I want them to understand that history is made by common folk, you and me, who have to live their lives, cook their meals and make decisions on big, important issues."
Dr. Sweet, whom her students call "Dr. Jules," has worn as many hats in her personal life as she does in her classroom, where visual aids and show-and-tell are the norm - part of her office looks like a theater prop room, with a three-cornered hat, a park ranger hat, Indian headdresses, a flintlock musket and a Miss Felicity American Girl Colonial doll. As she worked toward her BA at Notre Dame (magna cum laude) and then her MA at the University of Richmond, she spent summers first as a park ranger at Jamestown Island in Virginia - fulfilling that childhood goal - and later as a fully costumed tour guide at Colonial Williamsburg. "I actually lived the life of a Colonial person, which was another wonderful opportunity to teach history in a different venue," she says.
At Notre Dame, she double majored in history and theater. She took the Civil War class there twice, "the second time just for fun; it was so great and inspirational," she says. Despite her other major, though, she absolutely refused to act. Stage fright wasn't the only reason, she says. "You have to follow a script, and I can't do that. I'm much more improv, that's kind of what I do every day."
It's true. She knows her material on the American Revolution and the Constitution so well, she seldom refers to notes when she lectures. Nor does she stay planted in front of a podium. An avid cyclist - thrilled when she moved to "Lance Armstrong country" - and a frequent hiker in the Smoky Mountains, it's hard to imagine Dr. Sweet sitting still for almost anything.
"I've always been an individual, for better or for worse. I learned early to do my own thing, and my parents were very supportive of that. I learned to stand up for myself and what I believe in," she says.
And that isn't always easy in her academic discipline, where women automatically are assumed to be teaching "women's history" or thought incapable of teaching military tactics, she says.
"It's a tough field for women to move into, especially military history. It's still very much something that guys study about other guys," she says, adding that nationally in the discipline the faculty average is two-thirds men and one-third women.
She has found a supportive group among her history department colleagues, though, and while she admits Baylor's expectations for new tenure-track faculty are rigorous, she's excited about the challenge.
"It really fills all of my needs as a professor to balance teaching and research. What Baylor gives me is an opportunity to pursue both and to value them equally. That's something I really appreciate, a chance to do everything, to have it all. Not every place can do that," she says.
She's currently working on a book about the Creek Indian and British relations in Colonial Georgia and has had half a dozen articles published. Her list of presentations at state and regional conferences is even longer.
Dr. Sweet also values being at a Christian institution, and, as a graduate of Notre Dame - often cited as one model for Baylor's aspirations - she brings a unique perspective. "They did sacrifice a lot of the teaching aspects," she says. "I never saw a professor out of the classroom at Notre Dame. You lose a lot. Baylor's not doing that; they're maintaining both. You can have it all. You can be a good Christian citizen and a professor. We shouldn't stand back from that challenge. If anything, we should move forward and try. Why settle for less?"
With the same precision that she uses to show her students how to load and aim a flintlock musket, Dr. Sweet has a steady bead on her goals and how they fit at Baylor. "I love the school. I'm just having a great time here. It's probably more fun than it's supposed to be," she laughs.