Dr. Martha Regalis’s office at NCSSM is a lamplit, chaotic collection of theory and thought, fact and fiction. Bookshelves stuffed with dense volumes frame unsteady stacks of texts on the floor and in corners of the humanities instructor’s workspace. Artifacts of all kinds claim spaces in between. Even the exterior of her office door is nearly overwhelmed with thought-provoking ephemera that flutter like feathers when one passes close.
It’s all a treasured manifestation of Dr. Regalis’s life as a teacher and scholar. But it presents her with a challenge: finding a spot in her office for the recently received plaque recognizing her as a 2021 recipient of the University of North Carolina Board of Governors Award for Excellence in Teaching.
In a press release announcing Excellence in Teaching winners drawn from each of the UNC System schools, including NCSSM, UNC Board of Governors Chair Randy Ramsey said, “These professors are a shining example of the world-class education and public service that is provided across our System every day.”
Throughout her career Dr. Regalis has been a consistent model of that public service. When she speaks, when she writes, and when she teaches, it is with the mind of an intellectual whose studies, she noted in text shared with the Board of Governors award selection committee, “have always spanned the margins between history, philosophy, and literature in English and Spanish.”
Martha Regalis — quoter of philosophers, historian of the human condition, fountain of intellectual discourse — was “an outdoorsy little kid” who grew up in the familial embrace of teachers, genealogists, and cattle farmers. Six generations of her family drew life from the pastureland of northwest South Carolina and the Holsteins, Jerseys, Black Angus and White-faced Herefords that grazed there. After school, she would ride her pony over the land that helped clothe their backs. In the evenings, she soaked in the stories of the long-gone souls who had made the land live: a Revolutionary War ancestor laid to rest there, a great-grandfather who built still-standing terraces into the pastureland, and enslaved people — a number of whom are buried there in often-visited graves — made to turn the ground.
But soil and story aren’t definitive.
“My childhood on all those rolling acres is very important to me, and living there, especially with older relatives who were obsessed with their ancestry did awaken my historical sense,” Dr. Regalis says. “But had the ponies and horses and grandparents of my childhood been the whole story, I would have lived a very different life and been a completely different person.”
Education, Dr. Regalis says, was the “secular salvation” preached daily. The most fervent messengers were her mother and grandmother, aunt and great aunts who all were Winthrop University-trained teachers dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge. They read to her when she wasn’t reading to herself and took her on trips to culture-rich Atlanta where the museums and tall buildings and streets aflow with people expanded her vision of the world.
“I was getting it from all sides,” Dr. Regalis says of the knowledge that came to her. The stories all breathed a truth that could never be constricted to a narrow, singular interpretation.
And she absorbed it all.
“Not surprisingly, the concept of living history was quite literal to me,” Dr. Regalis also shared with the Board of Governors. “The poetics of the American historical and literary imagination and the complexities of American versions of identity have colored my life, my research, and my teaching.”
In conversation, however, she is less lyrical when describing the history that shaped her. “It’s complicated,” she says.
Life spread out
Knowledge led Dr. Regalis to and from: to the person she is today, and from the land that shaped her youth.
“My parents knew that the path of education. . . would take us far from the land that had been life itself to so many generations,” she says. “Toward the end of his life, my father used to look at me and say ‘We are the Last of the Mohicans, Martha.’ ”
The inevitable leave-taking began subtly. Only a handful of miles lay between her home and Clemson University, where she went to college. She travelled them at first almost indifferently, following not a grand plan, but a group of friends from school who were heading that way. “I was very un-self-aware,” Dr. Regalis says. “I had no real sense of vocation.”
Clemson changed that. “It was there,” she says, “that I discovered there was a whole world of people who did for a living what I loved to do.”
It was the first in a series of experiences — “transformational” and “great shocks,” Dr. Regalis now calls them — that continued with a summer term studying architectural history in England, and another summer in Colómbia working with letters on the Colómbian response to the building of the Panama Canal. At Louisiana State University, she earned a Ph.D. in English that culminated with a dissertation that “spanned all the areas of study of my lifetime — philosophy, history, historiography, literature, and autobiography studies — not to mention American Studies.”
Two more events, Dr. Regalis says, left her “forever changed:” a research summer at Columbia University in New York City, and then 11 years in and around Chicago. “They both seemed like life spread out on a platter to me,” she says.
Like the contents of her office, Dr. Regalis’s curriculum vitae is an eclectic assemblage of professional accomplishments, populated heavily with fellowships and NEH seminars at institutions throughout the country.
“This almost quasi-religious devotion to learning and the longing to share what I have learned with others,” she says, “coupled with a bedrock belief in the capacity of all human beings to be awakened to the beauty of ideas and the human achievement is the real legacy of my South Carolina roots.”
A vast cultural fabric
It’s the importance of diving deep into the entwined foundation of our common existence that Dr. Regalis is most keen to impart upon her students, be they in her American Studies course, Modern World Fiction class, 20th-Century Philosophy and Literature class, or the sequence she teaches in Western European Cultural Studies. Again, her words from the documentation supporting her nomination by NCSSM for the Excellence in Teaching award:
“The ideal is to help students construct a view of knowledge as a web made up of interwoven, interconnected strands; to inspire them to open themselves to the record of the human achievement; to help them believe in their own powers of analysis and understanding; and to equip them to read the text, themselves, and the world as threads in a vast cultural fabric.”
Like a medicine compounded to release its healing properties over time, the best classes will continually reveal insights into the human condition that match a maturing learner’s ability to relate, sometimes years later.
She emphasized that point for the Board of Governors with the story of an email she recently received from a student she had taught many years ago. “He wrote to say that he was re-reading the novels from my Modern World Fiction class, which resonate with him as he ‘officially’ becomes middle-aged,” she wrote. “He wanted to know if I had intentionally designed the syllabus to be in keeping with what he ‘is and is not’ decades later. The answer is that I did.”
Such epiphanies are common among her students.
“I have spoken to many alumni over the years who talk about how, until taking a humanities class with Dr. Regalis, they had never really appreciated classes in the humanities,” says Dr. Todd Roberts, NCSSM’s chancellor. “Many say now her class was one of their favorites.”
The respect for Dr. Regalis’s dedication to her craft extends beyond those she has taught.
Elizabeth Moose, NCSSM’s Dean of Humanities and a long-time colleague in the classroom, knows well the intellectual energy she brings to the profession each day.
“For Martha, teaching and learning are as essential as breathing,” Moose says. “She gives her all to her students, to her scholarship, and to NCSSM. She has been a powerful influence on my own growth as a teacher, and for all that I am grateful. This is a well-deserved honor.”
“Dr. Regalis is very deserving of this teaching award,” agrees Dr. Katie O’Connor, Provost and Vice Chancellor for Academic Programs at NCSSM. “She shows remarkable empathy and cares deeply about her students — not only as learners, but as individuals, too.”
The human condition, and our path to where we are now, is something Dr. Regalis will forever strive alongside her students to understand more fully. That quest — an emotional and spiritual pursuit as much as an intellectual one — is “emblematic,” she says, “of the mystery of what it means to be a good teacher, for we must not only instruct minds; we must treasure and protect fragile hearts.”