Distinguished history professor recognized with Faculty Award for Creative Research and Scholarship

Published: December 16, 2020
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Auburn’s Kenneth Noe knows there is much to learn from the past. After all, the Draughon Professor of Southern History in the College of Liberal Arts has devoted the majority of his life, including a four-decade academic career, to it. 

“I’ve come to believe that there is great responsibility in teaching history,” said Noe. “Especially today, when we live in a culture where the truth matters less and less. We’re surrounded by cynicism and spin without shame.

“As a historian, in a world like that, I believe that it’s my calling to keep telling the truth—as much as I can know what the truth is—even when it’s not what people want to hear. Sometimes it’s scary, but that’s the only way we’re going to move on as a society.”

That may seem like a daunting undertaking, but it doesn’t discourage Noe. He recalled the day he interviewed at Auburn in 2000 with then-Dean John Heilman. “He told me that they wanted someone who would show the Auburn flag nationally. I never forgot that, and I hope this [award] means that I accomplished that task he gave me,” Noe said.

He is referring to the Faculty Award for Creative Research and Scholarship, which recognizes faculty members who have distinguished themselves through research, scholarly works and creative contributions. Noe is the 2020 recipient in the category of fine arts, liberal arts, architecture and design, business, social and human sciences.

This latest honor may put Noe in the spotlight, but he is quick to share the glory with the entire Department of History.

“We historians don’t always generate many fireworks at universities. We don’t bring in big grants or patents or generate a lot of income,” he explained. “For me, this is a pat on the back for all of my colleagues, one that says ‘We see you.’”

Noe didn’t go into this profession for any awards or acknowledgment. But he undoubtedly has earned plenty.

Considered one of the most recognized scholars of Appalachian and Civil War history, Noe has written or edited eight books, including “The Howling Storm: Weather, Climate, and the American Civil War.” He has also authored countless articles and essays on the Civil War and been honored with numerous book awards, outstanding publication reviews, endowed professor chairs and other faculty awards. He was even a Pulitzer Prize entrant.

Noe’s book, “Southwest Virginia’s Railroad,” has been cited in over 3,000 scholarly publications. Every major work on Civil War-era Appalachian history during the past 25 years has referenced his acclaimed research.

Born into it

Perhaps Noe was predestined to develop an interest in the Civil War since he happened to be born in Virginia as the nation began its years-long commemoration of the war’s centennial. He said the anniversary “saturated everything” from classroom lessons to movies and TV shows. Even toys.

“The Civil War was just part of my landscape,” said Noe. “But I didn’t really become fascinated with Southern history until a dozen years later, cutting trees on my grandparents’ farm.”

He said that chore left him wondering about the past, about the previous owners and how their lives had evolved in the 19th century. When he heard coal trains down in the valley, he wondered how life must have changed when the railroad came through.

“I ended up writing my dissertation about that,” Noe said.

After earning degrees at Emory & Henry College, Virginia Tech and the University of Kentucky, Noe found himself following the advice of others to go to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign for his doctoral degree.

The decision to go north was a good one, as it put Noe under the tutelage of the late Robert Johannsen, a prominent history scholar, and provided a homecoming of sorts for Noe’s wife, who spent her childhood in Illinois.

Following graduation, Noe said he expected to work as an archivist. He already had a master’s degree in library science, as well as one in history, but when he worked as a teaching assistant at Illinois “to pay the bills,” he discovered how much he liked teaching.

“More importantly, I realized I was pretty good at it,” Noe admitted. “Nothing’s more fun than a good day in the classroom.”

The Noes would spend the next 10 years at the University of West Georgia. On occasion, the couple would drive to Auburn and see a game or just spend the day on the Plains. “On game days, I’d usually say something like, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to work at a place like this?’” Noe recalled.

On the Plains

Noe has accomplished much since joining Auburn’s history faculty 20 years ago. Some of his proudest moments don’t involve his writings or awards, but students.

In 2009, for instance, he remembered sitting on the floor of Beard-Eaves-Memorial Coliseum with one of his just-hooded doctoral students, when Noe’s son walked across the stage, accepted his diploma and ran over to fist-bump Auburn legend Bo Jackson.

“Thank you, Bo, for not calling security on my kid,” he said.

Noe’s first doctoral student-now colleague, Keith Hébert, provided a lengthy letter to the Faculty Award selection committee, praising Noe’s remarkability and influence as an author, teacher and mentor.

“Not a day passes that one of my peers reminds me of the great fortune it has been to be mentored by one of the giants in my field,” said Hébert. “The long shadow cast by Noe’s award-winning research and national reputation has opened numerous doors.

“His creative research has not only reshaped historiography, but laid a broad foundation for successive scholars inspired by his innovative scholarship and professional mentoring.”

Hébert is one of 15 doctoral students Noe has mentored since 2007. The record of their scholarly achievements demonstrates Noe’s inspiration. Several students now hold tenure-track teaching positions at universities, including Hébert, who was recently promoted to associate professor of history with tenure at Auburn.

“Each of those students admittedly owe a debt of gratitude to Noe for his exceptional instruction,” Hébert said. “As a group, they too have achieved much in the field of creative scholarship thanks to Noe’s mentoring.”

Another doctoral student attested, “Ken Noe changed my life forever, and his patient guidance and expert knowledge of the study of history helped me attain my professional goals.”

Such praise from former students is all the acknowledgment Noe ever needed. But it doesn’t end there.

John Inscoe, professor of history at the University of Georgia, considers Noe “one of the most successful, yet humble, historians of his generation.”

“He is, and I cannot overstate the rarity of this in the 21st century, a founding father of an historical interest,” wrote Brian McKnight, professor of history and founding director of the Center for Appalachian Studies at the University of Virginia’s College at Wise. “He alone is the founder of the Civil War in Appalachia as an academic undertaking. If not for Ken’s work, to some great degree, the Civil War would still be a battles and leaders war.”

David Lucsko admitted he felt strange writing a letter of support for Noe. He may be chair of Auburn’s history department, but he is quite junior to Noe, both in years served and books and articles produced.

“His productive career remains a source of inspiration for less senior members of the faculty, such as myself,” he said. “As a scholar and a mentor, Dr. Noe is what all of us aspire to become. For this reason, it feels a bit odd for me to be writing on his behalf, but I am also proud to do so, for I know that his work fully deserves the recognition that this award would confer.”

Noe is the least likely to toot his own horn. Coincidentally, he searches for lesser-known characters of the Civil War in his research and scholarship.

For instance, Hébert noted that “Reluctant Rebels: The Confederates Who Joined the Army After 1861” focuses on the soldiers that didn’t enlist in the first months of the war and therefore had been ignored by earlier scholars.

“Some of these men wanted to put a good crop away and prepare their family for their prolonged absence before they chose to enlist,” Hébert explained. “Others lacked any true feelings for the war, but enlisted only after the Confederate government threatened to force them into military service. Noe exposed a myriad of reasons that gave a voice to these men.

“Since its publication, Reluctant Rebels has been included in most discussions pertaining to the motivations of Civil War soldiers. This continues to be a major debate among Civil War scholars—a conversation that will include discussions of Noe’s research for generations.”

Next chapter

Noe has created quite a name for himself on the Plains and far beyond. He may be retiring in May, but his legacy and work will certainly continue to influence scholars and students for years to come. Noe is also writing another book, so there’s a good chance he’ll reach some people who have missed his lessons so far.

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