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The Complete Package

  • Scott Nelson in the Classroom
    Scott Nelson in the Classroom
    Scott Nelson, Leslie Legum and Naomi Legum Professor of History, has garnered national attention for his work on the iconic figure of John Henry.
    Photo by Stephen Salpukas

If you hadn’t heard of Scott Nelson before 2007, you probably have now. The recent winner of three national awards for his book Steel Drivin’ Man: John Henry, the Untold Story of an American Legend, the William and Mary history professor has garnered national attention for his work on the iconic figure of John Henry.

“I took a risk with this book, especially because I wrote it before I was promoted to full professor,” Nelson says with a smile, explaining that he took a nontraditional approach by aiming the book’s message at both the nonacademic and academic worlds and writing partly in the first-person. “I wanted to make it interesting and readable to a wide audience,” he explains.

Nearly a year after Steel Drivin’ Man was published, Nelson’s commitment to teaching and to making his historical knowledge broadly accessible was rewarded. In addition to becoming a full professor, he was named the Leslie Legum and Naomi Legum Professor of History, a title he’ll hold through 2015. The award provides supplemental funding for attending conferences or conducting research.

“Professorships like these put William and Mary in the ranks of the very top institutions; they represent the value we place on scholarship of the highest level,” Nelson says.

Having taught at the College since 1994, Nelson’s ability to contextualize history within a variety of liberal arts disciplines has resulted in a well-rounded teaching approach.

“Scott is the ‘complete package,’ by which I mean that he manages to incorporate all of the characteristics that make a great scholar and teacher into his life and, through some magical balancing act, he can do all of these things without sacrificing any of them,” says History Department Chair James Whittenburg.

Nelson admits to being somewhat of a Renaissance man: “I’ve found that having knowledge about areas such as computer science or physics has been extremely helpful for bringing history lessons to life,” he says.

And bring to life he does. In addition to an upbeat attitude, a knack for story-telling, and technological savvy, Nelson holds a deep devotion to students and a desire for involving them in his own research. “History is very solitary, and while I’ve done a couple of projects before with undergraduates, I’d like to do more,” he says of his future goals.