Alumni Feature: Rebecca Fry Debowski ’12

Across the desk my adviser told me, “You will never get a history job if you don’t pursue the social studies composite major.  You won’t be marketable.” I distinctly remember this conversation from my sophomore year and the frustration I felt trying to explain to the adviser that my passion is history.   I saw the social studies major as a mile wide and an inch deep.  If there was one thing I had learned already in my history classes at Hope College, it was that history is about depth.  So instead of listening to this advice, I decided to pursue a Secondary Teaching Degree with a history major and English minor.  After seven years of teaching history, I am glad I went with my instincts and pursued the history major.  The skills I developed obtaining that degree have made me the teacher I am today.

These days, history is treated as an expendable subject in many schools. Lots of elementary schools are cutting out history lessons entirely while secondary history education classes focus on preparing students for state tests, simply filling them with facts drawn primarily from textbooks. When teachers rely on the state standards and focus on test scores, the importance of historical skills and critical thinking is lost.   Studying history naturally leads students to explore different perspectives, converse with people who hold different opinions, and express their own arguments backed with relevant evidence.  These were the skills I learned as a history major at Hope College, and these are the skills I try to emphasize every day as an eighth-grade history teacher.

The history department at Hope was never afraid of difficult topics, but rather they embraced them, teaching us how to carefully peel back the layers and perspectives of a given event.  In his British imperialism class, for example, Professor Baer would lecture about one imperialist event from multiple perspectives.  This approach encouraged me to think critically about how I was previously taught about historical fact.  It made me think about my own life and how I perceived events versus how others in my life may have interpreted those same events.  This has carried into my classroom where I continually challenge the notion of single narratives.  History is often taught in schools from one textbook—too often leaving out necessary voices to understand the complexities of events.  To avoid this, I give my students contradictory primary sources on an event and ask them to determine what happened.  When studying the Constitutional Convention, I have students roleplay different groups of people in America at that time.  Instead of just sending upper-class men to the convention, we include African Americans, Native Americans, working-class people, and women.  When we include more people from that time era, the students’ Constitution looks vastly different than the one created in 1787.   This leads to great conversations about what it means when we say “we the people” or “all men are created equal.”  Hope’s history department pushed me to explore what these statements meant within the context of the past, but also what they mean in the world right now.  These are the same conversations I encourage with my students.

Of course, when exploring tough topics, debates often turn contentious.  At Hope, my professors would encourage discussion and debate.  I remember Professor Fred Johnson encouraging me to challenge his ideas and engage with him in dialogue.  In our current political climate, this kind of civilized discourse is increasingly rare.  Our world feels polarized and discussions often feel contentious.  However, my time in the history department taught me when conflict happens, respectful conversations are important.  Just as my professors taught me to present my own views, even when I didn’t agree with theirs, I encourage my students to do the same.  By practicing respectful discourse and listening skills, students become capable of amazing things. I have found that through role-play discussions and debates, students are challenged to think from another’s view point—building historical empathy as well as empathy towards their peers.

My history major has pushed me to teach by emphasizing depth of learning.  Instead of teaching random facts to students in the hopes that they pass a state test, I see the value in teaching historical skills and critical thinking.  By treating the subject of history as an avenue to critical thinking, not only are students engaged on a personal level, but they are better prepared to participate in our world today.  As citizens, we can choose to be poor historians, choosing to only listen to one side of the story and ignoring context, or we can be conscientious historians.  I hope that my students chose to intentionally seek out additional points of view and engage people in difficult conversations.  My students have the power to shape our country and change the world—I cannot wait to see their impact.

It’s Course Registration Time!

Take a look at the upper-level courses being taught by our great professors for Spring! If you have questions about them, please contact Dr. Jeanne Petit (

History 200-02A The Holocaust (GLI)
TR 1:30-2:50 pm
Janis Gibbs

The Holocaust is probably something most students have encountered, either in school, in movies, or in literature. (Think Schindler’s List or Life is Beautiful on screen, or Elie Wiesel’s masterpiece, Night.)  In this class, we will look at the reasons for the development of a plan of genocide by the Nazis, and at the methods by which they carried out their plans.   We will use video, written primary sources, and historical analyses to study the Holocaust.  It’s not cheerful, but it’s important. Think about the genocide of the Rohynga in Myanmar today, or the genocide in Darfur in the early 2000s.  As human beings, we are bound to understand atrocity, so we can resist it.  This half-semester class fulfills the Global Learning International requirement.


History 200 01B: Peace Movements in the 20th-Century U.S. (GLD)
MWF 9:30-10:20 am
Jeanne Petit

Most history classes emphasize the impact of wars. This class will shift the focus of United States history and examine those who tried to prevent war and ensure peace. We will do a survey of peace movements that emerged during different contexts in the 20th-century United States with particular focus on the following: the Women’s Peace Party of the World War I Era, the labor movement of the 1930s, the labor movement of the 1930s, the Civil Rights Movement that emerged in the 1950s, the Vietnam-era peace  protests, and the late 20th-century anti-nuclear movement.

Note: instead of a traditional research paper, students in this class will be building a research-based website.


History 218 01: The Middle Ages, Byzantium and Islam (GLI)
MWF 11:00-11:50 pm
Janis Gibbs

Are you a fan of Game of Thrones?  Would you like to find out where George R.R. Martin found his inspiration?  Come and study the original game of thrones!  In this course, we investigate an age of faith, of warfare, of economic and political fragmentation, and of the invention of new institutions.  For a little variety, we’ll study plague, and a poisoner. (Sound familiar?) We will begin with the closing years of the Roman Empire and follow political economic and social developments between the fifth and fifteenth centuries. Major themes in the course include religion, state formation, social structures, everyday life, commerce, war, and intercultural contact. Besides the conventional topics in Western European history, we will examine the decline and fall of the Byzantine Empire and the rise of Islam. This course carries the Global Learning International (GLI) flag.  Come find out about meat and mead, and the transformation of the world in the Middle Ages.


History 280 01: Modern Imperialism
TR 9:30-10:50 am
Lauren Janes

As France faces attacks from citizens aligned with ISIS, as the United Kingdom negotiates leaving the European Union to avoid immigration, and as Syria–a former French mandate–fights a brutal civil war, the recent history of European imperialism in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East continues to have a dramatic impact on the present. In Modern Imperialism we will examine the history of the British and French empires of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries while considering the impact of imperialism back on Europe. Much of our course will focus on the process of decolonization, especially on the partition of India, the Algerian War for independence, and the development of minority dictatorial rule in the mandate states of Iraq and Syria.


History 314 01: Modern Japan and Korea (GLI)
MWF 1:00-1:50 PM
Wayne Tan

In the global economy, Japan and Korea are among the world’s leading nations driving economic and technological developments. Japanese and Korean brand names and icons are everywhere: Toyota, Samsung, Hello Kitty, Pokemon, and Psy’s Gangnam-style dance. In this course, we will ask these questions (and more): How did Japan become an empire? How was Korea implicated in World War II? What are the origins of the Korean War and the rise of North Korea? Why are Japan and Korea important for today’s U.S. foreign policies? This course focuses on key issues in Japanese and Korean history in the East Asian and global contexts since 1600 and explores how Japan and Korea have become the modern nations that they are today. (Fulfills the regional requirement; pending GLI)


History 355 01: U.S. Foreign Policy (GLD)
MW 3:00-4:50 PM
Fred Johnson

This course traces the historical development of United States foreign policy from the 1898 Spanish-American War to present day. In this period the U.S. emerged as a world power, offset the threat of the Soviet Union during the Cold War [1945 – 1990], and currently claims title as being the world’s lone superpower. Through readings, discussion, presentations, and special projects, students will examine and assess the forces, trends, and circumstances that have simultaneously facilitated and threatened America’s rise to global dominance. Students will also examine America’s contemporary international challenges and develop solution strategies by comparatively assessing the rationale and methodologies employed by U.S. policymakers to navigate past foreign policy crises.