The Gifts of the Season

It’s the end of the semester.   This is one of those good news, bad news stories.  The holidays are coming.  We are about to get a break.  For some people, the holidays mean a chance to see friends and family.  For others, the holidays can be a challenging time, with loneliness and depression always a danger.  As a teacher, I am (like my students, I think) a little tired after the rigors of the semester.  August seems a long time ago.  Final deadlines for classwork loom on the horizon, and my students have begun to look a little bit tense and weary.  And it gets dark so early!

For me, the bad news is that the work my students and I did to become a community in each class will be over.  We won’t see each other weekly, or talk about ideas together. The shared interest, the trust, and (for my students) solidarity in the face of adversity (that’s me, sometimes) won’t be the same next semester.   New semesters are new beginnings, and for that I’m grateful, but I will miss the old semester and the relationships we built during the past months.

The good news is that I can see what my students have accomplished. This fall, I am teaching the history capstone seminar, an advanced history course requiring a research paper, and a first year seminar.  I also advised nine candidates (students and alumni) who submitted Fulbright applications in October.  In both the Fulbright process and all of my classes, the joy of the end of the semester is seeing my students accomplish what they set out to do.  Some of them will write brilliant papers.  Some of them will write longer, more complex papers than they have ever attempted before.  Some of them are writing in new genres—personal statements; grant proposals; analytical papers instead of reaction papers; history papers, when their majors are not history; arguments supported by evidence instead of simple opinions.  They are challenging themselves, and it is a privilege to be a part of their efforts.

I will read all the papers with care and with excitement. I celebrate when a student finds a primary source that makes her argument come to life.   I admire the breakthrough when a student who has been summarizing other historians’ arguments makes a clear argument of his own.  When a student writes a clear argument supported by evidence for the first time, I cheer.  I am in awe of the work my students have done in my classes, when I know they have other classes, co-curricular activities, jobs, and lives beyond the classroom.  I look with admiration at my first-year students, who have made the transition to college, and who are moving on to learn more about themselves, their talents, and their goals.  I have my fingers crossed for my Fulbright students, who will find out in January if they are semi-finalists.  There is a lot to celebrate at the end of the semester.  I want to thank all my students, without whom my days would lack purpose.  Thank you for your work, your trust, your good will, your persistence, and your cheerful attendance and participation.  I think I had record good attendance this semester, and I take it as a sign that you were with me, and we were accomplishing something worthwhile.  I wish you all a very Merry Christmas, or Happy Holidays if you celebrate something else.  I hope the end of the semester is a good one for all of you, and I hope the New Year brings you all manner of new joys and new adventures.

Alumni Feature: Claire Barrett, ’15: “Do What You Love”

High Tatras, Slovakia

I grew up in a family that loved history. As a child I would attempt, in vain, to keep up with my father and older sister at dinner as they jumped from topic to topic, war to war. Tired of not contributing, I began to read. What began as an earnest desire to be part of my family’s dinner conversations became a lifelong passion. History has been and is a central point within my family. My first real conversation with my grandfather was on the topic of William Manchester’s semi-autobiographical book, Goodbye, Darkness. History not only influences the way I view the world, it is also a very real link to my family. Because of this, I grew up loving and respecting history, and in particular, military history. It enthralled me like no other subject could, and so, despite many well-meaning “what are you going to do with a history degree?” questions, I pursued a history major.

Thus, I graduated from Hope with a degree in history and then a MA in the History of War from King’s College, London. In college, I had no real clue what I wanted to do with my degree, and to be honest, I had no real idea in graduate school either. I just knew that I wanted to work in some capacity in or around the subject of history. My introverted self-delighted in the hours spent in the stacks, and in the British National Archives. Yet despite the welcome solitude, my degree path also gave me countless opportunities, from interning with the U.S. State Department in London during my time at Hope, to working with a NY Times bestselling author while at graduate school in London. A history degree can seem niche if you let it. However, as I found out, there are always places in the work force for curious, critical thinkers who know how to do serious research. My current job is a product of that.

Isle of Wight, UK

I landed my job as the associate editor for MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History and Military History magazine because of my work while in London. I am lucky that I get to engage in the material that excites me the most every single day.

Military Aviation Museum, Virginia Beach, VA

My sister Esther Barrett Wloch (’12), another Hope College history major alum, went in the opposite path of me. She worked for several years at the University of Michigan Musical Society and now currently works for Duo, a cybersecurity firm. She is thriving, despite having no background, I mean literally zero background, in the tech world due to her strong analytical and communication skills that she sharpened from her studies of history.

To be a historian, one engages with current events with a critical eye and a deeper understanding of that history, whether it be political, social, or military. The somewhat tired and oft-repeated line by George Santayana “those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it” still rings true today. For, as Churchill’s biographer Manchester wrote, “history is more than a time line, more than the sequencing and parsing of collective memory.”

My father, a musician (someone who has followed his own somewhat unique path), always said to me, “Honestly Claire, do what you love, work hard at it, and it will come together.” So that is my advice, and it is simple: Do what you love, for a degree in history means to have a thorough knowledge of the past, which cultivates one’s intellect, teaching one to know how to think, not what to think. The nurturing of one’s mind is invaluable, and trust me, imminently transferable to the world of work.

Student Feature: Jennifer Cimmarusti

The application deadline for the Paris May Term is Nov. 29. As that date approaches, Professor Janes asked senior history major Jennifer Cimmarusti to share some of her experiences and insights about the trip.

Jennifer in the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles. This room was the sight of many royal gatherings under Louis XIV, Louis XV, and Louis XVI. It was also the sight of the signing of the The Treaty of Versailles on June 28, 1919, formally ending World War I. Photo by Jennifer Cimmarusti.

Professor Janes: What was your favorite place that you visited or activity you did?

Jennifer: The first was the beautiful town of Versailles, which we visited together as a class. While most people are interested in the main palace where the kings lived, I was personally more fascinated by the smaller mansions and the lush gardens that surrounded each building. To see the incredibly detailed designs of the buildings and extravagant furniture was a once in a lifetime opportunity. Along with that the places were full of fascinating history. As someone who absolutely loves the French Revolution, it was a dream come true to see the Jeu de Paume, or tennis courts, where the National Assembly met and planned their revolt. Overall, Versailles was my favorite place that we visited as a group.

Professor Janes: What surprised you about Paris?

Jennifer: I was surprised at how well I was able to communicate with Parisians. As someone who does not speak a lick of French, I was quite nervous about how I was going to get by. However, I found out that most French people do speak English, and I was able to pick up some French phrases. When all else failed, hand gestures worked as well. So what I thought was going to be a major issue was actually one of the easier parts of the trip. It also taught me that it is okay to travel somewhere and not completely understand the language, though a few words or phrases can’t hurt.

Professor Janes: Can you describe an example of how history shapes the city?

The quiet, windy streets of Montmartre, a neighborhood untouched by Haussmann’s redesign of Paris. Photo by Jennifer Cimmarusti.

Jennifer: One of the aspects of Paris I found most intriguing were the subtle hints of history located just about everywhere. It was hard to go anywhere in the city and not be surrounded by centuries of history. Even the streets themselves had a story to tell. In the mid-19th Century under the rule of Napoleon III, Baron Georges-Eugéne Haussmann was instructed to carry out a massive urban renewal plan. Not only did this modernize the city, but it also helped with sanitation and overall cleanliness. One of his most important projects was widening the streets of Paris and to create new apartment buildings. A prime example of his work can be found on the famous Avenue de l’Opéra, the street leading up to the Garnier Opera House. Here one can see the simple architectural style that was used by Haussmann and the wide streets to allow both pedestrians and cars through. So when I say that every aspect of the city is covered in History, I literally mean every part of it.

The Place Charles de Gaulle featuring the The Arc de Triomphe is the very epitome of Haussmann’s Grand Boulevards style of modern Paris. It sits on the the historic axis connecting the Louvre Museum all the way to the La Defense business district. From this view, Jen is looking out to La Defense with Paris behind her as the sun sets on the City of Lights. Photo by Jennifer Cimmarusti.

Professor Janes: Any advice for students considering traveling on May or June terms abroad?

Jennifer: My best advice for those considering studying abroad is do not put it off. While you may be hesitant for one reason or another about traveling abroad, it is also good to consider the reasons you should go. For instance, while I love to travel I was incredibly nervous about going to a foreign country by myself with no friends or family to accompany me. It was not until I talked to you, Dr. Janes, that I began to realize the importance of studying abroad. I remember you told me that not only is it vital to my own education, but also when else in my lifetime will I be able to do something like this? So I want to encourage those students out there who were scared like me to have a little faith and take that step forward. Traveling abroad has been one of my best experiences and I would do it again tomorrow if I could.

Faculty Feature: Marc Baer

Picture of history professor Marc BaerHistorians don’t create information: they read what’s handed to them, or rather what they can discover that was created by people in the past. Often, one bit of information contradicts another, and the historian is forced to compare and then choose between them, or ascertain which data are the truest, or construct a narrative from the disparate, contradictory bits. Beginning with our undergraduate years, we do this over and over until what begins as a method of analysis becomes second nature to us. We use it when we engage in scholarship, but also in our lives as citizens when we read newspapers, listen to speeches or watch television news reports. The world calls it critical thinking; historians call it being a thoughtful historian.

Now, imagine yourself as head of HR in a company, or the owner of a small business, or perhaps a dean employed at a prestigious small college in the Midwest. When you’re not signing forms, most of your time is spent doing precisely what the historian does. Hence my thesis (which, by the way, probably should have appeared in the previous paragraph): the best training for someone who is an administrator is—trumpet flourish here—history!

My argument is rather simple. In any workplace setting where one is called upon to make decisions—involving two people whose stories challenge each other, or two options presented to you either of which, if implemented, will make someone angry—the historian’s method kicks in. It’s not so much that we’re perpetually skeptical—which I would argue is an unhelpful attitude—but perpetually curious, inquisitive and aware that most contexts are characterized by complexity rather than simplicity. Therefore, when we’re in this analytical moment, our minds go to, “Hmmm. I wonder.” We begin to turn things over, to step back from the context, to seek antecedents, and to compare the situation with others we have encountered in the past. Only then are we prepared to decide.

Complimenting curiosity is another attitude engendered by the historian’s habit of thinking—empathy.  This can be understood as looking out at the world through the eyes of the other person. I like this, from Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.” As I recall, other than in the history seminar I never explicitly encouraged students to try to be empathetic. But in an exit interview a colleague and I did with a history major he stated that’s what the history major did for him, which made me realize we had encouraged empathy without ever naming it as such.

In the year I spent as Dean for the Arts and Humanities I relied on my training as an historian almost every day on the job. I had to apply curiosity and empathy to make wise decisions. I had to read documents against each other, likewise with colleagues’ narratives. Being an historian doesn’t guarantee that you’ll get all those decisions right, but I don’t know how administrators without the training historians receive engage the problem-solving process well.

One final takeaway: I hope I’ve exploded the myth that there’s any tight linkage between major and career. Majors such as history that emphasize strong communications skills which follow on strong analytical skills which follow on strong research skills provide the best preparation for solving problems.

Majoring in history is not for the weak of heart. But neither is the world of work, or for that matter, life.

Marc Baer taught in Hope’s History department for 33 years, serving as chair for the last 6. He then served as the college’s interim Dean for Arts and Humanities for 13 months, retiring for good in June 2017.

The Long Shadow of Vietnam

“Fierce!” Hope College Women with Vietnamese at Buddhist Center

The 2017 Vietnam May Term was the first ever such experience offered to Hope College students. For two weeks, eight fierce young women helped their two gasping male professor chaperones keep up as we traveled across the immense beauty of Vietnam. At the risk of sounding like a cliché, the Vietnam May Term was a life-changing experience. The people of America’s former bitter enemy welcomed us with world-class hospitality, but always hovering and extending a long shadow was the living memory of the war.

Vietnamese Hmong Children

Looking into the faces of Vietnamese Hmong children, one tried to imagine the fear and passion that had cost 58,000 American and countless Vietnamese lives. For young American and Vietnamese soldiers, waging war in a land of such breathtaking scenery, and whose people possessed such a rich history, must have heightened the incongruity.

One of many buildings at the Royal Ancient City of Hue
Artistry and Beauty at the Royal Ancient City of Hue
The Prior Marine Hope History Professor Ponders the Tactical Geography at Dien Bien Phu

When we traveled to Dien Bien Phu, pieces started falling into place. In 1954, French commanders, determined to preserve their nation’s right to dominate as Vietnam’s colonial master, casually ceded the highlands to their opponents. One need not be a military genius to quickly deduce the dangers of surrendering such an advantage. Presumptions of inherent Vietnamese inferiority proved costly. France’s subsequent defeat and withdrawal from Vietnam underscored the extent of French hubris and highlighted the perils of Western racism.

French Trench Line at Dien Bien Phu

France’s defeat, happening so soon after America’s frustrating stalemate against the communists during the Korean War [1950-1953], underscored the urgency to stand firm against global communism’s clear and present danger. With the situation compounded by the reduction of international complexities to simplifications of East vs. West, Communism vs. Capitalism, Good vs. Evil, Us vs. Them, the turmoil in Vietnam became the de facto possession of the United States.

Over forty years later, Americans are still wrestling with the “How” and “Why” of the Vietnam War. The most recent large-scale attempt to uncover answers to those questions happened on September 18, 2017, when PBS aired Episode I of The Vietnam War by documentarians Ken Burns and Lynn Novick.

As I watched the program, memories of the May Term were immediately refreshed. Seeing the actual places where Vietnamese and American soldiers had clashed in bloody combat deepened my comprehension of the conflict while challenging me to understand humanity’s ongoing love affair with war. I recalled the powerful bond between the combat vet Marines who trained me in OCS [Officer Candidates School] and how they’d privileged me, and my fellow officer candidates, with their knowledge. Most importantly, I resolved to fight harder against attempts to dismiss the necessity of history. For as one of my undergraduate professors at Bowie State College once proclaimed: “War is a joke that old men play on the young.”

Knowing history may not ultimately prevent war, but it can serve as a powerful force of mitigation. Because it’s difficult to play such lethal jokes on the young when they know the backstory, nature, and motivations of the joke-tellers. Knowing history makes it harder for chicken-hawk leaders to bamboozle and bedazzle with their blustery talk. Knowing history makes it harder to send other people’s children to war while the senders obscure that they’ll bear little, or none, of the cost. History shouts cautionary reminders that Vietnam vets were also once young, did their duty, and returned home to a nation determined to forget the war, and them. History challenges contemporary Americans to demand the same dedication and self-sacrifice from its leaders that is expected of the young people who are, have been, and will be sent to war.

Brothers and Sisters

Many Vietnamese sincerely told me that, while they’ve forgiven those responsible for the deaths of so many of each nation’s best and brightest, they will not forget. They choose to remember their history. They choose to learn. They choose to have a future that honors the sacrifices of the past. During the 2017 May Term they did so by accepting their American visitors as brothers and sisters.