I guess it’s appropriate that I should be the first faculty member to introduce myself since I’m the senior member of the department, both in age and in terms of service. I came to Hope in 1978. I’ve had the children of some of my first students in my classes.
If someone had asked me in 1978 to list five states where I would like to live, Michigan would not have appeared on that list. But I have enjoyed living in Holland and being part of the Hope community. Three of my children and both of my grandchildren live in Michigan. I have lost one daughter to California (she hates cold weather).
History has always been interesting to me for two reasons: 1) People’s lives in other times and other cultures have an intrinsic fascination. I want to understand why they do/did things the way they do/did. 2) Everything that happens in our world today is the result of what has happened in the past. Understanding the past gives us a fuller understanding of what we’re seeing and hearing in the news today.
Everything that happens in our world today is the result of what has happened in the past.
The first page of our website says that “historians are society’s storytellers.” I’ve taken that more literally than most people and have written several mystery novels set in ancient Rome. I use a real person, Pliny the Younger, as the detective in the novels. Pliny wrote a number of letters which show him as an inquisitive, skeptical person—just the sort to investigate crimes. His two letters on the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 AD are the basis of the modern study of volcanoes. The books are based on research I’ve done throughout my entire academic career. Reviewers have said they learned a lot about life in ancient Rome while enjoying a good read.
Inventing America, Episode 1 (“Making a Nation”), a “live” interview with four of the nation’s Founding Fathers filmed before a live audience at Hope College in December 2014 will be featured on PBS stations around the country this July 4th. “Making a Nation” highlights the origins of the Declaration of Independence. If your local PBS station does not carry it the program is available online.
Professional actors portrayed Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin and John Dickinson, while Hope History professors Marc Baer served as moderator and Fred Johnson as interviewer in a followup Q & A session.
As a History and French major with a special interest in French history I was over the moon to take French history courses taught in Paris during my year abroad!
I expected to learn loads in the classroom and by visiting historical places. I however never expected I would take part in history. Never did I imagine I would be there for an event that people ask “Where you where when you heard?” I’m talking about the terrorist attacks on the 13th of November.
I was at Café du Marche in the Marais, a mile from the Bataclan. A distance that becomes very short when no one knows what exactly is going on.
Unsurprisingly it was an emotional experience for me. I love France and to have French citizens hurt like that made me angry, but I was also scared because this was a random attack. That is to say these people had done nothing in particular against ISIS, besides living freely. Parisians were all faced with the realization that there was nothing we could do to protect ourselves in the future.
Any sort of intercultural preparation you’ve had in the past doesn’t prepares you to experience an event like this. Not only are you trying to process the depths of this evil, but you’re trying to do so through a cultural filter. The French were reporting this event through their cultural lens. A lot of culture comes from history and shared experiences. While I don’t have many shared experiences, I do have a solid grasp of their history and that was enormously helpful for me. The post-attack experience wasn’t easy, but I could at least understand how we had gotten here.
Among other areas, I’m interested in the rather troubled religious history of France. In part because I have ancestors that fled France in the late 17th century due to religious persecution and personally as a Christian wishing to move there in the future. Many events played a roll in shaping the religious climate of today in France, but here are a few of the main ones.
In 1517 Martin Luther nailed his 95 thesis to the church door, and less than 50 years later the French Catholics and Protestants were already at war with each other. The French Wars of Religion (1562-1598) proved to be a very bloody conflict and was finally ended by the newly crowned Henri IV, a protestant turned catholic king.
The Edict of Nantes created in 1598 allowed for protestants to worship freely. This edict lasted until 1685, when Louis XIV revoked it. This created a period of renewed conflict as protestants were forced either to convert or flee, in both cases losing property and social standing. It was during this period when my ancestors fled to what would become Germany.
The next important event was the French Revolution in 1789, which fueled by Enlightenment thinking and a distrust of the monarchy-backed Church, created the beginning of French state secularism. In 1905 this state secularism was formalized with the law of December 9, 1905, where religion was put strictly in the private sphere. This means that in any government building, including public schools, you cannot wear anything that identifies you as Christian, Muslim, Jewish, etc. After the deportation of French Jews during the second World War this law applied even more strictly.
The law of December 9, 1905 was born out of the desire to make everyone equal, by doing away with outward features. What I saw after the attacks was a floundering of the French public. Their secularism had failed. Some the attackers were French and they had attacked other French in the name of religion.
A few weeks later during Hanukkah and Christmas military men guarded the entrances of houses of worship. In short, following the attacks, the government now had to protect the divisions they claim don’t really exist or matter. In my humble opinion, strict secularism doesn’t work because it fails to realize for genuinely religious people, religion is all consuming, it doesn’t just exist at home.
As France continues to adjust to the new threat of terrorism and influx of Muslim refugees it will be interesting to see how the French public react and how the question of separation of religion and the state continues to be answered.
After the attacks I had a new answer to the age old question “What will you do with your history degree?”. My response: You will know the complex and often centuries old history behind today’s conflicts. By knowing, you will understand the event on a more in-depth level, which makes you an overall more engaged and productive member of society.
This past January, Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani was touring European capitals after the completion of the nuclear deal opened Iran to European investment.
On his visit to Paris he met with French President Francois Hollande, but not over a meal. The two leaders were originally supposed to share an upscale lunch, but the Iranian delegation demanded a meal prepared to Halal standards (something easily acquired in France) and with no wine served. The French president refused.
Rouhani and Holland were both constrained by popular concerns in their home countries that “outsiders” (be they Westerners in Iran or Muslims in France) were a threat to national identity, symbolized so viscerally by Halal dietary restrictions and French wine. The cultural meaning of these foods kept these two powerful world leaders from sharing a meal.
My new book, just published by Bloomsbury Academic Press, starts with this notion that foodways — what we eat, how we eat it, and how we talk about it — are powerful markers of identity. In Colonial Food in Interwar Paris: The Taste of Empire, I use this lens of food and identity to better understand France’s relationship with its empire during and after the First World War.
Colonial Food tells the story of how the French first tried to start shipping foods from the French colonies in Africa and Indochina to France during the First World War. This effort was an utter failure, but it inspired the French colonial lobby to start promoting the idea that the colonies could and should feed France. The rest of the book analyzes the promotion, reception, and rejection of colonial foods in France. I argue that the distrust of colonial food, from Indochinese rice to tropical fruit to curry powder, reflected French society’s disinterest in the empire.
During the Summer of 2015, I and four Hope College history majors had the opportunity to spend 10 days at the Library of Congress to complete an intensive research project.
We set out to create a research-based website about the 1918 United War Work Campaign, a World War I fundraising campaign by religious and secular organizations to raise money for work with United States soldiers.
The students completed preliminary research at Hope College, and when they arrived at the Library of Congress, they began to explore the extensive collections. They explored many of the library’s divisions, including Prints and Photographs, Manuscripts, Newspapers and Periodicals, Rare Books, and Music Collections.
Students also got the opportunity to work in the beautiful Main Reading Room and tour behind the scenes at the library. They had tremendous success in finding material that would create a strong foundation for a website, including propaganda posters, sheet music, photographs, advertisements in foreign-languages newspapers, and letters by presidents, generals, and other national leaders.
When the students returned to Hope, they completed work on a website titled: For the Boys over There: The 1918 United War Work Campaign. This website includes interpretive essays about the different organizations involved in the United War Work Campaign as well as analysis about the ways race, gender, religion and ethnicity shaped the campaign. This website will be of interest to the general public who want to learn about a fascinating story about the World War I United States as well as researchers who want to dig deeper into the primary sources of the campaign.
The benefit to students went beyond their research experience.
They also got the opportunity to interact with student scholars from John Cabot University in Rome and Forman Christian College in Lahore, Pakistan. They learned about the research of those students and also got to know them as friends and learn about their cultures. Overall, this experience reveals the benefits of moving the research experience out of the classroom and allowing history students to take up the work of historians.
Welcome to the Hope College History Department’s inaugural blog post.
We’re excited to share stories from our faculty, staff, students, alumni, and friends! Our guest next week will be Dr. Jeanne Petit, History department faculty member and chair-elect of the department.
Meet Dr. Petit, and come back next week to learn more!