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.

Alumni Feature: Mike Douma ’04

Assistant Research Professor at the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University, and Director of the Georgetown Institute for the Study of Markets and Ethics.

When you have a free afternoon sometime, go visit the archives of the Holland Museum, and ask for an old account book of the Boone Lumber Company (collection T00-1600.5). Set the account book in front of you on a table, open it somewhere in the middle, lean forward and breathe. Suddenly, the smells of a 19th-century lumber yard will fill your nostrils. Trapped in those pages, for well over a hundred years, is the dust of oak, cedar, pine, and hemlock, a testimony to a past age.

Typically, when historians want to learn something about the past, they seek words, not smells. They also tend to put texts before photographs, and letters before old buildings.  All too often, historical research is limited to the papers of politicians at the national archives. And, at many universities, history is taught as mostly a set of fixed content, separate from one’s one interests and personal history. Sometimes, history can feel distant and impersonal.

But as a student at Hope College, I was inspired to look at history from different angles and find connections to my own concerns.  I read my fair share of classic texts by Alexis DeTocqueville, Frederick Douglass, and the like, but I also participated in oral history projects, surveyed local historic architecture, wrote for campus publications, worked in and traveled to archives and museums. Classroom lessons in historical thinking inspired me to think about the myriad ways one might approach historical questions. History department events and invited speakers initiated me into the cult of the footnote. By the time I went off to graduate school in history, I had a set of diverse and profound experiences that taught me to approach the past from different angles.

Now, having written a book titled Creative Historical  Thinking, I can reflect on what makes a creative environment.  Creativity, it seems clear, can only develop when people feel comfortable in asking questions and “playing” with ideas.  In his famous 1938 study Homo Ludens (playing man), Dutch historian Johan Huizinga explained that play was the cessation of formal rules, which could be set aside for a short period of time, so that we can experiment with new ideas. Play is not disorder and lack of seriousness; it is precisely what we must do if we are to discover new kinds of order, as well as new and serious bits of information. Play, Huizinga wrote, was at the core of culture.

Hope College certainly offers a comfortable environment for those who wish to ask questions. Indeed, there is a campus culture of inquisitiveness and respect.  In a small, friendly history department, students enjoy the advantage of being able to forge relationships and get personal feedback from their professors. Small group exercises in class give students the opportunities to think creatively about how history is written, and who controls the narrative. Connections to local historical agencies give students the opportunity to practice in the field.

The old proverb rings true, that people might forget what you said, but they will never forget how you made them feel. Hope makes you feel like a person, not a number. Studying history within a liberal arts tradition highlights the importance of individuals and individual rights, of culture and tradition, religion and being.  In the process of studying history, we not only satisfy our own curiosity, but we build connective social tissues. History must always begin with the individual, develop through curiosity and play, and come together for social ends as we relate what we have discovered. Whether it is studying their Reformed heritage, their own ethnic background, or the great moments in world history, Hope history students have real opportunities to think creatively about history, and to approach it from their own perspective.

To be creative, you must put your fears aside and be open to new experiences. So, I implore you to start looking for new ways to think about and write history. Get my book. Or, for other inspiration, go to the museum; get a whiff of that lumber yard account book. It just might bring you back in time, and change how you think about the past.

Welcome Back Everyone!

Welcome back everyone! We in the History Department are happy to be starting our teaching again and look forward to a great semester. But we also enjoyed a summer full of research and travel with students as well as accomplishments in our own scholarly and creative writing.

Dr. Fred Johnson got involved in the national conversation about race in our nation this summer. In July, he had an editorial published in the Washington Post which provides a historical perspective the relationship between African-American art thriving alongside racism. 

Darwin

He also worked on his book project that builds on his Civil War Research. The book will be titled: Worth to Us An Army: Lee’s War against the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. When he’s not busy traveling to archives or publishing in major newspapers, Dr. Johnson takes his dog Darwin for long walks on the dunes.

The cover of Dr. Bell’s new middle-school novel.

Dr. Albert Bell completed a middle-grade novel, What You Wish For, which is a story about two 11-year-olds, Sandy Walker and T. J. McKenzie, who become pen pals through a school assignment. When they meet in person, they find that neither is quite what the other expected. As their friendship develops, they have to fend off a local bully and get to try their hand at solving a century-old mystery surrounding the Walker farm. He also worked on his eighth novel in his series of mysteries featuring Pliny the Younger. It has the working title Hiding from the Past, and it puts Pliny and his companion Aurora back in a small Alpine town where they investigated a murder ten years earlier but did not solve it. Their efforts to do so this time are complicated by an early spring blizzard and by a Gallic chieftain who wants revenge for the death of his son, whom Aurora killed defending herself. Hopefully, it will be out next year! This fall, he will be preparing for his sabbatical, where he will turn to his scholarly research on Pliny by examining his image of himself as a writer and his concept of friendship.

Dr. Tseng, Audrey Grant and Andrew Walls. Walls is the namesake of the Andrew F. Walls Centre for the Study of African and Asian Christianity at Liverpool-Hope University.

Since our faculty study all regions of the world, summertime also means time to travel to teach and do research abroad. Dr. Gloria Tseng began her year-long sabbatical, where she will be completing her book on Protestantism in 20th-century China. This summer, she presented papers with impressive titles at two conferences in Great Britain. The first was in Edinburgh at the meeting of the Yale-Edinburgh Group on the History of the Missionary Movement and World Christianity, where she gave a paper titled “Liturgical and Spontaneous Prayers in Republican China: Indigenization as Seen through the Anglican Book of Common Prayer and Wang Mingdao’s Teachings on Prayer.” She presented the second paperan in Liverpool at the Andrew F. Walls Centre for the Study of African and Asian Christianity, “From Separation to Civic Engagement: Chinese Christians and the Chinese State and Society in Contemporary China.”

Dr. Wayne Tan had the honor of being an invited faculty presenter on the topic of disability in Japan at the NEH Summer Institute on “The Global Histories of Disability” held at Gallaudet University in Washington D.C. He also completed his book manuscript on the social and cultural history of blindness in Japan and submitted it to the University of Michigan Press. We look forward to the book party when it is released! Dr. Tan also served as a mentor to Aine O’Connor, a student in the Mellon Scholars Program, for her digital humanities project on a database of disability and disabled characters in young adult literature. He provided some advice about the framework while Aine did a thorough research and analysis of hundreds of books and mastered the digital tools to build this site. He got to learn about disability from a different point of view and Aine combined her passion for English literature and history for this project.

Dr. Janes showing Hope student Anna Benitez the view from Montmartre in Paris.

Dr. Janis Gibbs and Dr. Lauren Janes continued to lead two of the most popular May Terms at Hope College. Dr. Gibbs completed her ninteenth summer as a professor at the Hope Vienna Summer School. Her students, along with those of the Vienna Summer School’s Director, Professor Stephen Hemenway and Professor Brian Gibbs, had a great day visiting the Austrian Gymnasium (high school) in the Kundmanngasse, where the students met Viennese students, and talked about life, culture, politics, and education in Austria and the United States.  She also worked on her research project, developing the story of Hermann von Wied, the Archbishop with two funerals, one Catholic and one Protestant. She also had some time for fun and saw “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” on a trip to London in July. Dr. Janes co-led the third year of the Paris May Term, where she and Dr. Heidi Kraus (Art and Art History Department) lead students on an experiential exploration of the art and history of Paris. When she returned, she continued working on her book, Nourishing the World: A Global History in Three Foods and One Dish. Dr. Janes and her family have also used the summer to work on building an outdoor wood fire pizza oven in her backyard–we can’t wait to try it out!

The research team examining Hope College during the Vietnam Era. From Left to Right: Halla Maas, Dr. Pam Koch, Olivia Brickley and Dr. Petit

I stayed closer to home this summer. In May, Dr. Pam Koch (Sociology and Social Work) and I worked with two Peace and Justice minors to create a web exhibit titled “Hope College and the Vietnam War. The students, Halla Maas and Olivia Brickley, spent four weeks exploring the Holland Joint Archives, examining newspaper, yearbook, letters, and other manuscript records. They also did an oral history interview with Dr. Donald Luidens, who was a Hope student from 1965-1969 and a leader in student protest. Through these sources, the students examined both anti-Vietnam War protests as well as other social movements and protests that emerged during that time, such as the Civil Rights movement and the emergence of feminism. This project was funded by the Mellon Grand Challenges Grant and the website should be up soon as part of the larger “Imagining Peace” website. I also wrote an article with another long, impressive title: “We Must Not Fail Either the Church or the Nation”: Mobilizing Laywomen in the World War I United States.” This will be appearing in early 2019 in a special issue of The U.S. Catholic Historian on the theme “War and Peace.”

First 5k, Grand Rapids Color Run

Throughout this whole summer, our wonderful office manager Raquel Niles has been there to help me get out our end-of-the-year report and help all of us learn the new accounting system being put into place. And she had another great achievement–running her first 5K at the Grand Rapids Color Run!

And now we turn to our teaching (or in the case of Dr. Tseng, sabbatical research) and look forward to the challenges of the new academic year. Good luck to us all as we start again!

Carry On: Memories of Holland in World War I

This is the text of the oration Aine O’Connor delivered on May 28, 2018, at the Holland Memorial Day Ceremony.

Hello, and let me first say thank you, to all of you for coming out on this very hot day. It is an honor to be here, and I promise to be brief, if only so our lovely band members can get a cool drink of water. To start us off, allow me to ask you a question. It is a simple one, but I hope that you will take a moment to think about it. What do you know about World War I? It’s okay if your answer is, “You know, I haven’t thought about World War I in a while;” I’m sure you’re not alone. If it makes you feel better, it isn’t your fault; World War I is criminally undertaught in schools and remains a largely forgotten section of American history. Allow me to refresh your memory today, and explain why even a hundred years later, this war matters.

My own answer to this question begins here, in this cemetery. Last year as part of my research on the Holland and Hope College experience of World War I, I spent hours photographing graves of World War I veterans from Holland and the surrounding area. As a friend and I combed through the cemetery to find more graves, the weight of what we were doing began to sink in. For many of these men, a photo of their grave would be the only visual of them provided in our research. In my world, where selfies, photo opportunities, and social media run rampant, it seemed unfathomable that an iPhone photo of a gravesite could be the only proof that someone existed. I became obsessed with trying to find more pictures, and many summer afternoons were spent digging through the Joint Archives, hoping to get lucky. As I grew closer and closer to the city of Holland and my chosen college, I looked for photos of men who were being torn away from everything that was becoming my home.

How I wish I could show you every photo that my two research partners and I did find, under the expert wisdom of Geoff Reynolds at the Archives. But, since I don’t have the benefits of a massive projector screen—and since that would probably everyone to sleep anyway—allow me to just describe some snapshots of the Holland and Hope College experience of World War I to you. If you would like to see the real version of these photos, please check out our research website, the link to which I would be MORE than happy to give you once I am done speaking today.

“Counting Off”: S.A.T.C. men practicing formations, 1918, Courtesy Joint Archives of Holland.

Snapshot number 1: Over fifty men between the ages of 18-21 line up in the grassy area of Hope College affectionately known to all as the Pine Grove. They look young, even to me, and I’m their age. Several of these young men seem unable to not smile in front of a camera, their teeth giving them away even as they try to remain in military formation. All of them are wearing caps, and stand ramrod straight while learning a new drill that is supposed to keep them alive. These fifty-odd truly American men were the beginnings of the Student Army Training Corps at Hope College, which would grow to be nearly two-hundred strong by the end of the war. Khaki took over the little campus, as generals swarmed in to shape our young men into a war mindset. SATC members had their own classes, ate in their own mess hall, and used Van Vleck—a building that still stands today—as their personal infirmary. Even chapel services revolved around the war, as wizened soldiers were invited back to give speeches on the “German barbarians” or the significance of prayer during wartime. Although some SATC members would leave Hope to enlist, most stayed on campus for the duration of the war, keeping the college in a constant state of militarism. The men were in formation, ready to do their part to defend their country whether at home or abroad.

The Holland Polar Bear Club in 1942. Courtesy of the Joint Archives of Holland.

For those soldiers from Hope or Holland who did fight abroad, life back home must have seemed like an idyllic dream. In another snapshot, two young, unnamed men stand grinning in front of a log house. That house is barely visible, covered in mounds of snow and ice. Those men look frozen, wrapped in blankets and coats. They are both from Michigan—as explained by their infantry number—and both are very, very far from home. These two men were part of the Polar Bear Expedition, a group of almost 5,000 US soldiers from Michigan who were sent to Siberia as part of an anti-communist campaign. Reportedly the US government chose to send Michigan men to Russia because they were used to extreme, unrelenting winter—which seems, even a hundred years later, like a cruel joke. Without any prior knowledge of communism, Russia, or, in some cases, how to fight, thousands of Michiganders arrived in Siberia by surprise. Hollander Dutch Strowenjans wrote to his family bitterly, “I do not understand this Russian proposition or why we are here or how long we shall stay.” He was joined in Siberia by most other soldiers from the Holland area. Whether or not they knew where they were going or what they were doing, these men were celebrated at home as heroes. Holland and Hope had done their part to “make the world safe for democracy,” as President Woodrow Wilson had told them to do. And so for years Holland held its breath, hoping and praying for its men to return home safely.

The too-early parade, Nov. 7 1918. Courtesy Joint Archives of Holland.

Holland actually let out that breath a little too early. Another snapshot reveals an Eighth Street in the midst of a parade, much as it was just a few hours ago. Large Red Cross floats adorn the street, as a hundred or so uniformed men march behind in neat formation. A large American flag is carried in honor, but if you look closely you’ll see there are too many stars for states—this was a service flag, with one star stitched for every Holland or Hope man in service. Only the tiny, handwritten date of November 7, 1918, in the bottom left-hand corner reveals the flaw in this parade—it was celebrated four days before the actual end of World War I. Rumors of a German surrender had caused a premature parade to break out! We just love our Holland parades, with or without tulips or dancers. Undeterred, Holland celebrated with another parade after the war actually ended. Unfortunately, that ending wasn’t quite true for everyone. For many Holland soldiers, coming home was a feat in itself. A late river freeze would trap the Polar Bears in Russia until almost a year after the armistice in Germany, and the original Holland parade. And sadly, twenty-four Holland soldiers would never make it home, either killed in action or from disease abroad.

My last snapshot returns to where we started, in this cemetery. It is a photo that I took, of a memorial to one of those twenty-four soldiers. His name was Willard Leenhouts, the first Holland man to be killed in action in World War I. His memorial stone is a beautiful marble, well-kept after over a hundred years. Behind his stone the cemetery stretches outward to the football field, where young Hope men stand together in a very different kind of formation. When I took that picture last year I was struck at the contrast. This boy, who was my age when he died, and boys, my age, playing football. Leenhouts’s death was seen as a challenge in the Holland community; one newspaper reported, “As a captain, dying, calls to his sergeant to carry on… so this Holland boy, falling out of the ranks is today calling to the people at home to carry on.” And so, the next time someone asks you, “what do you know about World War I,”—I’m sure that’s a question you get asked all the time—I hope that you will think of Willard Leenhouts. I hope that you will think of parades, and Polar Bears. I hope that you will think of snapshots. And your answer? Even though Holland is not my birthplace, I can still hope that you will answer it the way I do, this way: yes, I do know something. I know that my city, my college, and my people did the most extraordinary thing they could do: they carried on.

Memorial for Leenhouts at Pilgrim Home Cemetery, Holland, MI.

Thank you.

Faculty Feature: The Emotional Responsibility of a Historian

Dr. Wayne Tan

At a time when the humanities appear to be in a crisis mode, with declining enrollment numbers across campuses, I want to share my thoughts about how, from a faculty’s perspective, the work I do in history relates back to the core issue of what it means to be in touch with my humanistic outlook. As a historian, it is my job to think critically, articulate my thoughts clearly, and write cogently. This was what I was taught in school and also a lesson that is dear to my heart. Herein lies a question that I had only recently started to reflect on: Can the process of doing history be one that is also rooted in emotions? That is to say, a process that doesn’t pit mind against heart, but instead, one that marries mind with heart? For the longest time, haunting every analytical turn of mind is the fear (stoked gently by conventional wisdom) that emotions cloud judgment. Analysis at its best, we are told, should be clinical, exacting, and stripped of emotional biases in order to present an objective truth. But does it have to be this way—for a historian, fully absorbed as is to be expected in his/her task, to maintain an emotional distance from the object of analysis? After all, is not analysis itself also a subjective experience that is intended to produce a personal interpretive result?

Perhaps owing to my research background in disability history, I am partial to methodological approaches that scour the pages of history to seek out traces of unrepresented and underrepresented communities in our societies. The point of my work, summarized here at the risk of sounding hackneyed, is to give a voice to these communities—communities that have historically struggled for the right to exist despite as well as because of their disabilities and for the opportunities for a better quality of life. This research has also led me down a different yet parallel path of personal growth: I feel deeply for the human subjects who are at the center of the narratives I construct. To disclaim the power of emotions would be disingenuous. I could not ignore the anguished pain I felt upon first reading the case of Carrie Buck (institutionalized and sterilized against her will) in early 20th-century America and her uphill fight against a social system bent on condemning any sign of feeble-mindedness. She was forever ensconced in a legacy of martyrdom because of the inhumanity she had suffered. Nor can I suppress the upwelling current (and sometimes sinking weight) of grief and distress each time I bury myself in victims’ harrowing stories about radiation sickness in the wake of the 1945 atomic bombings of Japan and more recent local and state media reports of residents’ concerns about PFAS contamination and lead exposures from the alleged industrial pollution of drinking water. If these feelings fall under the broad lexical reach of the word “empathy”, then I am proud to identify with an empathetic audience.

There is a reason why I turn to writing. If I could reinvent the metaphor of giving a voice to the voiceless, I see a new significance in restoring emotions to my stories and perspectives—not the formulaic types that evoke sympathy as the be-all and end-all of writing, but the kinds that provide a well-considered context that would frame the writer’s emotional response. The stories I write shape the narratives I tell inside and outside the classroom, in the repertoire of courses I teach here at Hope College and also the everyday conversations I have. Words themselves are a historian’s consummate instruments to disclose thoughtfully an emotional inner self that is inseparable from the context. The singular act of writing, in all its complexity, weaves together the dense substance of words, which impart an emotional complexion to prose. To say this differently, words reveal as much about the emotional state of the writer as they do about the emotional profiles of the characters portrayed and described. That is why when I write, I own my words and take ownership of my emotions. When I speak, I do likewise. This is the emotional responsibility of a historian to himself/herself and to the subjects at hand and my personal response to why history and, more broadly, humanities matter to us. Now more than before.

Faculty/Alumni Feature: Chad Carlson, ’03

So I’m in a social setting, mingling with a new acquaintance. I’m asked what I do.

“I’m a professor.” Bad start, haha.
“Of what?” Obligatory response.
“The history of sports,” I say, getting uncomfortable. I don’t like where this inquisition is headed.
“So you must know a lot about sports.”
“Sure, I guess,” I answer noncommittally.
“Well then, do you know who won the World Series in 1984?” Ugh.

As a historian, I’m offended by this question and the many like it that I’ve received over the years. History is not trivia. And yet so many people seem to connect sport history with sport trivia, as if my time in grad school was one long training session to acquire orange wedges (Sports and Leisure) in Trivial Pursuit.

But I have a parlor trick that usually satisfies those who ask about my profession. I can name every team that has ever won the NCAA men’s basketball national championship. (This might be my epitaph!) I have this trick down pat not because I study sport history but because I love college basketball.

It’s my love for college basketball that led me to write the book, Making March Madness: The Origins and Early Years of the NCAA and NIT Basketball Tournaments. I knew all the facts long before I began writing the book.

But what separates me from any other college basketball fan is the fact that I’ve studied history. My book is not an almanac of facts. There are a lot of facts in it, but they serve as nails that fasten the floorboards of the story. My book is a history. It’s a reconstruction of the ways that individuals and organizations navigated the social, economic, and political forces of the 1930s and 1940s to create and sustain the college basketball postseason tournament that has become among the most popular events on the annual American sporting calendar.

The story is fascinating to me. The more time I spent at university archives scouring through previously untouched telegrams, handwritten letters, and microfilms, the more amazed I was at the way certain coaches and administrators created and sustained what is now known as March Madness. The tale is unlikely, unusual, and, more importantly, untold.

The tournament had an inauspicious start. When college basketball coaches offered to run a 1939 college basketball national championship tournament under the auspices of the NCAA, two similar events already existed. Third on the scene, without a home base, without many of the top teams in the country, at the end of a decade marked by severe economic depression, and with the uncertainty of escalating international political tensions, the inaugural NCAA tournament actually lost money. Indeed, the NCAA covered a debt of $2,500 to keep the event going in 1940.

In 2010, CBS and Turner Broadcasting committed to paying the NCAA $10.8 billion for the rights to televise March Madness games. In 2016, the deal was extended for another 8 years, adding $8.8 billion to the contract payout.

This means that a small, poorly attended basketball tournament in 1939 that lost $2,500 has transformed into a mega-sporting event that, 85 years later, makes more than $1 billion per year.

These are some of the facts, the trivia points that people want to know when they ask what I do. And these facts matter. They serve as touchpoints of the past and they flavor the story. But the history, the academic work of understanding human behavior of the past, is in the narrative I’ve created. It’s in the flow, in the trends, and in the arc of the story.

My parlor trick helps me occasionally in Trivial Pursuit and every so often during Trivia Night at the local establishment. But the history of March Madness is so much more complex.

So when you watch March Madness this year, know that there’s a deep, rich, and nuanced story of its origin and early years. The story is compelling and attractive, and it brings an acute and robust context to any facts that anyone can rattle off about the event.

In short, it has a history—a story that I’ve tried to reconstruct as a historian…who also knows some trivia!

Chad Carlson is  Associate Professor of Kinesiology and Assistant Men’s Basketball Coach at Hope College. He will be leading a History Colloquium titled “Why March Madness Matters: Reflections on a Popular Sporting Event’s Forgotten History. The talk will take place on Wednesday, March 28 at 7:00 pm in the Fried-Hemenway Auditorium.

Student Feature: Mariah Bensley

Mariah Bensley in Venice

It was never my plan to declare a major during my junior year at Hope. I had a solid psychology major in process and on the way to completing my degree. My feet were firmly planted on the on the snowy sidewalks of Holland, so it was a surprise to many, especially my parents, when I changed my history minor into a second major. I am pursuing two majors in what appears to be two very different fields. On the surface, one is a social science while the other has roots in the humanities. However, what many people do not realize is how perfectly these two majors complement each other. In fact, I am surprised the world has not officially declared them sister fields of study and made some sort of interdisciplinary course requirements for both majors.

As I grew up, I was never certain of my future. One day I would be convinced that I should become a counselor, and the next I was planning out my world travels as a professional journalist. There was barely a career aspiration that lasted longer than a month or two, so upon coming to Hope, all I was certain of was that I was uncertain about everything. Nevertheless, when one is taking classes and paying tuition, there tends to be an urgency to find and create a path for themselves. Through personal reflection, I tried to find a common thread behind each of my potential professional interests. What I found is that I love more than anything is trying to understanding people: what people do, and more importantly, why they do it.

With this in mind, I felt the obvious major to pursue was psychology. I get to take classes where I learn the inner workings of the brain, the science of behavior and what defines a person as a unique individual. We learn to understand motivations, likes, dislikes, and quirky traits. However, all this understanding of the human mind still left me feeling unsatisfied. I, therefore, decided to consider a history major because I love stories. As we know by studying works of historical non-fiction, a person’s motivation is nothing without their succeeding actions. In the big picture, what a person chooses to do and how that affects others is essential to understanding the world in which we live. Choices, actions, and consequences all mingle together to create the century-old web we know as history.

A view of Sienna, Italy

This semester I am pursuing an incredible opportunity to study history in Siena, Italy. In my course, The Black Plague we began by learning the facts and numbers: which areas succumbed to the disease first, the death toll, and so on. I like to refer to this information as “Jeopardy Questions.” That is, Quick facts that would likely come up on everyone’s favorite prime-time trivia show. However, as historians, we are called to uncover more. In the course, we have been able to read primary source material, personal journals, and books written during the medieval time. Citizens of the day believed the plague was the end of the world, so once it was over chaos ensued across Europe. There was a power grab and extensive slaughter ensued. Citizens were scared and those who survived saw an opportunity to change their fate. People wanted answers for why this awful disease took so many and affected everyone. Christians blamed Jews, and brother abandoned brother. I was able to research the uncertainty, the conflicts, and the impact. I learned about the choices, the actions, and the consequences. In other words, I used insights from each discipline to develop a more intimate understanding of this tragic event.

“History is written by the victors.” This famous quote by Winston Churchill tends to encapsulate much of our study of the distant past. After all, history is made up of stories, written about people, by people, and for people about the human condition. Psychology and history are two sides of the same coin. On one side, history teaches us how human nature affected the past. We learn details about kings and queens, generals, and the ordinary of all ages who lived in different social/political structures and made an impact on the world. On the other side, psychology teaches us the relationship between the individual and the social, the nature of why people built or followed the paths that they did.

I am happy with my choice to combine psychology and history.  The two fields complement one another and strengthen the learner. I truly feel I am a better historian because I know how to look at the past through the lens of a psychologist.

Student Feature: Avery Lowe

Dr. Fred Johnson and Avery Lowe

Anger and guilt are left at the doorway. Class begins with a prayer, and then for an hour and twenty minutes, my classmates and I listen attentively as Dr. Johnson enlightens us in his 300 level history course- the History of Slavery & Race in America. We are different races, we have different political affiliations, and our religious ties vary, but for that set amount of time, we come together to discuss the history of race and slavery in this nation.

Most of us have been exposed to at least some prior knowledge about the history of slavery. I personally remember learning about the Underground Railroad for the first time in second grade and driving to the Civil War’s many battles in high school. However, the issue of racism and the problems that come with it are not always so open. For many, racism is an uncomfortable topic, better left undiscussed so as not to offend or be misunderstood. But after just a few weeks in this course, I believe quite the opposite. All of us have been impacted by racism in one way or another. Taking the time to study this allows us to better understand ourselves and the history behind this nation.

As a history major I’ve been asked the same prompts over and over: “Was the [insert time period] a period of social progress or regression for the U.S?” What this class has taught me is that it depends on who you’re asking. The U.S was forged from a society that operated under systemic racism. Even our constitution was written to be ambiguous enough to deny rights to certain people. I shouldn’t have to go into great detail to describe America’s racial issues today. They’re prevalent in our society, and we can either look the other way or try to do something about them, and that’s where the importance of history comes in.

We have made a great deal of progress since the first African American slaves were brought to the United States in 1619, but racism still affects our society even today. Racism is a result of willful ignorance and ethnocentrism, and this combination was the beginning of a long road of race relations in our country.  Slavery, the Civil War, Social Darwinism, Jim Crow, eugenics, immigration laws, segregation, deportation- it’s all a part of our nation’s history of slavery & race. It’s imperative we are able to sit down and discuss these topics openly and honestly.

As I’m finishing up my history major, I’ve had a good deal of exposure to different historical periods throughout the world. Having a greater understanding of history, specifically America’s history has allowed me to see the progress we have made as a nation, but it also highlights the issues our country still faces. It is one thing to talk about the past, but our discussions are surprisingly relevant to the present.

I would recommend everyone take this class, regardless of one’s major. It offers invaluable insight into the past and present, allows for incredible introspection, teaches empathy, and for myself, has inspired a desire for great change.  If there is just one person denied the rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” then there is still room for improvement in this country. As British philosopher Thomas Reid once declared, “a chain is only as strong as its weakest link.”

Alumni Feature: How to Answer “What are You Going to Do with That?”

Madalyn Muncy-Piens, Class of 2013, Marketing Specialist for WSM International

If you are a student of history or simply the humanities in general, you get asked the following question A LOT: “So, what are you going to do with that? Teach?”

I’m pretty sure if I had a dollar for every time I was asked that about my studies in English and history, I would be wealthy by the grace of compound interest. I’m sure you would too.

I’m here to tell you that I’m a living, breathing case study of a humanities major who succeeded in heading straight into the corporate world and did not make a stop to graduate school (yet). I have a house and a dog and a retirement account. I’m doing just fine, without a “practical” college degree.

The condescension of that terrible “what-are-you-going-to-do-with-that” question plagued me all through college, and now when I think back, I could have spared myself anxiety over thoughts of myself as a starving artist, or worse — gasp — back working in retail forever if I had met people who had indeed skipped the graduate school route, made a way for themselves in the working world, and also fit my standard of a functioning adult.

So, what will you do with that history major or minor? Or any humanities major or minor for that matter?

You will write well.
Do not underestimate the power of good writing. Seriously. Most of what happens in the work world is now done through the written word. No, it’s not 50-page research papers. It’s email or instant message or blog posts. Being able to clearly communicate is an invaluable skill and you’ll have it.

You will be able to persuade.
Back to writing. I work in marketing so persuading is an important part of my job function. However, it doesn’t matter where you are in the work world, if you can persuade and influence others to take an action, to help you, to not make a terrible business decision, you are winning. Persuasion is part of constructing a thesis, and guess what? Those pesky emails or presentations are thesis statements!

You will be able to speak in front of others.
Maybe I’m biased, but I truly believe that communication is key to success in most jobs. No matter where you work or what job you do, you’ll probably have to speak in a meeting or present a case to your boss. Your training as a historian has included presentations and discussions. Now–thanks to your professors–you can walk in a little more confidently and contribute in a meaningful way.

You will have an understanding of the ramifications of an action.
History majors have amazing critical thinking skills. Critical thinking is scarcer than you realize in the workplace. And you’ll not only use it there, but also, more importantly, in your personal life. You’ll see the big picture while still understanding how everything all fits together. Being able to look to the past for clues and insight regarding the present and future is what historians are trained to do. This skill will help you reflect on your own journey and help you make decisions about where to go next. In that way, I think historians are some of the most resilient people in the world, granted they translate their academic skills to their personal and professional life.

So you may not know all the business jargon or how to write a marketing plan or how to schedule an Outlook meeting. But you’re a liberal art student, so you can learn.

In a world where everything is becoming more interdisciplinary, where everything continues to becoming more connected, we need people who can see beyond the code or beyond the robot. And that’s where you come in. Don’t think that because you aren’t training for a job right now that you can’t or shouldn’t end up working at one. We need the historians in the archive and in the classroom, of course. But we also need them to bring a set of unique perspectives and skills to other professional fields.

If anything, remember that the greatest gift of your liberal arts education is that of being a lifelong learner.  Necessary professional nonsense aside, your ability to ask good questions, to seek truth, to solve problems, and to come to your own conclusions will continue to serve you well. I’m grateful for my education being just that, an education, not training for a job. For that, my life is all the richer, and yours will be too.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.