Out of the Zoo: Holidays Make Us Historians

candy cane lane

The beginning of the Christmas season in my hometown (Kalamazoo) is marked by the appearance of “Candy Cane Lane” in Bronson Park.

Annie Thorn is a sophomore history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she is writing a weekly column titled “Out of the Zoo.”  It focuses on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college.  In this dispatch, Annie writes about the upcoming Christmas season. –JF

It seems as if the Christmas Season is in full swing. While I (shamelessly) started listening to Christmas music and watching Hallmark movies on November first, on the day after Thanksgiving the entire world seems to turn shades of red and green. Michael Bublé comes out of hiding and sings out on radio broadcasts, coffee shops and supermarkets alike play festive tunes for their customers. Netted fir trees strapped atop SUVs become a regular appearance on highways, supplemented by the occasional Amazon or UPS truck packed to the brim with black Friday orders. Every year after Thanksgiving my family ventures into our dusty attic to retrieve our Christmas decorations; we pull out our snowy Disney Princess village, our singing Christmas clock, and our many, many farm-themed ornaments for the tree. 

I traveled back to Messiah on the Sunday after Thanksgiving and was welcomed by a campus decked out for the Christmas season. After a long nine hour drive from Michigan I was greeted by house-mates Chloe and Amy, hard at work assembling a faux Christmas tree in our living room and stringing lights outside. I’m sure first-year dorms are busy at work decorating for Messiah’s annual “Deck the Halls” competition.

The Christmas season is pretty special on a Christian college campus. Once December hits Messiah’s worship teams dust off the Christmas songs in their repertoire and play them at chapel and other services on campus. Murray Library hosts a Christmas tea and crafting event for students each year, serving homemade scones and striped candy canes. Students flock to Lottie-Nelson Dining Hall for Christmas dinner the week before exams to stuff themselves with comfort food and seasonal desserts. Teachers tell students about their Christmas plans and share their favorite holiday traditions.

I love the Christmas season. I adore the lights, the food, all the time with family and friends; but one of my favorite things about Christmas is that it has deep roots in history. The task of the historian is to remember the past and to recreate it in the present; when we celebrate Christmas that’s exactly what we’re doing. As a Christian I believe that Christ’s miraculous birth was a real event that happened about two thousand years ago, a real event from the past that should be brought to life in the present for the world to see. When we sing Christmas songs, set up our nativities or light our advent candles, we do just that; we resurrect Christ’s story and remember that our God is not just the God of heaven, but He’s also God on earth, God with us, Emmanuel.

Christmas isn’t the only holiday with deep roots in history. All holidays have historical beginnings–even if they’re often entangled with myth, distorted by exaggerations, or littered with omissions along the way. Thanksgiving, the Fourth of July, and Easter, for example are all meant, in one way or another, to remember and celebrate an event that happened in the past and shape the meaning it retains in the present. When the holiday season comes around, we are all historians, in a sense. We remember, resurrect, and make meaning out of things that happened. Then, as historians, it is up to us to sort fact from fiction, reality from myth. We examine the events and the meanings that they hold all wrapped up in bows and lights and “Christmas magic.” Instead of getting caught up in all the glamour, we seek out what really happened.

“Out of the Zoo” is Back!

Springhill trailer

Each Springhill day camp team has a trailer they haul from site to site. Inside you’ll find anything from bins of tie-dye shirts, to high adventure equipment, to inflatable water slides.

Annie Thorn is a sophomore history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she is writing a weekly column for us titled “Out of the Zoo.”  It focuses on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college.  Here is Annie’s first dispatch from the 2019-2020 academic year.🙂  –JF

 

After a long nine hour drive east from my hometown in Kalamazoo, Michigan, I’m finally settled in at Messiah College for the upcoming academic year. While I’ll miss the Mitten, I’m excited to be back in the Keystone State for another couple semesters of learning and growth. Before I share what’s on the horizon for me this fall, I thought I’d take this blog post to write a little bit about my adventure this past summer, and how it reminded me of what I’m learning here.

I spent the summer working for Springhill Camps, a half-century old Christian ministry that serves several thousand kids each year. Springhill has two sizeable overnight camp locations in Michigan and Indiana, but the organization also has over ten day camp teams. These teams, based out of West Michigan, Detroit, Chicago, and Ohio, partner with churches primarily around the Midwest to bring the Springhill experience directly to their communities. This past year was my second summer working with one of these day camp teams. I was West Michigan One’s high adventure area director, so I spent ten weeks setting up, inspecting, and tearing down the mobile rock wall we hauled between locations.

Throughout the week at day camp kids participate in a wide variety of adventure activities. Then, after each activity, whether it’s the rock wall or tie-dye or paintball, summer leaders guide their campers through debriefs. During debriefs, campers have three tasks. Their first is to share what they liked about the activity. Secondly, they cite what they didn’t like. Lastly, and most importantly, they find ways to relate the activity back to what they know about God and their relationship with Christ.

Debriefs are my favorite part about Springhill. We tell our counselors that without debriefs, Springhill just wouldn’t be Springhill. It’s true–because while the kids do come to camp to have fun and to try new things, they’re really there to learn what God has done for them, how much he loves them, and how desperately he desires to be in a relationship with them. They’re there to discover that whatever they do, whatever they learn, can be brought back to Jesus.

The best thing, in my opinion, about studying history here at Messiah College is that our instructors also find ways to relate everything we learn back to our relationship with Christ. Our professors here don’t just teach us history for its own sake, but rather they show us how reconstructing the past can relate to our faith. Studying history provides opportunities to practice empathy and compassion, and encourages us to turn our attention to all human beings–not just the ones we agree with or understand. It reveals the presence of sin in the world and the reality of its consequences. It also forces us to humble ourselves and accept the fact that no matter how much we know, there still might be something about the past only God can fully comprehend.

I could go on further, but you probably get the picture. Messiah’s history department does an excellent job of training young historians. If my school failed to show me how to do research or teach a history class, I would have transferred a long time ago. What’s more important to me, though, is that our professors ensure our education remains centered on Christ. Because while we may receive knowledge, a degree, or a fun college experience here at Messiah, we’re really here to bring everything we do, everything we learn, back to Jesus.

Day 1 of “Age of Hamilton” or Fea Enters His “Absent-Minded Professor” Phase

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Frey Hall, Messiah College

Yesterday was the first day of my “Age of Hamilton” course at Messiah College.  I have nineteen students enrolled in this 300-level history course.  History majors get credit toward their major, but about half of the students are non-majors taking this course as a free elective because they are obsessed in one way or another with the Broadway musical and its cast album.  I also had one student who knew nothing about the “Hamilton” phenomenon sweeping the United States.  He decided to take the course because he liked some of the Hamilton songs I played last Spring when he was a student in my U.S. History survey course.

I have spent about nine months thinking about and preparing for this course.  I thought I was ready.  Yesterday morning I  woke-up, did some reading, went for a walk with the dog, wrote a blog post, ate breakfast, stopped at Turkey Hill for my coffee (McDonald’s is closed for renovations), and headed off to campus.  Joy, my wife, sent me a text that read: “Good luck on your first day of teaching.  Glad you are going to take your shot!”  My daughter, a college freshman who I have been torturing with Hamilton songs for the last nine months, texted from Grand Rapids to wish me luck.

I got to campus at around 10:00am–plenty of time to collect my thoughts in preparation for the 12:00pm start time.  But I had left out one small mental detail: the course was actually SCHEDULED FOR 11:00AM!!

So there I was at 11:15, sitting in my office goofing around online and drinking a cup of coffee when my department chairperson walked in.  “John,” he said, “I just got a call from a student.  You apparently have a class waiting for you in Frey Hall 241.”  I was so convinced that the class started at noon that I argued with him.  “That can’t be my Hamilton class,” I said, “it doesn’t start for another forty-five minutes.”  I looked at the syllabus, which was sitting in front of me on my desk.  It said that class started a noon.  It did not occur to me that I had put the wrong time on the syllabus.

Finally reality set in and I realized, embarrassingly, that my department chair and students were right about the start time and I was wrong.  I jumped-up and ran across campus to Frey 241.  It was a humid day in central Pennsylvania so by the time I arrived I was sweating-up a storm.  When I walked into the classroom I yelled “I AM HERE!”  The class started clapping and cheering.  They were just as eager as I was to start engaging with Hamilton and Hamilton.

I guess this means that we are off to a good start.  It also means that I may have entered the absent-minded professor phase of my career.  🙂

Here Comes the New Semester!

Class start today at Messiah College.  This semester I will be teaching the United States Survey to 1865 and an upper-level history course on the Age of Hamilton.  Stay tuned…

The new students arrived over the weekend and we are ready to go!

Move-In Week 2019 from Kai Yuen Leong on Vimeo.

Support the Humanities at Messiah College

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The humanities are alive and well at Messiah College, but we need your help to continue  our programs moving forward.  Please consider contributing to our ongoing work, especially as it relates to student research in the humanities and efforts to engage our region with humanistic learning and programs.

In the fall I will be entering my eighteenth year on the history faculty of Messiah College and I am grateful for the college’s commitment to the study of history, philosophy, literature, modern and ancient languages, religion, political philosophy, peace and conflict, and rhetoric during a time when these disciplines and ways of thinking about the world are in jeopardy at colleges and universities across the country.  I am also proud of our work in the region through our Center for Public Humanities, Digital Harrisburg Initiative, and Public Humanities Fellows Program.

As I have argued multiple times here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home and elsewhere, the humanities are absolutely essential to future of American democracy and the common good.  I am thankful to work and teach at a place where my colleagues and administration are on board with this mission.

I hope you will consider helping us strengthen the humanities at Messiah College by making a donation at our crowdfunding page.

Below is a letter that Peter Powers, Dean of the School of Humanities, recently sent to Messiah humanities alums.  It is a nice summary of some of our humanities-based programs.

One of my great pleasures as Dean is seeing humanities students in this school help us understand the world, and also change the world for the better.  One big way they accomplish that is through undergraduate research that contributes to the public good through community engagement.  I’d like to invite you to partner with us in continuing our work for the common good through the work of our undergraduate scholars.

Two programs of which I’m especially proud are our Public Humanities Fellows and our Digital Harrisburg Initiative.  Students in these programs work collaboratively with faculty and with community partners to deepen their understanding of their disciplines and to directly contribute to educational and cultural needs of the Harrisburg region.  Whether helping school students to research and write poetry about their neighborhoods, or collaborating with community members to map the stories of their Harrisburg ancestors, these programs help us deepen our civic engagement as our understanding of one another.

Together these programs exemplify undergraduate humanities research for the public good, a fact recognized by the Council of Independent Colleges when they recently awarded Messiah College a grant to collaborate with multiple public and private partners in remembering and celebrating the history of an important African American neighborhood in Harrisburg from the early 20th century. Such partnerships exemplify the best of what it means for us as Messiah College to be a Christian institution of higher education that is working for the common good with our community neighbors.

This work requires steady commitment of time, energy, and talent.  I invite you to partner with us in this commitment.  You could do this in several ways.  First, pray for us, as you have the opportunity.  Second, consider supporting this work by donating to this project.  Every donation will help us meet our goal of raising ten thousand dollars. Every dollar will go directly to supporting undergraduate research in the humanities, with a priority given to the Public Humanities and the Digital Harrisburg initiative.  Finally, help us out by sharing this project with other people in your social and personal networks, letting them know we would value their support.  To learn more or donate – check-out our crowdfunding page! Visit: https://crowdshark.webapps.messiah.edu/humanitiesresearch/donate/115

With gratitude for your support,

 Pete Powers

Dean, School of the Humanities

Congratulations Devon Hearn!

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Devon Hearn (L) and Sarah Wilson pose with the Clio Award plaque.

Many regular readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home blog know Devon Hearn.  She served two years as our intern here at the blog and worked with me as a research assistant covering all kinds of assignments.  Her research help on Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump was indispensable.  She also carried a lot of the load in helping me put together the program for the 2018 meeting of the Conference on Faith and History.  And that is only the beginning!

I am happy to report that last night Devon was honored as a co-winner of the Messiah College History Department’s “Clio Award.”  The award is given annually to the most outstanding Messiah College history student.  Devon shared the award with another amazing student (and fellow Morris County, New Jerseyan) Sarah Wilson.

And there is even better news!  Devon just accepted a history/social studies history position in a Maryland school district.

Devon’s future is bright!  She will always be a valued member of The Way of Improvement Leads Home family!

Clio Plaque

Out of the Zoo: “My Year with the Messiah College History Department”

Bernardo Cricket

Annie Thorn is a first-year history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she is writing a weekly column for us titled “Out of the Zoo.”  It will focus on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college.  Just to be clear, I did not give her a pay raise to write this particular column.  🙂  –JF

I vividly remember the first time I sat in Professor Fea’s office. I was a junior in high school, visiting Messiah College for the first time with my mom and sister. Messiah was first of the several college tours my mom had scheduled for our Spring Break trip through Pennsylvania, New York, and Massachusetts. My mom nudged me as soon as we walked through his office door in Boyer Hall and pointed out the large bookcase bracing one of the walls. I remember her asking me playfully if I thought he’d read all of them. What wall space wasn’t guarded by the massive bookcase was plastered with pictures and portraits of various kinds. I noticed the historical bobble-heads sitting in his windowsill as the four of us sat at a circular table a few feet away from his desk.

In previous meetings with professors at other schools I had been nervous, my mom’s reminders to make good eye contact and make sure you ask questions bouncing around in my head–but talking to Professor Fea was easy. We talked about my interests, hopes, and concerns about college, as well as what other schools I was considering. After explaining the basics of Messiah’s history program, Professor Fea gave me a convincing but honest spiel about what Messiah has to offer, in comparison with schools like Calvin College back in Michigan, and Gordon College in Massachusetts, where I was set to tour later that trip.

I spoke to Professor Fea several months later when he interviewed me over the phone for Messiah’s humanities scholars program for the 2018/2019 school year. I was astonished when he not only remembered who I was, but asked how my mom and sister were doing before we started the formal interview. While it took me a month or two after that to make my college decision official, from that day forward I knew that Messiah’s history department was something that I wanted to be a part of.

If I’m perfectly honest, moving nine hours from home to Messiah for school has been one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. It was not easy for me to move so far away from the little village in Southwest Michigan that raised me for the first eighteen years of my life. But I’m not exaggerating in the slightest when I say that Messiah’s history department has given me a second family while I’m away from home. In just one year here I’ve been able to witness all the time and energy Messiah history professors spend generously on their students. They talk with us before and after class; their offices are frequently open for anyone who needs advice, a listening ear, or a piece of candy. They learn our names and remember them. They encourage us, challenge us, and come alongside us as we seek to understand the past a little better. They attend picnics, dinners, and movie nights the history club organizes for a little fun and community bonding–at last fall’s picnic Professor Michael tried to teach us cricket. Last December they even let us sing Christmas carols at their houses.

Now, just a little more than two years since our first interaction, I sit in Professor Fea’s office once a week for this job. Our meetings usually aren’t too long, every Monday at three o’clock he asks how I’m doing, we talk about the blog and he gives me a new research task if I’ve finished my old one. As I pause and reflect on this past year, it’s a little hard to put into words just how grateful I am for this department and this job. I can say, though, that I cannot wait to see what these next three years will bring.

A Saturday Morning in Gettysburg

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We got to hang our with Abe! 

It is a beautiful today in south-central Pennsylvania–a perfect day to spend some time on the Gettysburg battlefield.  This morning we took ten students from my Pennsylvania history class to Gettysburg.  We have been reading Jim Weeks’s book Gettysburg: Memory, Market, and an American Shrine and exploring the way the battlefield has evolved since July 4, 1863.  I have given a lot tours of Gettysburg focused on military history, but until today I had never done a Gettysburg “memory” tour.

We have been focusing on how Gettysburg became a shrine of American civil religion–a destination for patriotic pilgrims.  We arrived at 7:30am for “devotions” at the Gettysburg National Cemetery.  I read Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and stressed the religious nature of the speech.  We talked about what Lincoln meant by the use of words such as “consecrate,” “hallow,” “devotion,”  and “new birth.”  We discussed the blood sacrifice necessary to the consecration of such sacred ground.  And, since I teach at a Christian college, we talked about the difference between civil religion and Christian faith.

After our devotion in civil religion we headed to the Visitor Center.  Most of the students ended up in the bookstore.  Some of them bought souvenirs to remember their pilgrimage to this sacred site of American nationalism.  Others noted the way this sacred site is connected with the marketplace.  We even got our pictures taken with Lincoln, the great prophet of U.S. civil religion.

We spent the rest of the tour on these topics: race and the 1913 and 1938 reunions of Gettysburg veterans, with an assist from David Blight (at the Eternal Light Peace Memorial); the meaning of the Robert E. Lee statue (on Confederate Avenue); the Eisenhower Farm and Gettysburg as a Cold War site; the tension between battlefield authenticity and environmental concerns; the influence of popular culture (Jeff Schaara and Ted Turner) on the battlefield (at the monument to the 20th Maine on Little Round Top); and the role of Daniel Sickles in promoting the bill that brought the battlefield under control of the U.S. War Department.

Here are some pics:

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Students at the Lincoln Gettysburg Address memorial after “devotions” at the Gettysburg National Cemetery

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The “Ike” section of the Gettysburg Visitor Center store

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Anyone want to be buy me a Christmas present?  🙂

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Speaking of Abe… (photo by Joy Fea)

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Messiah College Pennsylvania History students at the Pennsylvania monument (Photo by Joy Fea)

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The “loyal women” of HIST 345: Pennsylvania History

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I was an official Gettysburg tour guide for the day!

“Don’t find yourself, find your vocation”

Fuller with Towel

History major Jonathan Fuller holding his towel

When Messiah College students cross the platform during their graduation ceremony they receive a small white towel.  The towel symbolizes service.  As Jesus washed the feet of the disciples, so we hope our graduates will think about their lives in terms of service to others.  I thought about this Messiah College tradition when I read Tom Perrin’s excellent New York Times op-ed, “One Way to Make College Meaningful.”  I especially like the subtitle: “Don’t find yourself; find a vocation.”

Here is a taste of his piece:

Why vocation, though, rather than the old model of learning for learning’s sake? Why not, as the religious studies professor Ron Srigley has recently argued, return to the old, “beautiful goal” of the university, “to discover and then to tell the truth,” disentangled from the mercenary arms of the offices of careers and student life? My answer would be that universities have always been hybrid creatures, serving many masters at once: social norms, the market, churches and the exacting standards of disciplinary research, to name four. But the fantasy of the university as a disinterested sphere of pure knowledge is just that. This is not so much to attack the liberal arts as it is to point out that to link them purposefully with life and career goals is not at all to alter the way they have long functioned.

Read the entire piece here.

Introducing a New Column: “Out of the Zoo”

annieA few weeks ago we introduced Annie Thorn, a first-year history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our new intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she will be writing a weekly column for us titled “Out of the Zoo.”  It will focus on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college.  Enjoy! –JF

This past fall semester, I joined my fellow Messiah College first-year students (mostly history majors) in a once-weekly night class that introduced us to the discipline of history. The assigned text for the class (Why Study History? by TWOILH’s own Professor Fea) argued that history is the act of reconstructing the past. We learned that as history students–and future historians–we are not responsible for procuring a long list of names and dates to commit to memory, but rather for putting flesh on the bones of the men and women who held those names and lived at those times, bringing the past to life for others to see.

I soon realized, after being introduced to this idea, that I had already been in the business of making history come alive for over a decade. No, I didn’t start reading Civil War soldiers’ diaries at the age of seven, or rifle through important documents at an archive for a fourth grade social studies project, but I did use what meager supply of knowledge I already possessed and combined it with my imagination to craft a picture of what the past might’ve been like. Spurred on by something I learned from an American Girl book, a local museum, or a PBS television show, I found joy through inserting myself into the past–it came alive to me.

I can’t quite explain why I so often entertained myself as a child by imagining what it would’ve been like growing up in 18th century Massachusetts or 14th century England rather than 21st century Michigan, but I think it has something to do with Adventures in Odyssey. My sister and I listened to cassette tapes of Adventures in Odyssey–a Focus on the Family radio show about a Soda Shop owner and inventor Mr. Whittaker–every night before going to sleep. In the show, Mr. Whittaker’s prized invention was a machine called “The Imagination Station” that could transport kids back in time and teach them about anything they could imagine–anything from the story of Moses to the Lewis and Clark expedition to the American Revolution. The Imagination Station made the past real to anyone who stepped inside. I didn’t have a machine, but I used what I did have to make the past as real to me as I could.

Now historians cannot simply replace facts with imagination–we can’t just make up what we don’t know when doing our research, even if it would be much easier that way. When studying history, it’s dangerous to make inferences based off of our own desires or experiences, rather than filling in gaps of the narrative we are constructing with historical context. If we fall into this habit, our imagination can get out of control and we risk resurrecting something akin to Frankenstein’s creature rather than an accurate depiction of the past. In moderation, though, I do think imagination remains an important tool for historians–when we use our imagination, informed by our knowledge, to walk around in the shoes of the men and women we study, the past truly comes alive.

Gina Barreca on the Importance of the Liberal Arts

Boyer Hall

What’s an education for?

University of Connecticut English professor Gina Barreca answers in her recent op-ed:

An education is about learning things you don’t know. Just as we need to try foods we’ve never eaten before, we need to approach unfamiliar subjects. Life’s menu can be innovative, varied and delightful, but without outside influences, it can too often be limited, boring and unappetizing.

Curiosity, like originality and delight, has to be nurtured. But if we keep emphasizing the notion of familiarity and security at the expense of new and potentially challenging experience, then we’ll be stuck with the intellectual equivalent of a 1968 Swanson’s T.V. Dinner.

Authentic education demands that students learn, and not merely that they are taught. It’s not about simply offering access to information or data. What happens in classrooms is not the same as what happens at UPS: it is not like transferring an unexamined parcel of information from one person to another. It must include, as all reputable teachers know, instructing students in academic discipline and personal responsibility.

This is one reason that students should be required to take classes from outside their area of specialization. Their futures are under construction. While they may have blueprints in place, perhaps handed down through their families or fantasies from glittering daydreams, there are many architectural models from which to choose. That way they won’t end up with the academic equivalent of a five-story one-bedroom apartment with no kitchen and a bathroom on the roof.

Read the entire piece here.

I appreciate Barreca’s point about students taking courses outside of their area of specialization.  At Messiah College, students are required to take a 100-level history course (a United States history survey course or a Western Civilization survey course) to fulfill their general education requirement in History.  But there are also other opportunities in the curriculum to take a history course.  A student can take World History to fulfill their Non-Western Cultures requirement.  Or they can take Native American History, African American History, the Historical Study of Peace, Immigrant America, Urban History, Women’s History, or Pennsylvania History  to fulfill their Pluralism requirement.  They can also take a history course to fulfill their Social Science requirement.  So, if I got this right, it is possible for a Messiah College business or nursing major to take four history courses to fulfill general education coursework.

But every now and then we have students who take history courses purely out of intellectual curiosity.  This semester in my colonial America course I have two students–an accounting major and a sustainability studies major–who are not required to take the course, but just find the subject interesting.  I applaud them and regularly tell them how much I appreciate them, but students like these are becoming increasingly rare in this age of specialization.

My Colonial America Course Hits Philadelphia

On Saturday I took some of the students in my Colonial America course at Messiah College on a field trip to colonial Philadelphia.  (I am taking the rest of the class this coming Saturday).

Here are some pics:

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Starting the day off at Welcome Park.  A great place to get students oriented to the colonial city.

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Group picture outside of Christ Church

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After we learned about Christ Church from a docent, I tried to say something intelligent about the Georgian architecture and its connection to Philadelphia’s 18th-century provincial identity

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Not a very “colonial” stop, but how could I not take the students to see the First Bank of the United States?  (And the Museum of the American Revolution across the street!)

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Carpenter’s Hall!

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And kudos to Joy Fea, our photographer on the trip!

WHAT????? Darryl Hart Actually Likes Something I Wrote

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Messiah College has a covered bridge on campus

Over the last couple of years I have been a regular target of Darryl Hart, professor of history at Hillsdale College in Michigan.  Read all his posts about my work here.

So needless to say,  I was surprised to see that Hart, a Front Porcher, actually liked my recent piece on small towns.  Read his take here.

Some quick thoughts on Hart’s take on my piece:

  1.  Hart includes a picture of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer with his post.  My Italian immigrant grandfather (died a few years ago at the 103) was a Teamster who drove a delivery truck for PBR.  I once won him a PBR glass on a wheel of chance on the Seaside Heights boardwalk.
  2. I had no idea Hart was a student at Messiah College back in the day.
  3. I am from the East Coast, but I am not, nor have I ever been, one of the “coastal elites.”  (See the grandfather and Seaside Heights reference above).

If You Get a Chance to Live in a Small Town, Take It

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Seconds before the lights went out–literally and figuratively–at the Northside “Cage”

I was recently at a conference where I overheard a couple of history graduate students from an Ivy League university complaining about the job market.  This, of course, is pretty commonplace among history graduate students.  The market for tenure-track jobs in the field of history is terrible.

Yet these graduate students were not complaining about the small number of jobs available.  There was a sense of confidence in their speech as they talked about their prestigious advisers and the quality of the graduate programs where they earned their Ph.Ds.  They did not seem overly worried about landing a job.  Rather, their complaints focused more on the fact that so many jobs were located in rural communities in so-called “Red States” where they did not want to live.  Their conversation was infused with the kind of cosmopolitan snobbishness that I often hear in academic circles.  As I listened to them talk, I thought that maybe all those Trump voters and Fox News watchers are correct about the “coastal elites.”

As many readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home know, I have invested nearly my entire career at a small church-related college in south central Pennsylvania.  I chose to work here.  In 2002, I had job offers from a research university, several regional state universities, and a couple of really good liberal arts colleges.  (The job market was obviously much better in 2002!).  I chose Messiah College because I believed in its mission. I still do.  Messiah is not a utopia, but it is certainly a place where I have been able to grow as a scholar and teacher with a supportive administration.  It is also an institution that has been supportive of my wife’s vocation.  We generally like it here.

Messiah is located in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania.  Mechanicsburg is not a very cosmopolitan place.  Many of my neighbors have lived in the town for multiple generations.  Some young people get out of town after graduation and never come back, but many never leave.  We have all the usual problems associated with small towns.  Race-relations could be better.  Drug deals go down in the convenience store parking lots.  The wealthy members of our town cloister in their gated communities.  But this is where we decided to raise our family.

When we arrived in Mechanicsburg our daughters–Allyson and Caroline– were ages four and one.  They attended kindergarten through high school in Mechanicsburg Area School District.  We chose to live in the Mechanicsburg School District as opposed to the larger regional Cumberland Valley School District (with more opportunities) because we wanted a smaller, more intimate community for our kids.  Both of them have thrived in this district and we have never regretted our choice.

Some folks in town who know me may think it is odd that I am writing about the sense of community I feel in Mechanicsburg.  As an introvert, I tend to keep to myself.  I would rather watch my kids play sports seated alone than join a crowd of cheering fans.  I am not very good at small talk.  I coached my girls in basketball when they were in elementary school, but I got disgusted with the politics, the ambitious parents, and the way many of those parents treated the selfless staff of our town’s recreation department, so I stopped.  I have not participated as much in the local life of my community largely because of the time I spend investing in the life of Messiah College.  But I have tried to serve when asked.  I could do better.

I thought about my relationship with this community again as I sat in the cold last night and watched the Mechanicsburg Girls Soccer team play their final home game of the season.  It was the second round of the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association’s District 3 playoffs.  The girls won 4-0 over a team from Berks County and advanced to the District semifinals on Monday night at Hershey Park Stadium.  They are now 20-0 and ranked 21st in the nation.  A great story is developing here in small-town Mechanicsburg.  My daughter Caroline plays a minimum number of minutes each game, but she has been an intricate part of a team that is making local history.  She has been playing soccer with many of the seniors on this team since she was eight-years-old.  Some of these girls are her best friends.  Mechanicsburg is Caroline’s community.  This place has shaped her life in so many good ways.

Caroline had mixed emotions last night.  Her team will play again next week and, if things go well, will try to make a run in the state tournament.  Yet the sadness of playing her last game on her home field with her friends was palpable as she walked across the field to meet us.  Her tears were a mixture of joy for the blessing of an undefeated season (so far) and sadness that it was all nearing an end.  I fought them back as well.

Small towns are good things.  If you get a chance to live in one, take it.

Reflections on the 2018 Biennial Meeting of the Conference on Faith and History

The 2018 Biennial Meeting of the Conference on Faith and History is over.  As program chair, I spent most of the weekend pinch-hitting for folks who were unable to come and making sure our plenary speakers were comfortable.  This is what program chairs do.  If I passed you in the hallway at the Prince Conference Center at Calvin College and did not stop to chat please forgive me.  I hope we can catch-up soon.

I wanted to blog a lot more than I did this weekend.  I got off to a good start on Thursday night, but then fell silent.  If you want to learn all the cool things that happened this weekend check out the conference Twitter feed: #cfh2018.  I am sure Chris Gehrz will eventually have a wrap-up post at The Pietist Schoolman.

Here are some of my highlights:

On Friday morning I chaired Session 12: “Christian Historiography: Kuyper, Ellul and O’Donovan.”  As I listened to Richard Riss’s excellent paper on Jacques Ellul, I realized that I should have read more of this French philosopher as I prepared to write Believe Me.

On Friday afternoon, I spent some time with Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn of Syracuse University.  Elisabeth’s plenary address, “The Art of Living, Ancient and Modern,” challenged us to consider the third-century Neoplatonist philosopher Plotinus as a way of countering the therapeutic culture of modern life.  Lasch-Quinn pushed us to move beyond the pursuit of the “good life” and consider what it might mean to live a “beautiful life.”

Lasch Quinn

Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn delivers here Friday afternoon keynote address

Following Lasch -Quinn’s lecture and before the evening banquet, I got to spend time with my favorite Calvin College history major

Ally at CFH

Beth Allison Barr of Baylor University is the new president of the Conference on Faith and History and the organization’s second female president.   Her presidential plenary drew heavily on medieval sermons on the roles of women in the Church as a way of thinking about the place of women in the today’s church and the Conference on Faith and History.  She encouraged the conference to respect the past and move toward the future by listening to the voices of the record number of women in attendance.

Barr

Beth Allison Barr delivering her 2018 presidential address

On Friday evening, I got together with some old friends at a Grand Rapids funeral home that has been converted into a bar and grill.  As you see from the photo below, much of the stained glass from the funeral home chapel was preserved.

Bar

With Eric Miller (Geneva College), Jay Green (Covenant College), and Jon Boyd (InterVarsity Press)

Saturday began with a panel on Messiah College’s Civil Rights bus tour.  It was a great session and it made me proud to be part of Messiah’s work in the area of racial reconciliation.  It was also a privilege to chair a session with three of my Messiah colleagues.  Next time I won’t put them at 8:00am. (Sorry guys!)

After the Civil Rights session I had coffee with our latest sponsor of The Way of Improvement Leads Home PodcastBob Beatty of the Lyndhurst Group.  If you are a community leader, a historical site administrator, or a museum professional, the Lyndhurst Group can help you with your public history outreach.  Bob is a great guy with lot’s of energy, enthusiasm, expertise, and experience. We are so happy that he is sponsoring the podcast.

After the CFH board meeting, I dropped in on Robert Orsi‘s plenary address, “The Study of Religion on the Other Side of Disgust.”  Orsi argued that scholars of religion must learn to pay attention to the relationship between religion and “horrors” such as pogroms, crusades, slavery, racism, misogny, and other “brutalities of everyday life.”  He suggested that “there may come a time when the human being who is also a scholar of religion reaches a limit of disgust.”  Beyond this limit, Orsi argued, “distinctions, qualifications, countervailing evidence, parsings, and other theoretical or hermeneutical subtleties fail.”  Orsi spent most of his time reflecting on “disgust” as a category of analysis in the context of the Catholic sexual abuse scandals.  It was a tough session to sit through, but many felt it was necessary.

Orsi at Calvin

Late Saturday afternoon I chaired a session that may have been one of the best CFH panels I have ever attended.  Session 53, titled “Theology and Spirituality in the Doing of History,” included three magnificent papers on the place of love and Christian spirituality in the doing of history.  Wendy Wong Schirmer, a newcomer to the CFH, argued that Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclicals on love can help us think Christianly about the historian’s craft.  Brad Pardue of College of the Ozarks talked about how he integrates Christian practices into his history courses.  Mark Sandle of The King’s University (Alberta) delivered a powerful paper on loving the dead in the context of the archives. I hope all three of these papers will be published in Fides et Historia, the journal of the Conference on Faith and History.

It is not easy putting a 56-session conference together, but I couldn’t have done it without the help of Joel Carpenter, Ellen Hekman, Jay Green, Eric Miller, Devon Hearn, and Robin Schwarzmann.  Thank you.  I am now going to take a nap.

Bancroft Prize-Winning Historian Nancy Tomes is Coming to Messiah College Next Week!

Tomes Poster

If you are in the area on Thursday evening, September 27, join us for the 2018 Messiah College American Democracy Lecture.  This year’s lecturer is Nancy Tomes of the State University of New York at Stony Brook.  In 2017, Tomes was awarded the Bancroft Prize in American History for her book Remaking the American Patient: How Madison Avenue and Modern Medicine Turned Patients Into Consumers.  Tomes’s American Democracy Lecture is titled “Doctor Shoppers: From Problem Patients to Model Citizens.”  The lecture will take place at 7:00pm in the Calvin and Janet High Center for Worship and Performing Arts, Parmer Hall on the campus of Messiah College.  Free tickets are required.  To reserve tickets call 717-691-6036 or reserve tickets online at messiah.edu/tickets.

If you want a taste of what you might expect at the lecture, listen to our interview with Tomes in Episode 22 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.

If you are a health-care professional or someone who is interested in our current health care debates, this lecture is for you.  I will see you there.

A Different Kind of August

Office

On Saturday I cleaned the office.  It looks much better now than in this photo

I returned to the office today.  The summer seemed longer than usual.  This is probably because Messiah College starts classes a week later this year.  (The first day of class is next Tuesday).  It also seems longer because I am no longer chair of the Messiah College History Department.  Some of you may recall that I wrote a bit about this back in February.

For the last eight years, August was filled with anxiety and stress about the start of the new year.  Was I fair in the distribution of new advisees to the faculty?  Will everything go well with the opening ice-cream social and the department picnic?  What kind of new administrative paperwork will emerge after our first big department meeting?  And the list goes on.

When I posted about leaving the department chair back in February I wrote:

I am not sure what role I will play going forward at Messiah College.  At small colleges like Messiah, administration is really the only way to advance one’s career within the institution.  So I will return to life as an ordinary faculty member.  I will be in the classroom a bit more and will have more time for thinking about my teaching and writing.   We will see how it goes.

This year I plan to teach and serve the department and Messiah College the best I can.  I  will also be on the road a lot.  I hope to continue to say something to the larger culture and Christian community about evangelicals and Donald Trump.  I also hope to enjoy my daughter Caroline’s senior year before Joy and I head-off into the empty-nester stage of life.  In the Fall, I will be watching a lot of Calvin College volleyball.  And, at 52-years-old, I want to take stock of what the last pre-retirement chapter of my life might look like.

But right now, I need to finish a syllabus for “Colonial America” and my U.S. Survey to 1865 course.