From the Archives: Messiah College History Department in *The American Scholar*

9e36b-boyerThis post originally ran at The Way of Improvement Leads Home on December 14, 2014–JF

Anthony Grafton (Princeton University) and James Grossman (American Historical Association), the authors of the “No More Plan B” proposal that challenged graduate programs in history to think about training Ph.D students for careers outside of the academy, have now turned to the pages of the prestigious American Scholar to extol the value of undergraduate historical research.

I think I will just let them explain. But before I do, I am proud to say that Grafton and Grossman use the Messiah College History Department as an example of a department in which students are engaged in extensive student research.  We are indeed a department that uses the study of the past to help students build “a self and a soul and a mind” that they can take with them wherever they go.

Here is a taste of their article, “Habits of the Mind“:

Students of history learn how to do research in institutions of many kinds…Go, for example, to the webpage of the history department at Messiah College, near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and you’ll read about students doing every kind of research you can imagine, from working with a museum professional to excavate and restore a historic cemetery, to pursuing the family histories of African Americans in the documents at the Schomburg Center of the New York Public Library, to developing a digital archive on the history of Harrisburg. Go to the webpage of the history department at the University of California, Berkeley and you’ll find a student-edited journal, Clio’s Scroll, showcasing detailed and imaginative historical research—often drawn from senior theses—on subjects such as drama, landscape, and political thought.

Why do we teach these students—fresh, bright young undergraduates—to do research? Why take people who are forming themselves, who should be thinking about life, death, and the universe, and send them off to an archive full of dusty documents and ask them to tell us something new about the impact of the Civil War in a country town in Pennsylvania or Virginia, or the formation of Anglo-Norman kingship, or the situation of slaves in the Old South?

The answer is so simple that we sometimes forget to give it, but it matters. We teach students to do research because it’s one powerful way to teach them to understand and appreciate the past on its own terms, while at the same time finding meaning in the past that is rooted in the student’s own intellect and perspective. Classrooms and assigned readings are necessary to provide context: everyone needs to have an outline in mind, if only to have something to take apart; and everyone needs to know how to create those outlines and query them constructively. Reading monographs and articles is vital, too. To get past the big, generalized stories, you have to see how professional scholars have formed arguments, debated one another, and refined theories in light of the evidence.

But the most direct and powerful way to grasp the value of historical thinking is through engagement with the archive—or its equivalent in an era when oral history and documentary photography can create new sources, and digital databases can make them available to anyone with a computer. The nature of archives varies as widely as the world itself. They can be collections of documents or data sets, maps or charts, books with marginal notes scrawled in them that let you look over the shoulders of dead readers, or a diary that lets you look over the shoulder of a dead midwife. What matters is that the student develops a question and then identifies the particular archive, the set of sources, where it can be answered.

Why do this? Partly because it’s the only way for a student to get past being a passive consumer and critic and to become a creator, someone who reads other historians in the light of having tried to do what they do. Partly because it’s the way that historians help students master skills that are not specific to history. When students do research, they learn to think through problems, weigh evidence, construct arguments, and then criticize those arguments and strip them down and make them better—and finally to write them up in cogent, forceful prose, using the evidence deftly and economically to make their arguments and push them home.

The best defense for research, however, is that it’s in the archive where one forms a scholarly self—a self that, when all goes well, is intolerant of weak arguments and loose citation and all other forms of shoddy craftsmanship; a self that doesn’t accept a thesis without asking what assumptions and evidence it rests on; a self that doesn’t have a lot of patience with simpleminded formulas and knows an observation from an opinion and an opinion from an argument.

This self, moreover, is the student’s own construction. Supervision matters: people new to historical work need advice in framing questions, finding sources, and shaping arguments. In the end, though, historical research is always, and should always be, a bungee jump, a leap into space that hasn’t been mapped or measured. The faculty supervisor straps on the harness and sees to the rope. But the student takes the risk and reaps the rewards. This isn’t just student-centered learning, in which the student’s interests are put first; it’s student defined and student executed, the work of a self-reliant, observant, and creative person.

A self like this can seem unworldly, especially if the “real world” resembles a political culture that dismisses complexity and context as “academic.” But in a deeper sense, this is a worldly education, in the traditional way that humanistic education has always embodied. A good humanities education combines training in complex analysis with clear communication skills. Someone who becomes a historian becomes a scholar—not in the sense of choosing a profession, but in the broader meaning of developing the scholarly habits of mind that value evidence, logic, and reflection over ideology, emotion, and reflex. A student of history learns that empathy, rather than sympathy, stands at the heart of understanding not only the past but also the complex present.

That is because in the archive the historian has the opportunity and the obligation to listen. A good historian enters the archive not to prove a hypothesis, not to gather evidence to support a position that assumptions and theories have already formed. But to answer a question. It’s an amazing experience to see and talk with and learn from the dead. As Machiavelli said so well, you ask them questions about what they did and why, and in their humanity, they answer you, and you learn what you can’t learn any other way.

History has many mansions nowadays. Historians work on every period of human history, every continent, and every imaginable form of human life. But they all listen to the dead (and yes, in some cases, the living as well): that’s the common thread that connects every part of history’s elaborate tapestry of methods. All historians muster the best evidence they can to answer their questions. They offer respect and admiration to those who show the greatest ingenuity in raising new questions, bringing new characters onto the stage of history, and finding new evidence with which to do so.

As for talking with people who don’t work in universities—a student who writes a good history paper has learned how to communicate knowledge to anyone. History has been a form of narrative art, as well as of inquiry into the past, since the first millennium BCE, when Jewish and Greek and Chinese writers began to produce it. That’s why Herodotus could read his history of the Persian Wars aloud at the Olympic Games—a performance for which he received the large sum of 10 talents. Historians care about clear speech and vigorous prose, and believe that even complex and technical forms of inquiry into the past can be conveyed in accessible and attractive language. Accordingly, we don’t separate research from writing. Just ask the students whose papers and chapters we send back, adorned with marginalia in blue pen or the colors of Track Changes.

When a student does research in this way—when she attacks a problem that matters to her by identifying and mastering the sources, posing a big question, and answering it in a clear and cogent way, in the company of a trained professional to whom she and her work matter—she’s not becoming a pedant or a producer of useless knowledge. She’s doing what students of the humanities have always done: building a self and a soul and a mind that she can take with her wherever she goes, and that will make her an independent, analytical thinker and a reflective, self-critical person. Isn’t that what we’re supposed to be doing?

Undergraduate Liberal Arts Conference: The Examined Life

If you are an undergraduate student in the humanities or a teacher of undergraduates in the humanities, I want to call your attention again to this conference at St. Francis University in Loretto, Pennsylvania.  This is a great conference for undergraduates to present their work.  I have had a few students give papers and presentations here in the past and they can all attest to a positive experience in an undergraduate-friendly environment.
To learn more about The Examined Life conference click here.  Deadline for proposals is February 19, 2015.

The Examined Life: An Undergraduate Conference on the Liberal Arts

Are your students look for an opportunity to share their research?  I recommend that they submit a proposal to “The Examined Life: An Undergraduate Conference in the Liberal Arts.” The conference will be held March 18-19, 2016 at St. Francis University in Loretto, Pennsylvania. 

I have heard a few good things about the keynote speaker.


 My friend Art Remillard has posted a call for papers:


We cordially invite undergraduates to submit proposals on topics related to the Liberal Arts—disciplines (and interdisciplinary programs) associated with the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences. We encourage traditional paper presentations as well as posters, films, art, poetry, drama, and other forms of creative expression.

While proposals might address any appropriate topic, priority will be given to those related to this year’s theme, “Being Political and the Politics of Being.” At its most obvious, we witness politics in governmental contexts, from presidential primaries and local elections to environmental regulations and foreign policy decisions. Beyond this, though, political discourses shape and are shaped by our daily lives and interactions—at our schools and universities, in the food that we eat, and through our physical and digital landscapes. Additionally, a careful eye sees politics flowing through a range of social forces, to include religion, science, the arts, culture, technology, media, economics, and marketing. At our conference, the scope of “politics” will be limited only by the imaginations of those who attend.

Events will begin on Friday afternoon with an “Ethics Bowl” competition. For further details please contact Dr. Kyle Thomsen (kthomsen@francis.edu). Anyone unfamiliar with this unique philosophical contest can learn more athttp://appe.indiana.edu/ethics-bowl/ethics-bowl/.

On Friday evening, the keynote address will be given by John Fea, Professor of American History at Messiah College. His talk will derive from his 2011 book, Was America Founded as a Christian Nation: A Historical Introduction. Professor Fea is the author or editor of four books and his essays and reviews have appeared in a variety of scholarly and popular venues. He blogs daily athttp://www.philipvickersfithian.com/.

Student presentations (approximately 20 minutes each) will be on Saturday from 9:00 AM –5:00 PM. Posters, artwork, and other standing pieces will be available in a common meeting area. At the conclusion of the conference, a panel of judges will award the top student performers with cash prizes.

Proposal abstracts (roughly 250 words) are due by February 19, 2016. Please include your full name, title, format (paper, poster, etc.), institution, e-mail, phone number, and the name and contact information of your academic advisor. All paper presentations must be submitted in full by March 4, 2016. Please e-mail proposals and papers to TELUndergradConference@gmail.com.

This conference is open to the public and free for presenters and non-presenters. For more information, please visit our website (https://examinedlifeconference.wordpress.com/) or contact Dr. Arthur Remillard(aremillard@francis.edu).

Read more about the conference here.

Undergraduate Liberal Arts Conference: "The Examined Life"

Are you an undergraduate in the liberal arts looking for an outlet to present your work?  If so, consider submitting a proposal to “The Examined Life: An Undergraduate Conference in the Liberal Arts” to be held March 18-19 at Saint Francis University in Loretto, Pennsylvania.

While the conference organizers will take papers on any appropriate liberal arts topic, priority will be given to this year’s theme: “Being Political and the Politics of Being.”

I have had students present at this conference before and I know that the organizers are definitely open to historically-themed papers and presentations.

 I heard the keynote speaker ain’t too bad either.

You have time to submit.  The deadline for proposals is not until February 10, 2016.  Learn more at the conference website.

Messiah College History Department in The American Scholar: The Power of Undergraduate Research

Messiah College history students conducting research in a 19th c. cemetery
Anthony Grafton (Princeton University) and James Grossman (American Historical Association), the authors of the “No More Plan B” proposal that challenged graduate programs in history to think about training Ph.D students for careers outside of the academy, have now turned to the pages of the prestigious American Scholar to extol the value of undergraduate historical research. 
 
I think I will just let them explain. But before I do, I am proud to say that Grafton and Grossman use the Messiah College History Department as an example of a department in which students are engaged in extensive student research.  We are indeed a department that uses the study of the past to help students build “a self and a soul and a mind” that they can take with them wherever they go.
 
Here is a taste of their article, “Habits of the Mind“:
 
Students of history learn how to do research in institutions of many kinds…Go, for example, to the webpage of the history department at Messiah College, near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and you’ll read about students doing every kind of research you can imagine, from working with a museum professional to excavate and restore a historic cemetery, to pursuing the family histories of African Americans in the documents at the Schomburg Center of the New York Public Library, to developing a digital archive on the history of Harrisburg. Go to the webpage of the history department at the University of California, Berkeley and you’ll find a student-edited journal, Clio’s Scroll, showcasing detailed and imaginative historical research—often drawn from senior theses—on subjects such as drama, landscape, and political thought.
Why do we teach these students—fresh, bright young undergraduates—to do research? Why take people who are forming themselves, who should be thinking about life, death, and the universe, and send them off to an archive full of dusty documents and ask them to tell us something new about the impact of the Civil War in a country town in Pennsylvania or Virginia, or the formation of Anglo-Norman kingship, or the situation of slaves in the Old South?
The answer is so simple that we sometimes forget to give it, but it matters. We teach students to do research because it’s one powerful way to teach them to understand and appreciate the past on its own terms, while at the same time finding meaning in the past that is rooted in the student’s own intellect and perspective. Classrooms and assigned readings are necessary to provide context: everyone needs to have an outline in mind, if only to have something to take apart; and everyone needs to know how to create those outlines and query them constructively. Reading monographs and articles is vital, too. To get past the big, generalized stories, you have to see how professional scholars have formed arguments, debated one another, and refined theories in light of the evidence.
But the most direct and powerful way to grasp the value of historical thinking is through engagement with the archive—or its equivalent in an era when oral history and documentary photography can create new sources, and digital databases can make them available to anyone with a computer. The nature of archives varies as widely as the world itself. They can be collections of documents or data sets, maps or charts, books with marginal notes scrawled in them that let you look over the shoulders of dead readers, or a diary that lets you look over the shoulder of a dead midwife. What matters is that the student develops a question and then identifies the particular archive, the set of sources, where it can be answered.
Why do this? Partly because it’s the only way for a student to get past being a passive consumer and critic and to become a creator, someone who reads other historians in the light of having tried to do what they do. Partly because it’s the way that historians help students master skills that are not specific to history. When students do research, they learn to think through problems, weigh evidence, construct arguments, and then criticize those arguments and strip them down and make them better—and finally to write them up in cogent, forceful prose, using the evidence deftly and economically to make their arguments and push them home.
The best defense for research, however, is that it’s in the archive where one forms a scholarly self—a self that, when all goes well, is intolerant of weak arguments and loose citation and all other forms of shoddy craftsmanship; a self that doesn’t accept a thesis without asking what assumptions and evidence it rests on; a self that doesn’t have a lot of patience with simpleminded formulas and knows an observation from an opinion and an opinion from an argument.
This self, moreover, is the student’s own construction. Supervision matters: people new to historical work need advice in framing questions, finding sources, and shaping arguments. In the end, though, historical research is always, and should always be, a bungee jump, a leap into space that hasn’t been mapped or measured. The faculty supervisor straps on the harness and sees to the rope. But the student takes the risk and reaps the rewards. This isn’t just student-centered learning, in which the student’s interests are put first; it’s student defined and student executed, the work of a self-reliant, observant, and creative person.
A self like this can seem unworldly, especially if the “real world” resembles a political culture that dismisses complexity and context as “academic.” But in a deeper sense, this is a worldly education, in the traditional way that humanistic education has always embodied. A good humanities education combines training in complex analysis with clear communication skills. Someone who becomes a historian becomes a scholar—not in the sense of choosing a profession, but in the broader meaning of developing the scholarly habits of mind that value evidence, logic, and reflection over ideology, emotion, and reflex. A student of history learns that empathy, rather than sympathy, stands at the heart of understanding not only the past but also the complex present.
That is because in the archive the historian has the opportunity and the obligation to listen. A good historian enters the archive not to prove a hypothesis, not to gather evidence to support a position that assumptions and theories have already formed. But to answer a question. It’s an amazing experience to see and talk with and learn from the dead. As Machiavelli said so well, you ask them questions about what they did and why, and in their humanity, they answer you, and you learn what you can’t learn any other way.
History has many mansions nowadays. Historians work on every period of human history, every continent, and every imaginable form of human life. But they all listen to the dead (and yes, in some cases, the living as well): that’s the common thread that connects every part of history’s elaborate tapestry of methods. All historians muster the best evidence they can to answer their questions. They offer respect and admiration to those who show the greatest ingenuity in raising new questions, bringing new characters onto the stage of history, and finding new evidence with which to do so.
As for talking with people who don’t work in universities—a student who writes a good history paper has learned how to communicate knowledge to anyone. History has been a form of narrative art, as well as of inquiry into the past, since the first millennium BCE, when Jewish and Greek and Chinese writers began to produce it. That’s why Herodotus could read his history of the Persian Wars aloud at the Olympic Games—a performance for which he received the large sum of 10 talents. Historians care about clear speech and vigorous prose, and believe that even complex and technical forms of inquiry into the past can be conveyed in accessible and attractive language. Accordingly, we don’t separate research from writing. Just ask the students whose papers and chapters we send back, adorned with marginalia in blue pen or the colors of Track Changes.
When a student does research in this way—when she attacks a problem that matters to her by identifying and mastering the sources, posing a big question, and answering it in a clear and cogent way, in the company of a trained professional to whom she and her work matter—she’s not becoming a pedant or a producer of useless knowledge. She’s doing what students of the humanities have always done: building a self and a soul and a mind that she can take with her wherever she goes, and that will make her an independent, analytical thinker and a reflective, self-critical person. Isn’t that what we’re supposed to be doing?

Messiah College at the Conference on Faith and History

Crossposted from History on the Bridge
A group of Messiah College historians traveled to Malibu, California this weekend to participate in the biennial meeting of the Conference on Faith and History (CFH).  This year’s host was beautiful Pepperdine University, a Christian college located on the Pacific Ocean.  Yes, we historians have it rough.
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The Messiah College History Department crew at the CFH
May 2014 Messiah College History graduate Brooke Strayer presented a paper at the CFH Undergraduate Conference entitled “Tracing the Trajectory of the Brethren in Christ Peace Position in the United States.”  It was based on her Messiah College senior honors thesis.  Brooke’s paper, as you will see in the photo below, was presented in the Pepperdine University Surfboard Museum.  She did a great job and represented Messiah’s history department very well.
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Brooke Strayer “waxes” eloquent in the Surfboard Museum
Another Messiah College history alum, Amanda Mylin (’12), presented a paper at the main CFH conference entitled “Luxury, Vice, and Virtue: The Intersection of Women, Consumerism, and Religion, 1750-1783.”  Amanda is finishing her master’s degree in history at Baylor University.
Devin Manzullo-Thomas, an adjunct instructor in the Messiah College history department and the Director of Messiah’s Sider Institute, participated on a roundtable discussion entitled “The Role of Historians in Managing Institutional Change.”
Dr. Jim LaGrand chaired and commented on a session entitled “Dear Colleagues: What Christian Public Historians Want You to Know About Our Field, Our Audiences, and What We Need from You.”
Finally, I participated on a panel at the Undergraduate Conference entitled “Why I Hate (or Love) the History Channel.”  At the main conference he joined roundtables devoted to social media and book publishing.
In 2016 the CFH will be meeting in Virginia Beach.  Another undergraduate conference is expected and we hope that many of our students will be interested in attending.  Stay tuned to History on the Bridge for more information.  The deadline for proposals will probably be sometime in April or May of 2016.
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The view from the Conference