In Celebration of Students

Bethel License PlateThis summer I devoted a blog post to celebrating the alumni of Bethel’s History and Social Studies programs. Today let me turn the spotlight on a group of our current students: members of the fall section of our capstone course, Senior Seminar, who presented their research papers Monday night. (Apologies to those who subscribe to this blog and got a very rough draft of this yesterday morning, after I inadvertently posted it.)

Senior Seminar is built around an original research project on a topic of the student’s choice. Any topic, so long as sufficient sources (in languages the student understands) can be found in our library, via interlibrary loan, online, or in area archives. At the end of the semester, each student submits a 25-30 page paper (modeled after an article in a peer-reviewed historical journal) and then discusses their findings in a fifteen-minute presentation before classmates, our faculty, and (increasingly) invited friends and family.

I teach the spring section; my colleague AnneMarie Kooistra has Senior Sem in the fall. And I think AnneMarie would agree with me that it’s one of the most rewarding courses in what we probably shouldn’t think of as our “load.” Rewarding precisely because we do so little that looks like “teaching.” We act more like facilitators, or editors (or therapists — often one and the same thing, I know), and end up learning far more than we teach.

And for all of our faculty, presentation night is a chance to see how students we’ve known for 3-4 years have blossomed — some into fellow scholars who will go on to graduate school and give many more such papers and teach such seminars themselves; most whose training as historians has reached an end, but who are realizing that learning is a lifelong calling for which they are better equipped thanks to their time at Bethel.

Just to give you a taste of the diversity of interests of our students, and perhaps to entice those of you of high school age or parenting said to consider Bethel University and its History department as you make big decisions in the next year or two… Let me share a quick overview of the eight presentations. Altogether, I think it was one of the consistently strongest sets of presentations I’ve seen; definitely provoking the longest Q&A sessions in my experience…

Sam Rima, “A Christian College’s Struggle Against Secularization: A Case Study of Bethel College under Carl Lundquist, 1954-1982”

Carl Lundquist, 1964
Lundquist speaking at the 1964 groundbreaking for the new Bethel campus in Arden Hills, MN - Used by permission of the Bethel University Digital Library

This one was particularly enjoyable for me to hear: Sam is in his second year as my teaching assistant (and the second History major named Rima I’ve been blessed to teach — if you’re reading this, Merry Christmas, Seth!) and, to my complete surprise, chose to research the same topic that I research (Bethel‘s model of Christian higher education, particularly as it developed under Carl Lundquist). One of the questions we ordinarily ask students to address in their presentation is why they picked the topic, and Sam had two good answers: (1) he felt personally vested in Bethel’s past, present, and future as a Christian college; and (2) he wanted to pick a topic that would let him do original research with readily available archival materials.

After surveying some of the key literature on the secularization of church-founded colleges and universities in America (cf. George Marsden, The Soul of the American University; James Burtchaell, The Dying of the Light), plus a couple of important studies of such schools that have retained distinctly Christian identities (Robert Benne, Quality with Soul; Richard Hughes & William Adrian, eds., Models for Christian Higher Education), Sam identified some common causes/indicators of secular drift. While many of them appeared in the history of Bethel in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s (e.g., financial pressure; rapid growth in student body; increasing professionalization of faculty), Sam found little evidence of secularization. Noting the outsized role that charismatic and visionary presidents often play in the development of small colleges, Sam credited Lundquist with affirming a strong tie to the Baptist General Conference and refusing to accept a false dichotomy between the spiritual and the intellectual.

Larissa Thune, “The Hutterian Brethren in South Dakota: The Impact of the American Frontier on an Ethnic-Religious, Immigrant Community, 1874-1945”

Hutterite Schoolchildren in Montana
Hutterite Schoolchildren in Montana - Creative Commons (Roger Wollstadt)

Descended from German-speaking Hutterite emigrants from Russia on her mother’s side, Larissa considered why her ancestors and so many other Hutterites who settled in what’s now South Dakota abandoned that tradition’s emphasis on communal ownership of property. While those Hutterites who chose individual ownership and took advantage of the Homestead Act (known as the “Prairie People”) did attempt to retain the German language and other cultural distinctives (e.g., intermarriage, declining to participate in athletics), assimilation into the larger culture accelerated between the two world wars. (While those who stayed in colonies, largely closed off to outsiders and the influence of, for example, public schools, have retained a distinct identity to this day. Approximately five dozen such colonies remain in South Dakota.)

Larissa found that the Hutterite tradition of non-violence exemplified the split: while communal Hutterites sought conscientious objector status (with several sentenced to military prisons and other fleeing to Canada) and remain pacifistic to this day, many of the “Prairie People,” humiliated by being marginalized during the First World War (German-speaking pacifists not being especially popular in 1917-1918), increasingly affirmed American nationalism and military service.

Let it also be noted that Larissa baked a traditional zwieback from her grandmother’s recipe and brought enough for everyone.

Andreea Schreiner, “The Secret Garbage: Shaping Young Minds with Imperialist Propaganda in British Children’s Literature”

I’ll take a little bit of credit for this one: last year Andreea was in my Modern Europe class when I invited Rachel Neiwert (recently en-doctorate-d by the University of Minnesota) to use her research into children’s literature to help students think about life in the British Empire, particularly India. Andreea picked up on Rachel’s discussion of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden and looked at other examples of British literature that seemed to promote imperialist presuppositions among children readers, including Burnett’s The Little Princess and several works by Rudyard Kipling (Kim, The Jungle Book, and the short story, “The Man Who Would Be King“). As a takeaway, Andreea urged us to take care with how we present other cultures to our children, or entrusting their education to works of popular culture. Speaking of…

Daniel Sibert, “Spielberg’s History: Muddled, Inaccurate, and Brilliant”

Schindler's List posterDaniel is a rare case: a non-History major taking our Senior Seminar. As the capstone to his individualized major on media production, Daniel reconsidered how history (particularly that of the Holocaust) has been presented by Steven Spielberg (particularly in Schindler’s List).

Daniel found Tim Cole’s critique revelatory: Spielberg “Hollywoodized” the Holocaust with Schindler’s List (the “quintessential Spielberg film,” for Daniel), which ultimately (and falsely, in Cole’s view) reassures us that even radical evil has a silver lining. (By contrast, Daniel mentions Robert Brent Toplin, who considers Schindler a success, pointing to universal truths that survive any factual errors.)

Daniel proposed a Spielbergian historical method: (1) focus on the story of a “moral individual”; (2) incorporate events from his own life’s story so as to elicit empathy from the audience; and (3) feel free to force source materials to conform history to serve the first two objectives. (Daniel pointed out the director pursued a similar freedom in translating the novel Jaws to the silver screen.) All three Daniel found on display in Schindler, with Oskar Schindler’s complexities somewhat airbrushed and (to scholars like Cole) the film equal parts history of the Holocaust and Spielberg coming to terms with his Jewish identity.

Holly Larson, “Title IX: The ‘Success’ of Women’s High School Athletics in Minnesota, 1972-2011”

A girls’ volleyball coach herself in a local private school, Holly surveyed the effects of Title IX on high school sports in the state of Minnesota. While she found little opposition among educators, coaches, and commentators to the spirit of the law — which banned discrimination based on gender in educational programs and activities (including, as people soon realized, athletics) — she documented how superintendents, principals, school boards, coaches, and others had struggled with the implementation of the law.

Grant Erickson, “Chaos in the Streets: A Study of the 2002 and 2003 Gopher Hockey National Championship Riots”

While not exactly common, it’s not unheard of for the fans of certain sports to celebrate a long-awaited championship by rioting. Such was the case after the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers ended a twenty-three year drought and won the NCAA men’s ice hockey championship in 2002, with an overtime victory over the University of Maine (at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, MN) provoking riots across the river in Minneapolis. What’s more remarkable is that the same thing (if anything, more destructive) happened almost exactly a year later. As Grant pointed out, this second riot lacked many of the suggested causes of such “celebratory” incidents: there was no pressure pent up from waiting year after year for success (God help us all if and when the Gophers ever win another football championship); the game itself lacked suspense (and was played on the other side of the country); and the campus police (unlike the year before) acted with extraordinary restraint in an effort to avoid escalating the violence.

Beyond his excellent research into the history and theory of such riots, Grant brought a unique perspective, as he moonlights as a reporter on Gophers football, hockey, and other teams for GoldenSports.net. His presentation was another reminder that history (especially contemporary history) and journalism are, at the very least, cousin disciplines.

Joel McDougall, “Will the Real Sozheitsyn Please Stand Up?: An American Response to the Works of Alexander Sozhenitsyn: 1953-1978”

Solzhenitsyn in 1953
Solzhenitsyn as a Gulag prisoner, 1953

This is one other topic I had something to do with inspiring. Joel had first encountered Solzhenitsyn as many American undergraduates do, reading One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (in G.W. Carlson’s 200-level Modern World course), but then he read excerpts from The Gulag Archipelago and his controversial 1978 address at Harvard University (“A World Split Apart“) last spring in my Cold War class. While Solzhenitsyn achieved widespread popularity in the West for his exposés of the Soviet Union’s extensive system of prison camps, his appearance at Harvard found him offering a moral (if not political, Joel underlined) critique of Western culture, which he had encountered firsthand after going into exile in 1974.

As Joel explained, that critique (coming in the context of renewing Cold War tensions, as détente was evaporating) earned widespread condemnation from American observers, many of whom had formerly praised the Soviet dissident. Interestingly, one of the more sympathetic responses came from the Reformed scholar Ed Ericson of Calvin College, whose Solzhenitsyn: The Moral Vision (1980) emphasized the Christian roots of Solzhenitsyn’s moral philosophy. A few years late Ericson worked with Solzhenitsyn on an abridgement of the massive Gulag Archipelago. (Here’s Ericson, reflecting on Solzhenitsyn on the occasion of his death in 2008. See also his introduction to Solzhenitsyn, The Soul and Barbed Wire, borrowing its title from a pivotal section of Gulag Archipelago.)

Ryan Soller, “Building the Bridges of Cultural Proficiency: A Story of Minnesota’s Muslims before and after September 11th”

Ryan’s talk made for an intriguing bookend to Sam’s opening presentation. Both students chose their topics because they wanted to do original research within the Twin Cities; but while Sam was interested in how Christians maintained a distinctive identity in an increasingly pluralistic society, Ryan hoped to better understand adherents of another faith and even find common ground across religious differences. In particular, he hoped to learn more about Muslim responses to 9/11.

I should add that Ryan intends to pursue graduate studies in modern European history, but picked this topic as a way to stretch himself. Not only did he not have extensive background in the history of Muslims in Minnesota or the United States, but he had to learn the methodology of oral history — both to analyze those histories collected by other scholars and journalists (e.g., the “Muslim Experience in Minnesota” project), and to conduct his own interview of a South Asian immigrant.


3 thoughts on “In Celebration of Students

  1. As parents, we are extremely grateful for you and the way you excite students and create a passion for scholarship. You have had a profound influence on both of our boys; an
    Influence for which Sue and I are very thankful. We pray you will continue to impact future generations of budding Christian scholars!

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