Every one of the now nine years I’ve taught at Bethel University, I’ve led a section of our department’s capstone course, HIS499 Senior Seminar. In it, our majors conduct a significant project of original historical research on any topic of their choice, which leaves me to act more as facilitator and editor than lecturer. We also meet once a week for seminar discussion, typically focused on the methodology and philosophy of history and how Christians have approached the discipline.
It’s a challenging course to teach: not only am I not at all sure that it plays to any of my strengths, but it seems geared for the paltry number of our majors looking to continue their studies in history (students produce an article-length paper and give a formal presentation at the end of the semester). I often wonder what the majority who will go into business, law, education, health care, and other careers get out of it. But as I’ve talked to our alumni, I’m struck that they all remember Senior Seminar quite distinctly, and take pride in the work they did at the end of their undergraduate careers.
I hope that’s true of the eight students in this spring’s section of the course. Eight’s about the perfect number for the course (I’ve taught it with as few as four and as many as twenty-six), if for no other reason than they fit our living room perfectly the night my family had them over for supper and a discussion of vocation. But it’s also a good size for the kinds of discussions we have, many this spring focused on the book Confessing History, my series on which I’ll conclude later this week — grading permitting.
Monday night my students gave 15-minute oral presentations of their semester-long projects to an audience that included faculty, students, and family. This year students had the choice of presenting either the traditional academic talk or — consistent with my having had them keep a seminar journal throughout the semester — something more like an “intellectual autobiography” of their experience in the course. I hope they get much out of the experience. I know it’s a chance for my colleagues and me to celebrate — and learn from — our students’ work, and to pray for them before they graduate.
To give you a sense of the breadth of our students’ curiosities and the depth of their commitments to the study of history, here’s the summary of their eight presentations that I posted on our department blog, along with links to other posts they’ve written this semester for that same blog.
Matthew Nelson, “Contrasting Modern Myths and Legends with the Historical Truth of the Knights Templar”
Matt considered the crusading order known as the Knights Templar, contrasting what historians could verify about its rise and fall via evidence (e.g., correspondence) versus the curious ways in which the Knights have served the more imaginative purposes of writers, filmmakers, video game designers, et al. (Matt also reflected on the experience of changing topics midway through Senior Seminar — he had earlier contributed to our Senior Sem Journal series a post on the history of the idea of Atlantis.)
Danielle Johnson, “A Union, A Parcel O’ Rogues and a King in a Kilt: An Examination of Scottish Identity in the Late 18th and 19th Centuries”
Concluding with the first Senior Sem Presentation Night sing-along in recent memory (of the Scottish anthem “Scots Wha Hae,” from a Robert Burns poem; she also looked to the writing of Sir Walter Scott), Danielle’s presentation asked how a Scottish national identity independent of “British” identity survived the political union between those two countries. Her interest stemmed in part from spending a semester at the University of Edinburgh, where she studied Gaelic language and music. (Danielle contributed three entries to the Senior Sem Journal series, most recently writing on the notion of history majors being called to serve the Church.)
Dana Morrison, “Edison/Tesla: It’s Electric! The History of Celebrity”
Sporting a “Tesla/Edison” T-shirt and managing to incorporate references to David Bowie (who played Tesla in the movie The Prestige) and AC/DC (named for the rivals in the so-called “War of the Currents”), Dana wondered why it was that Thomas Edison had achieved mainstream celebrity — while his one-time employee-turned-rival Nikola Tesla was both less well known, and widely celebrated as a kind of cult hero. (Dana also made three contributions to the Senior Sem Journal series, including this reflection on history and science. One of her essays for the course HIS350 Modern America — on popular music from the likes of George M. Cohan and Billie Holiday — was also posted at our department blog in the Modern American Encounters series.)
Matt Newlin, “The Battle to Become America’s Favorite Beer”
Another first in Senior Sem on our famously dry campus: a history of the brewing of beer. More specifically, Matt looked to advertising to investigate the enduring success of three breweries (Anheuser-Busch, Miller, Coors) that had transcended their regional origins to become national and international leaders in that industry.
Christina Anderson, “American University Education for Women at the Turn of the Century: Liberation or Paternalism?”
Building from the story of an ancestor who had studied there, Christina studied the women of the home economics department at the University of Chicago (ca. 1900-1920) as an example of how even an avowedly “experimental” institution of higher learning (from its inception, co-educational) had both helped to liberate women and to keep them under a paternalistic system. Going above and beyond the call, Christina spent part of her spring break doing archival research at the University of Chicago. (Christina’s three contributions to the Senior Sem Journal series concluded with a reflection on the Oregon Extension and the unique chance it offered for students and faculty to learn together.)
Ro Tollefson, “Macro and Micro: Nursing Education’s Development in the United States and at Bethel University”
Continuing with a field of higher education largely dominated by women in the 20th century, History/Nursing double-major Ro treated her own department as a case study for the evolution of nursing education. Her research largely consisted of oral history interviews with leading faculty in the Bethel Nursing Department, including one of its founders, Dr. Eleanor Edman. (Three of the Senior Sem Journal posts came from Ro, most recently one agreeing that history professors ought to teach, not preach.)
David Anderson, “Kennan and Containment: The Creation and Early Implementation of U.S. Grand Strategy at the Beginning of the Cold War”
David, a History/Political Science major, built on a paper he had written during a semester studying in England to consider the role of George Kennan in the development of the doctrine of containment, as the primary American foreign policy response to the Soviet Union and its allies during the Cold War. He shared the struggle of balancing the biography of one man with an analysis of a complicated set of policies that involved multiple individuals and agencies (not to mention critics in and out of government). (All the more complicated when the biography of Kennan won the Pulitzer Prize in the middle of David’s research!)
Jon Steen, “Kwame Nkrumah and the International Arena (1957-1966)”
Also inspired by a study abroad experience, Jon drew on his time in Ghana to evaluate the foreign policies of that African country’s founding president, who struggled to maintain a posture of “active neutralism” in the face of Cold War competition, the postcolonial struggle for African unity, and the unstable nature of newly independent countries like Ghana and its neighbors. (His experience in Ghana also showed up in all three of Jon’s contributions to the Senior Sem Journal series, including the last one, on what Christian historians can learn from non-Christians.)