A New Twist on an Old Subject
Exploring History at Susquehanna University
by Megan McDermott
In Susquehanna history classes, students are doing more than memorizing significant dates and the biographies of prominent figures. They are becoming historians, often through surprising means, such as chatting with Chinese exchange students and pretending to prosecute Napoleon.
Such novel approaches to teaching history help students develop skills they can apply to virtually any career path. “All of the history faculty, though we love some old things, see the study of history as something that has very concrete and useful present-day application,” says David Imhoof, associate professor and chair of the Department of History.
By applying the study of history to current affairs in the world, students quickly move past musty misconceptions about history being boring, tedious or obscure. Although the department explores the past, its classes are lively and relevant, thanks to the creative approaches of Susquehanna professors.
Assistant Professor of History Lisong Liu, who serves as co-director of the Asian Studies Program, strives to provide a “personal, intimate experience” of international issues for students in his U.S.–China relations course.
Students learn about the relationship between the two countries, beginning in the 18th century. This historical study is complemented by pairing his students with Chinese exchange and full-time students studying on campus. The students meet several times for friendly, informal conversations before Liu’s students conduct interviews with their Chinese partners about their experiences growing up in China, their perceptions of the United States, and their satisfaction with relations between the two countries. Each —Lisong Liu student in the class then writes a report that details his or her partner’s experiences and relates them to the course’s larger context.
For the same course, Liu also has students correspond by email with college students in China, providing opportunities to compare the perceptions of Chinese students who studied abroad in America to those who had not, particularly in regards to the American education system and popular culture. The students were also able to observe factors impacting who could and could not study abroad. For instance, one student’s campus partner, who was from Shanghai, could afford to study in the United States, while the email partner, a student from a village in southern China, did not have the resources to do so.
In other classes, Liu assigns oral history projects that involve interviewing Chinese immigrants or Asian-Americans. He has also taken students to the Bamboo Palace, a nearby restaurant owned by Chinese immigrants, to enjoy a meal and talk with the owners about their experiences in the United States.
“History is not just about the past. It’s about the present, too. It’s about individuals,” Liu explains. “It’s about how each of us tries to figure out the best way for us to grow.”
That struggle to determine where to grow is of particular interest to Liu, whose research focuses on Chinese migration. In his class Globalizing China: Diasporas Past and Present, his students share in his examination of Chinese migration across the world. The choices made by individuals and families who “pursued more opportunities by crossing borders” are not only intensely personal, but also a vital part of a larger historical picture, Liu says.
Associate Professor of History Karol Weaver also organizes opportunities for her students to interact with the people they study. She has taken her Pennsylvania History classes on trips to Ashland, Pa., at the heart of the central Pennsylvania coal region, to tour a coal mine, visit a small museum on the coal mining industry, and eat at a local restaurant. This trip complements classroom exploration of the anthracite coal region and “coalcracker culture,” referring to the lifestyle and customs of those who work in coal fields.
“I want them to experience, as best they can, what I would describe as a different culture than they might be familiar with and to see value in that culture,” Weaver says.
Alumnus Finds the Humor in HistoryHistory grad Giacomo Calabria ’06 says he stumbled into a career of writing about history from a humorous perspective.
History grad Giacomo Calabria ’06 says he “stumbled onto this [career] path with a bag over my head and my shoelaces tied together.” His novel, The Great Abraham Lincoln Pocket Watch Conspiracy, comes out this summer under the pseudonym “Jacopo della Quercia.” It follows President William H. Taft and Robert Todd Lincoln around the globe as they investigate a mystery connected to the Lincoln assassination.
Under the same pen name, Calabria entertains readers on the humor website Cracked.com with articles such as “6 True Stories From History Creepier Than Any Horror Movie” and “The 10 Greatest Uses of Trash Talk in the History of War.” He was the top contributor to the website’s recent book, The De- Textbook: The Stuff You Didn’t Know About the Stuff You Thought You Knew.
Calabria had planned to go to law school after Susquehanna but became captivated by history writing instead. His professors encouraged his humorous and creative approach to history—in part, because Susquehanna’s history professors are humorous and creative themselves.
“When students are enjoying themselves, even painfully understudied subjects such as history can be as entertaining as watching Billy the Kid and Genghis Khan tear up a San Dimas shopping mall,” he says, referencing a scene from the 1989 comedy Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure about time-traveling teens.
Calabria draws much of his subject matter from the classwork he did at Susquehanna. For example, he speculated about the last few minutes of Lincoln’s life in an assignment for a Civil War class. Without that exercise, he says, he wouldn’t have had the idea for his novel. Renaissance art, political psychology and logic are other college subject matters that turn up in his writing.
“Even my time in the SU Karate Club helps immensely when it comes to fight choreography,” Calabria says. “Clearly the ancients were onto something when they came up with the liberal arts. I mean, if I can use them in a book where President Taft tours the world on a zeppelin and gets into fistfights, they can be used anywhere.”
Learn more at pocketwatchconspiracy.com.