A New Twist on an Old Subject
Exploring History at Susquehanna University
During the field trip, students talk with people shaped by the coal industry and the culture it created. Trips have included visits with a museum guide whose father was a coal miner and with local men who give tours of mines where their families worked.
“It can be too easy to understand history simply through the actions of elites or in relation to various theories,” says Ethan Eastwood ’16, a history and political science major from Canton, Mass. Studying history at Susquehanna has given him what he calls “an increased appreciation for the human element of history.”
In Associate Professor of History Edward Slavishak’s survey class on U.S. history, lectures are homework. Last semester, Slavishak embraced the “flipped classroom” model that is on the rise in higher education. In “flip” classrooms, professors record video lectures that students watch before class, leaving their meeting time open for discussions and exercises. Slavishak takes the approach a step further by dividing the class in half for discussions, which facilitates better student participation.
What’s the point of such a “flip”? For one, it means students can spend more time doing the work that actual historians do—“making interpretive guesses and trying to build arguments about the past using primary source-based evidence,” Slavishak says.
Like other professors in the department, he prioritizes the development of such skills over memorizing facts from a lecture. “Ultimately, all [memorizing] does is help you out at a trivia night,” he says.
Though not all of his classes are “flipped,” they all encourage students to take an active role in the study of history. This is one reason his reading lists never include typical textbooks.
“Students tend not to read [a textbook] critically,” Slavishak says. “It usually sends the message to students that this was written by experts who know their stuff. That doesn’t work in my courses.” Instead of accepting texts at face value, he wants students to “challenge, critique, disagree with or offer suggestions to authors, whether they’re living and breathing now or died 100 years ago.”
Elizabeth Beatty ’11, who majored in history and secondary education at Susquehanna and now teaches social studies at the Arizona School for the Arts charter school, names Slavishak as the professor who has most influenced her for precisely this reason.
“I am teaching my students how I learned in college, preparing them to be experts at analyzing documents,” she says. “Dr. Slavishak would always have very creative material to teach us. For our history methods course, we would always read weird texts, like the history of fish sticks or housewife-improvement pamphlets, but it helped us learn how to think and write like a historian.”
It’s easy to miss the small purple and teal boxes on top of the filing cabinets in Associate Professor of History Cymone Fourshey’s office, but a look inside reveals one of her most engaging teaching techniques.
Every semester, Fourshey conducts a marketplace simulation to teach students about trade and the rise of large empires in Africa during the 14th and 15th centuries. Students are split into teams with different roles, such as a guild of cloth weavers or a society of traders collecting cocoa and palm oil.
Each team receives a box containing items relevant to their assigned roles. The boxes might include incense, millet, iron, gold or spices. It’s each team’s job to determine what their items are and use them to trade with classmates. Meanwhile, another group cooks a recipe using spices that would be traded in such a market. Afterward, the class discusses the experience.
“They’ve been reading about markets,” Fourshey explains, “but it’s hard to imagine how organized, yet chaotic it is.” The simulation helps students picture—and taste—what they’ve already been learning about from firsthand accounts from the time period.
Assistant Professor of History Maria Muñoz, who teaches Latin American history, also uses food to help her students understand processes of trade. In one of her courses, students are presented with a variety of spices, which they taste and smell to determine what each spice is and where it originated. Afterward, they discuss how foods from different countries are incorporated into the traditional fare of various locales. “We use food to get to bigger ideas of contact and exchange,” she explains.