History books are filled with familiar stories of founding fathers and war heroes. But Ed Slavishak is more curious about the many stories that go untold.
“I’m interested in the rigorous academic study of the Everyday,” says Slavishak, associate professor and chair of the Department of History at Susquehanna. “I like to get at the fabric of everyday life that escapes our attention.”
Curiosity has taken Slavishak and his students into the bowels of the Northumberland County Courthouse —scouring the public record for the stories behind the Everyday—marriage, divorce, palimony and death in the first half of the 20th century. And car crashes—lots of them.
Senior history major Larry Herrold, of Sunbury, Pa., is helping Slavishak wade through newspaper archives and court records to find accounts of auto accidents and the legal action that followed—and there are plenty.
By the 1930s, automobiles were no longer unattainable, leading to more accidents, many involving trains or trollies. This set the stage for copious lawsuits from victims seeking compensation for injuries, lost wages or car damage.
“The sheer glut of crashes that occurred between 1910 and 1940 make all but the most horrific of them fade into the background. But it’s that background that I’m interested in,” Slavishak says. “Car crashes bring some of the fabric of everyday life into view, because they often turned into struggles over blame and money.”
Herrold has spent hours poring through court transcripts from trials involving pedestrians, primarily women, injured in automobile collisions.
Within these records lies a wealth of information on early legislation pertaining to cars, medical practices and the experiences of patients in hospitals, and how gender and medicine were perceived in the courtroom.
In the case of Emma Snyder vs. John P. Jones, Snyder was injured after being struck by a Buick driven by Jones. During the 1930 trial, Snyder’s inability to work due to continuous pain was appropriately highlighted. But the damage to her pelvis and possible complications in future childbirth were a major focus as well.
“For the court, it was just as important that she was able to have children and take care of the home as it was for her to resume working as a farmer and maid,” Herrold says.
Women at that time, however, had more dynamic roles in their communities than their domestic lives would indicate. Most worked outside of the home as administrators, nurses, maids, secretaries and teachers.
“We have this idea that women didn’t do anything besides their home life, but the court records show their experiences were much more vivid and valuable than we might think,” Herrold says.
Court records also reveal advancements in medical care. Doctors were scrutinized for their methods and their findings, backed by new technology that was always called into question. Through detailed testimony revealed in the documents, a greater sense of community relationships emerges.
“These trials reveal that while doctors were valued members of the community, the new methods of their work were openly called into question,” Herrold says. “Lawyers worked to sow the seeds of doubt in the jury, as modern medicine was pitted against common knowledge and traditional practice.”
Slavishak and his students are using their research to build an interactive, online repository of local history that, frankly, appeals to the voyeuristic nature most of us possess.
“I like to get at the things that are swept under the rug, the low-level, everyday life events that the vast majority of us live through,” Slavishak says, “but really tell the stories of our hopes and dreams, challenges and triumphs.”
Incidentally, their digging also turned up some familiar names—such as a 1914 crash that knocked unconscious a man who just two years earlier had opened a small grocery store, then called Weis Pure Foods, now a seven-state grocery chain. Co-founder Sigmund Weis would, of course, go on to become the namesake of Susquehanna’s business school.
Slavishak’s research is just one snapshot of work going on across campus by professors and their students. Though it varies greatly in focus, it is all inspired by the same instinct—curiosity.
“Faculty become faculty because they are passionate about their discipline,” says Provost Linda McMillin, herself a medieval historian. “We expect them to be actively engaged in ongoing work to further knowledge in their field and to make that work available for public consumption.”
Tenure, promotion and merit raises are contingent upon this work, whether it is research, performance, composition or professional consultation.
McMillin believes that research and teaching, sometimes perceived to conflict with one another, are natural partners.
“It allows faculty to model what it means to do research,” she says. “Our students would be cheated if they weren’t learning from people who are experts in their fields.”
Susquehanna devotes approximately $800,000 annually to support faculty and student research. This includes support for conference travel and ongoing capital investments in equipment and instrumentation.
An additional $4.8 million is held in various endowed funds. The university has both an Institutional Review Board and an Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee to provide important oversight.
Lynn Palermo, associate professor of French, and two of her students spent their summer painstakingly translating the diary of a World War I soldier.
“WWI seems like such a remote part of history,” Palermo says. “Documents like this make it come alive.”
More than 30 years after Albert Huet’s service in World War I, he finally put his experience down on paper, and 20 years later, family members found the abandoned diary in an attic.
Because Huet was born in rural France at the turn of the century, his educational opportunities were minimal. His irregular grammar and spelling make translation difficult.
“First we have to translate his French, which contains grammatical errors and misspellings, into a polished French version that we can then translate into English,” says junior Brianna Watson, a French education major from Plainsboro, N.J.
What eventually is revealed are the remembrances of a man who earned commendation for valorously serving his country, but who often found himself wondering what all the violence and death would ultimately accomplish.
“I’m sick and tired of this war, I tell it to everyone. I would rather go to prison,” Huet writes. “Who the hell would I go back to get myself killed for, when you wise up to the life that all the profiteers are leading?”
Huet delayed recording his wartime experience until 1955, 39 years after he was drafted into the French Army. He’d been recently diagnosed with cancer and, perhaps mindful of his own mortality, documented his experience for posterity. Despite the passage of time, Huet’s diary conveys the horror of war as if written in real time.
He recalls seeing his comrades killed, mutiny among the troops and the misery of the trenches that were filled waist-high with mud and overrun by lice and rats.
His misspellings of some towns and villages complicated efforts to pinpoint where Huet was located during the experiences he recounts in his diary. Additionally, some of the towns he may have fought in no longer exist, having been destroyed by the war.
Sophomore French education major Nicole Grace, of North Wales, Pa., worked around this by plotting Huet’s known locations on a map, using the visual to help her decipher other towns mentioned in the diary.
“One-tenth of the active French population died in World War I,” Palermo says. “Now it is no longer an abstract event that we can approach intellectually. This diary gives us a more human understanding of it.”
Harvey Weinstein. Matt Lauer. Kevin Spacey. Louis C.K.
Each is accused of sexual misconduct. Each issued the obligatory apology statement. While the world responded with predictable disgust, curious minds in the Department of Philosophy wanted to get at something deeper.
Junior Jennifer Fithian, a philosophy major from Philadelphia, Pa., saw an opportunity to put these statements under the proverbial microscope.
“I guess I just got sick of it,” Fithian says of why she embarked upon this project. “There is very little accountability taken by these men, and I don’t see them getting called out for it. They keep going on with their lives, and the women they traumatize will never be the same.”
Fithian is using the work of prominent philosophers like Kate Manne (who coined the term “himpathy” in her recent book, Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny) to interpret the social, moral and political dimensions of the language used in these various apology letters, and how what the authors chose to include and exclude relates to issues of power and inequality.
“We’re studying the ways in which misogynistic relationships play themselves out and how men communicate with women,” says Michael Thomas, assistant professor of philosophy. “It will be interesting to see how their theory predicts this behavior.”
Weinstein opened his statement with an excuse, saying he “came of age in the 60s and 70s.” Spacey claimed to have no memory of his alleged misdeeds and used his statement as an opportunity to reveal his homosexuality, while Lauer hedged his bets by accepting blame for some of his actions, denying others and being specific about nothing.
Louis C.K. came close to an apology, Fithian says, but his repeated references to his esteemed position within the comedy community (four, to be precise) derailed it.
“Once we analyze the language people use, or how they use language to claim or deflect responsibility, we can see how we are positioned socially through the language that we use,” Fithian says. “Who can say certain things and have people accept them?”
Fithian also plans to analyze statements from music producer Russell Simmons and comedian Aziz Ansari, comparing how men of color address accusations against them compared to white men.
“One of [Fithian’s] important questions is, what would a real apology sound like in terms of someone taking responsibility so you can move toward reconciliation,” Thomas says.
Not all students conducting research alongside their professors will go on to become researchers themselves. But through the act of research, McMillin says, they will learn how to ask questions, how to search for answers and how to reach those answers in ways that are innovative and collaborative.
“Our faculty are challenging their students to answer those big questions by doing the spade work, knowing that their little piece will increase understanding overall,” she explains.
Is frustration good for research? Does it make better researchers? Read here.