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From Apathetic to Academic: Becoming a History Major

May 11, 2011

This past Saturday (7 May 2011) was the fourth annual History Department Bowling Night. I have written about History Department Bowling Night before, but this particular night was special. I have been at all four bowling nights and this past bowling night was my last History Department Bowing Night ever.

Jordan and I went, bowled with some awesome visiting professors (shout out to Marko Dumančić and Raja Adal), bowled with some awesome professors (shout out to Len Smith and Zeinab Abul-Magd), and met my thesis advisor's baby (shout out to Ari Sammartino)!

Over the last four years I have fallen in love with history, Oberlin's history department, and our incredible faculty. Here is the story of how I became a history major!

A stone statue of a woman holding a book
This is Clio, the muse of history. She is clearly the most awesome muse.

Before I continue, I need to explain History Major Heraldic Beast to you. If you haven't been exposed to the amazingness that is History Major Heraldic Beast and you are a history nerd, I am about to change your life for the better. History Major Heraldic Beast (HMHB) is my new favorite meme. It has appeared thanks to tumblr and I love it. This post will be peppered with some of my favorite HMHB posts.

A meme with the words: "Essay to write? JSTOR"
JSTOR is the most magical resource ever. I use it constantly.

My journey with Oberlin's history department began with Len Smith's first-year seminar on the French Revolution (entitled "The French Revolution"). This course introduced me to the liberal arts atmosphere of learning. In high school, I was often discouraged from participating because I wanted to contribute "too much." Here at Oberlin, participation is encouraged. I have never been told to stop participating. Ever. I also came to realize that Oberlin is full of the students who were the ones who participated "too much" in high school. This course also introduced me to the fact that history can be interesting (a fact often lost on many high school history teachers and high school history textbooks). Also, and probably most importantly, I was introduced to the awesomeness that is Len Smith.

A meme with the words: Marie Antoinette" She's the one who said that cake thing, right? I Seemed to have misplaced my guillotine"
No, she did not actually say this. Stop saying that she did.

In my second semester, I decided to continue to explore my new-found love for history. I took another class with Len Smith (History 102: Modern Europe) and decided to venture into my own personal historical unknown by taking a course with Emer O'Dwyer (History 160: Modern Japan). I dropped into Professor O'Dwyer's office hours during the second week of class to introduce myself and to tell her that I knew practically nothing about Japanese history. We began talking about my interest in the course and my historical interests in general and bonded over our mutual love for the French Revolution.

It was Professor O'Dwyer's class and her encouragement that ultimately led me to declare my history major at the end of my first year. I chose a concentration in Modern Europe. Len Smith's classes made it clear that this was subject matter that I wanted to explore further. While I found Modern Japan interesting, it wasn't quite my cup of tea.

A meme of the words: "moral of European history: One simply does not walk into Russia in the winter"
For some reason this always reminds me of one of my favorite quotes from Stephen Colbert: "If there's one thing to learn from European history, it's that you don't invite the peasants."

My on-going joke is that the history department has abandoned me repeatedly to try to get rid of me. After my first year, Len Smith went on leave for three semesters. Professor O'Dwyer became my advisor. She is currently on leave in order to work on her book. And I have one more story of abandonment coming soon!

With Professor Smith on leave during my sophomore year, Diana Shull was brought to campus as a visiting professor. She taught five classes in the year she was here, and I took three of them - History 219: Disease and Public Health in Europe, History 211: The Social History of European Consumerism, and History 393: Prejudice and Policy in Victorian Britain. Diana Shull released my love for British history and social history and encouraged me to explore these interests. By the end of my sophomore year, I had a 20-page research paper under my belt. Until the completion of my honors thesis (more on this to come), it was my proudest achievement. My paper - "I'll Never Get Drunk Anymore": Temperance, Religion, Politics, and Race in Nineteenth-Century Ireland - explored the motivations behind nineteenth-century Irish temperance movements.

This paper led to my first in-depth exploration of Oberlin's library, JSTOR, and other various resources for research. It was during my research for this paper that I first placed a request to have a book removed from storage. I had found a book - Popular Songs of Ireland - that Oberlin had in storage and I wanted to see if there was a temperance song. The song that I found (yay for successful research!) eventually contributed to the title of my paper.

A meme of the words: "Footnotes: the greatest f***ing thing. ever."
Image censored to protect the innocence of my youngest sister. Footnotes are magical. I live and breathe Chicago Style.

It was also during my sophomore year that I first had class with Ari Sammartino, who would eventually come to be my thesis advisor. Her course - History 222: Germany and Eastern Europe from 1848-1989 - is one of the most difficult courses I took as an Obie, yet it is also one of the courses in which I learned the most. Ari Sammartino is one of those people that when you meet her, you're immediately struck by how intelligent she is and how much she knows about her subject matter.

Junior year was devoted to private readings with Ari Sammartino that served as preparations for honors (a post on this is coming in the near future, I promise!), exploration of the use of modernity as a tool for historical analysis under the guidance of Pete Soppelsa (another amazing visiting professor), and the actual writing of my honors prospectus.

A meme of the words" 'Technically, the US was founded on Christian principles...' Technically, the treaty of Tripoli invalidates your entire point."
Historical knowledge can be useful for deconstructing misinformed arguments!

This year has been devoted almost exclusively to my honors research. Having completed my thesis and all of the requirements for my history degree, let me take this opportunity to say how incredible this experience has been. Under the guidance of the faculty in this department, I evolved from an apathetic high school student to an honors student with a love for all things academic. Even if you don't major in history, you would be remiss if you didn't take a course or two in the history department during your time at Oberlin.

Quote time!

"The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there." - L.P. Hartley

P.S. Brownie points to the first person who can figure out why my title for this post in that particular manner.

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Responses to this Entry

I love that the history department has a bowling night, and that you're a big enough nerd to have attended ALL of them.

After reading this, I wish I had taken more classes than just my one token history course while I was here. It was delightful!

Posted by: Ma'ayan on May 12, 2011 11:27 AM

Hi! I'm considering the French Revolution FYS for next year. Could you tell me a little bit more about it? Was it mostly lecturing or discussion based? What was the work load like? Did most people like Len Smith? Would you recommend this class to people who aren't sure if they are really interested by History?

Posted by: anonymous on May 17, 2011 8:16 PM

@Ma'ayan: Bowling night is so much fun! This year was definitely no exception :)

@Anon: I absolutely loved the French Revolution FYS. As with most first year seminars, it is primarily discussion-based with some lectures thrown in to cover necessary information. You'll basically have a few readings for each class and then spend the class discussing the readings in detail. We also had a couple films we had to watch outside of class. The reading load is definitely manageable by first-year standards and Len Smith usually has three 5-page papers for his classes, so you won't be doing an inordinate amount of writing.

Almost everyone I know who has taken class with Len Smith has absolutely loved the experience. He is definitely one of the reasons that I became a history major.

As for the question as to whether or not you should take the class if you're unsure about whether or not you're really interested in history, I say go for it. Keep in mind that history in high school is VERY different than studying history in college. Our department has a much more social history focus, so you'll get less of the military history than you might have learned in high school. The French Revolution FYS was a great course for me and I definitely recommend it. Ultimately, however, you need to decide what will be best for you.

Hope that helps!

Posted by: Patrick on May 18, 2011 2:10 PM

LEN SMITH IS GOD PLEASE TAKE HIS CLASS. I asked him if I could audit his French Revolution class and I was only half-joking.

Seriously though, he is a fantastic teacher and I don't personally know anyone who has disliked him or his classes. As Patrick said, he's pretty reasonable with workload. I took Modern European History with him and it was definitely one of the best classes I've taken this year. Patrick also makes a good point about the focus of history classes here, there's definitely a much greater emphasis on political theory and social issues (which I personally prefer).

Patrick, why are you so awesome. I LOVE HMHB IT IS ALWAYS RELEVANT. I can never pick a favourite because there are just too many of them.

Posted by: Ruby on May 19, 2011 12:15 PM

@Ruby: HMHB IS RELEVANT. ALWAYS RELEVANT. It really has become my life. And Ruby, YOU'RE the awesome one!

Posted by: Patrick on May 19, 2011 2:51 PM

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