Students who engage in Rhodes History courses venture back in time to various periods and destinations. They learn the stories of monarchies and democracies, leaders and rulers, revolts and reformation, and so much more in understanding how societies and civilizations come to be.
The Department of History at Rhodes has its own story of transformation. It begins with History being one of the few subjects taught since the college’s founding in 1848 in Clarksville, TN. Even after the college moved to Memphis in 1925, there were no “defined” academic departments, but among the professors who taught the subject of History were Robert Price, Margaret Huxtable Townsend, W. Raymond Cooper and John Henry Davis. In addition, there were no “official” department chairs until Douglas Hatfield, who was hired in the late 1960s, served in the role. Chairs who followed include Professor Emeritus Jim Lanier; Michael Drompp, now dean of the faculty and vice president for Academic Affairs; Lynn Zastoupil, J.J. McComb Professor of History; Gail Murray; and current chair Timothy Huebner, the L. Palmer Brown Professor of Interdisciplinary Humanities.
“The main thing that has impressed me about the History Department is the way in which it, both individually and collectively, has remained committed to undergraduate education,” says Hatfield. “Besides teaching, it has always encouraged undergraduates to develop a passion for learning in general.”
Expanding the Curriculum
When the college moved to Memphis in 1925, the areas of history taught included American and English history. But over the decades, offerings have expanded to include the history of Asia, Europe, Latin America, North Africa and the Middle East. And while the department has long been strong in social and political history, in recent years it has added more courses in cultural history.
Hatfield says when he came to the college, the primary entry-level course in the department was a two-semester History of Western Civilization. “It was taught by a team of two or three professors. The course met three times a week. The first two meetings involved lectures, each given to the whole class by one of the professors. In the third meeting the class was divided into small discussion groups, each led by one of the professors.”
Now, Hatfield says, the department offers courses that are “much narrower in scope and designed to introduce students not only to a body of historical knowledge, but also to give them an opportunity to learn to think in the ways that historians think, to examine historical sources, to respond critically to historical interpretations and to write their own essays on ‘live’ issues.”
“If you were to put into perspective the history of the department, the diversity of our course offerings, the fact that our faculty are nationally- and internationally-recognized scholars, the emphasis we place on student research and the availability of internships in the community—these are the things we emphasize, and each one of these is a story of evolution,” says Huebner. “These are all points of pride—the opportunities for our students to go into archives, to present papers at conferences, to publish their own journals and to be recognized for their outstanding achievement.”
Huebner cites Daniel Williford ’11 as a success story. “Daniel, who was our top major last year, not only won the college’s Peyton Rhodes Prize, the highest academic honor you can win at the college, but received the highest award in the country for undergraduate research. We submitted a paper he had written under the guidance of Professor Etty Terem for a prize sponsored by the American Historical Association, and he won. He and Professor Terem both went to the AHA meeting in Chicago and were recognized by hundreds of people from all over the country.”
Significance of a Common Place
Although course offerings have become wider and more diverse, an abiding theme that has existed in the department has been to connect students with each other, to the faculty, staff and residential community and to the world. Bill Troutt recognized this when he became president of the college in 1999 and included academic space in the college’s strategic planning process. Today, Rhodes is one of the few colleges in the nation to possess a master plan for the use of academic space.
As a result of that plan, in summer 2011, all History faculty moved to their new home on the second floor of Buckman Hall. It includes new faculty offices and a multipurpose conference room. The space once had been occupied by the Computer Center before its move to the Paul Barret Jr. Library. Although Clough Hall was considered the department’s home before last summer, faculty had been housed in various offices throughout campus.
“We were in Clough for a long time, and we needed a new design,” says Huebner. “The great thing about the move was our faculty got to come up with a list of priorities we wanted and handed it to the architect. This has turned out to be a very nice space that really does contribute to the cohesion of the department and the spirit of our common enterprise.”
The conference room has provided an environment for teaching, learning and social interactions, and can be used for classes, student conferences, faculty meetings and small lectures. This spring, the department held its Phi Alpha Theta initiation ceremony there.
Classroom Learning and the Memphis Community
The department has recently expanded its internship offerings to include public history, a growing field that includes museum studies, archives management and historic preservation. The Public History Internship gives majors the opportunity to learn about the theory of public history while also doing a local internship. The class involves field trips to places such as the National Civil Rights Museum and the Memphis and Shelby County Room of the public library.
Andrea Perkins ’12, a History major and an Environmental Studies minor from Milton, GA, worked at Victorian Village Inc. this spring as part of her Public History Internship. Victorian Village Inc. is a community development corporation working toward creating new construction while preserving original designs and treasuring the architectural heritage of a historic Memphis neighborhood. Located almost downtown, Victorian Village itself is the site of several 19th-century Italianate mansions along with 20th-century apartments, businesses and offices.
“I worked on preliminary research, laying the groundwork for updating the design guidelines, which the Landmarks Commission has on record for Victorian Village,” says Perkins. “These guidelines will ensure the preservation of Victorian Village houses so that they can’t be torn down and that new construction is compatible and cohesive to what’s already there.”
For her internship at Memphis Heritage Inc., History major Elizabeth Henrikson ’13 from Houston developed an educational program about the importance of preservation that incorporates photographs of historic Memphis to be used in local elementary schools. She also updated and added to the extensive archives the organization keeps.
“My Public History class taught me that historic preservation is more than saving buildings just because they are old and beautiful,” says Henrikson. “Instead, preservation is about building communities, creating more livable cities and fostering a vibrant economy through the preservation of buildings that have important historical meaning. Memphis Heritage gave me the opportunity to use this knowledge.”
As part of the final grade for the Public History internship, students must make a presentation to the History Department faculty that ties together all the academic theory and essays they’ve been reading with what they have been doing in the field.
Sharing History with the World
History majors develop highly marketable skills— writing, research, critical thinking, oral presentation and interpersonal skills—that employers and graduate school entrance committees desire in their candidates. A History major or minor serves as excellent preparation for careers in a number of fields, including law and government, business, the foreign service, education and the nonprofit sector.
“What we typically say to our students is that if you major in History you can do anything,” says Huebner. “We really feel like History is at the heart of the undergraduate liberal arts experience and because that is true, we feel like our students are preparing to enter the workforce in a wide variety of ways.”
Still, some History majors follow directly in the footsteps of their professors by pursuing academic careers. Ben Houston ’99, a lecturer in Modern United States History at Newcastle University in England, says, “Rhodes is where I first began to learn the craft of doing history. It’s one thing to have a general love of history as a high schooler but to have professors modeling for you the acts of thinking, grappling with books and primary sources, drawing out connections, trying to make everything as nuanced as possible, and then writing this all up was at a ‘whole ’nother’ level! I think what’s especially amazing to me now is how much I draw from specific examples of my Rhodes professors in teaching and mentoring.”
Houston, whose book The Nashville Way: Racial Etiquette and the Struggle for Social Justice in a Southern City, which is scheduled to be published in November, adds it was while completing an honors thesis at Rhodes that he began using Nashville as a laboratory to understand the civil rights movement from both black and white perspectives.
The Department’s Next Chapter
Huebner says developing and adding more internship opportunities is critical to the department. In addition, he says because students are able to study with faculty who are teacher-scholars committed to publishing books and articles, there are higher expectations for excellence in undergraduate research and for students to publish and present at national conferences. “I would argue that if we didn’t have the faculty we have doing research, then we wouldn’t have the number of students doing research. That’s where those two things fit together.”
Examples of such faculty activity include Jeffrey Jackson, Lynn Zastoupil and Charles McKinney, who published books last year and delivered numerous lectures—in the U.S. and abroad—to discuss their research. This year, Mike LaRosa published a new book on the history of Colombia, and Alex Novikoff ’s article on medieval disputation appeared in the American Historical Review, the most prestigious journal in the discipline. And Dee Garceau is quickly making a name for herself as a historical documentary filmmaker, having won a Special Jury Award this past year for her film “Stepping—Beyond the Line” at the Memphis Indie Film Festival.
Last year, the department revised its curriculum to incorporate more courses that are global and comparative in nature. Environmental History courses offered by Jeffrey Jackson and Tait Keller particularly fall into this category.
“Since rivers, animals, hurricanes and germs brazenly traverse political borders, Environmental History practically demands a transnational approach, just like people who want to understand today’s world need to have a global perspective,” says Keller. “As our students become increasingly engaged with worldwide concerns, they are drawn to History courses like Disease and Epidemics or Natural Disasters that explore those topics within a global framework.”
With its continued emphasis on covering more areas of the world, the department will offer a new course on Imperial Russia in the fall. “And so all of these things continue to motivate and inspire our students,” says Huebner. “We want to continue to provide those opportunities for them to learn about other parts of the world, to go into archives, to present papers at conferences, to publish their own journals—and to win awards.”
By Dionne Chalmers