Helping students make history.
I think that a lot of people imagine historians sitting at their desks, memorizing lists of names and dates," says history Professor Ellen Eisenberg. "What I try to do is get students to experience what historians do."
Recently named the Dwight & Margaret Lear Chair of American History, Eisenberg has spent the last 14 years not only teaching students history but teaching them how history is made. "It's making history come alive and making the act of being a historian come alive. How do historians put research together to construct a picture of what happened? How does their interpretation fit with what their colleagues are arguing?"
Eisenberg takes this approach because she says many students come to college with their heads full of historical facts but little critical understanding for how those facts are created. "For a lot of students, their experience in high school is that they have a textbook and the textbook says what happened and that's it. They don't think of that textbook as a document that represents one of a number of different interpretations. I want them to see a text as an argument, and then take it apart and discuss it among themselves."
Students learn firsthand what it takes to be a historian by conducting research that involves unearthing and analyzing original documents. Emphasizing original research, says Eisenberg, invests a student's analysis with a greater sense of ownership and originality. "Sometimes students think a topic has been so thoroughly analyzed that they assume, 'What else can I say?' Then our students go over to places like the State Archives and find original documents that, as far as we know, nobody else has written about. Suddenly they realize, 'Wow, it is possible to make an original discovery and uncover some new insight.'"
Willamette's liberal arts environment also gives Eisenberg the intellectual freedom to develop some insights of her own. "If I decide that I'm interested in some new issue, there's absolutely nothing to stop me from either developing that as a research project or developing it as a course. At a lot of larger schools, I might be one of 20 American historians and they all have their territory, which they research very deeply, but there's a lot less breadth. Here, I am one of two Americanists, so I really can focus on whatever I want."
For example, Eisenberg's recent interests have ranged from African-American studies to the post-Civil War Reconstruction era. Both of these topics were originally part of broader general history courses, but Eisenberg has developed each into its own distinct class. "You can never really get bored, or if you do you only have yourself to blame," she says. "There are very few jobs in which you have the freedom to say, "Oh, I'm interested in this now, so I'll pursue it."
Whatever she chooses to pursue next, Eisenberg clearly believes that the study of history is far from a desk job.