Associate Professor of History, Michelle Rhoades - When I applied for the position as a history professor at Wabash College, I was most intrigued not by the all-male aspect of the college, but by a new program the college had started called “immersion learning.” Faculty could propose courses that included a travel component designed to reinforce and augment classroom learning. When I went to France in my early twenties it changed my life, putting me on the path to become a college professor. I saw immersion learning at Wabash as an opportunity to offer that life-changing experience to a new generation. After accepting a position, I set out to create an immersion course for my students. There was just one problem. I am a French historian. If I took a group of students to Paris I would be taking them to the number-one tourist destination in the world. I wondered how I could justify such a trip and make it a truly academic venture instead of a mid-semester vacation.
To solve my problem and create this course, I spent months reading in a field of history called historical memory. The premise of the field is very simple: people in a culture agree on the important elements of their culture’s past. This informs their identity and how they understand their history. This may seem obvious but each of my students will tell you that historical memory is very complicated. Each student has wrestled with the idea of historical memory and how it has contributed to French citizens’ understanding of who they are today. The have also wrestled with the mechanics of historical memory and how it creates the past. It’s a tough course. In fact, when I tell colleagues what my students read they are surprised. “Can they handle that reading?” is usually the first question. The second is “do they get it?” An emphatic “yes” is my answer to each question.
Now that my students have studied historical memory and its role in French history, it is time to go to Paris and allow them to apply what they have learned. The travel component of my course is part anthropological field work (they have a project to complete while in Paris), part historical observation (they have already written papers on historical memory), and part personal experience. Travel allows students to compare theories about the importance of Versailles, Notre Dame, French cuisine, Vichy France, and French politics to what they see and experience in Paris. In other words, my students will travel to the number-one tourist destination in the world not as tourists but as highly-educated specialists, each able to decipher and read the complexities of France’s past as it is represented in the present.
It’s a tough course. But as we say around here, “it won’t be easy, but it will be worth it.”