2020 Chair's Statement
It is hard to avoid reflecting upon past, present and future as I write this update in a virtually deserted Bowman Hall during this year of the coronavirus.
The past two and a half months have been challenging for all of us on campus as the sudden shutdown of campus pushed classes online, students out of their dorms, faculty out of their offices and, more importantly, pushed far too many Americans into hospitals and unemployment lines. Although it is often said that resilience is an important life skill, one might be forgiven for wondering whether we have all acquired too much of a good thing recently.
That said, both on campus and in the History Department, life and work go on, though often in a manner unrecognizable a few short months ago. I want to particularly recognize the collective labors of my colleagues, tenured and not, whose herculean devotion to their jobs made the unthinkably rapid transition — less than 100 hours if one insists upon counting — to remote learning possible. It is a remarkable fact that not a single complaint about the quality of their online classes or the engagement of their instructors came from undergraduates enrolled in history classes. Rest assured, many of my fellow chairs and directors were not similarly favored. And, as the campus slowly begins the process of “reopening” to a “new normal,” I have no doubt that these same colleagues are up to the challenge of adapting to a fall term that will be unlike any that we have ever known. It is a hard thing, changing one’s entire approach to teaching overnight and essentially on one’s own, and I would urge alumni of our department to reach out to professors who shaped their development and let them know of their impact. A kind word or reminiscence means even more these days, and I know my colleagues enjoy hearing from veterans of past classroom campaigns.
Of course, the more usual achievements of university life continue to be added to the rolls. Not one, but two of our advanced doctoral students, Mike Kneisel and Christian Lengyel, won prestigious University Fellowships this part year; University Fellowships permit doctoral students a semester free from teaching responsibilities so that they can finish their dissertations. Per recent practice, we also awarded several thousand dollars in scholarships to a variety of history majors. While the requirements for each scholarship vary in accordance with the wishes of the donors, it should be known that high GPAs, outstanding writing samples, and impressive achievement documented by letters of recommendation secured from faculty characterize the applications of all of our undergraduate scholarship recipients. Since we could not host our annual banquet this year, let us applaud all of our winners — Sierra Rios, James Gant, John Koleski, Hannah Miller, Emily Wheeler, Tanner Immel, and Jenna Pletcher — until we can assemble in person again. On the faculty side, two publications merit special acknowledgment. First, Isolde Thyrêt’s Saint-Making in Early Modern Russia: Religious Tradition and Innovation in the Cult of Nil Stolobenskii was published by New Academia Publishing in late summer 2019; this impressive tome reflects a life’s archival work in and reflection on the complicated interplay between faith, culture and society in early modern Russia. Meanwhile, Ann Heiss’s monograph, Fulfilling the Sacred Trust: The UN Campaign for International Accountability for Dependent Territories in the Era of Decolonization, forthcoming from Cornell University Press in late 2020, illustrates well the transnational turn in the study of American Foreign Relations, a turn that Heiss has played an important role in promoting since her dissertation.
Perhaps the highlight of our year was our department’s contribution to the campuswide slate of events commemorating the 50th anniversary of May 4, 1970. Our symposium, entitled “New Directions in the Scholarship on the Vietnam War,” was held in the Kiva on Feb. 29. Organized by professors Ann Heiss and Shane Strate, this event brought seven experts in the study of the Vietnam War to Kent from throughout the U.S. and Canada. Their papers — ranging from new examinations of internal politics in South Vietnam to deep meditations on the memory of the war for American audiences — were provocative in the best sense of the May 4 Memorial’s motto: “Inquire, Learn, Reflect.” All of our guests had positive things to say about not only the May 4 Visitor Center’s presentation of that history, but also the university’s willingness to grapple with the complicated legacy of May 4. The vast majority of us were not there on May 4, 1970, but we are all heirs to that legacy, and we’re extraordinarily grateful to those of you who attended the symposium, conversed with us and our guests during breaks, purchased books, and contacted us before and after the event to share your perspectives. We look forward to hosting you at similar gathers once our “new normal” comes to more closely resemble just plain “normal.” If you could not make it, we videotaped the proceedings for posterity — you can find links to the video on our department’s Facebook page.
I would like to close in these abnormal times by making an utterly normal request: Much of what we do in this department, from supporting the archival work of undergraduates and graduate students, to providing important financial assistance to undergraduate history majors, relies upon the generosity of alumni and friends. Sadly, we do not anticipate the expected need for financial assistance of all sorts to decline for some time. Just this month, an urgent request arrived via email, asking if our department had any possible ability to help an undergraduate major who had exhausted her financial aid, had been denied private loans and was struggling to hold her household together while finishing her last few classes to earn a degree. Every other source of assistance on the Kent Campus had been sought, but to no avail. Fortunately, in this instance, we were able to provide enough support to help this student get through the summer. But there will be more like her in the months to come, I fear. Everyone’s circumstances differ and our philanthropic impulses are being pulled in many different, equally urgent, directions at this moment — but if you have the resources and are willing to give, any financial assistance will be gladly accepted. Donations through the KSU Advancement website go directly into our general fund, which is the most flexible source of funds to assist students and faculty in our department. There are also, however, a range of scholarships that we award to undergraduates and graduates — feel free to contact me via email at firstname.lastname@example.org for information on these scholarships and how best to support them.
Wishing you all health and peace of mind,
Associate Professor & Chairperson
Department of History Kent State University