Studying the Past to Prepare for the Future

History students get valuable experience by contributing to national projects—like digitizing slave records for Cornell University—and projects closer to home, like organizing and preserving the presidential records of George Brushaber.

By Jenny Hudalla ’15, content specialist

August 02, 2018 | 12:30 p.m.

History students get hands-on experience in class.

History students play important roles in preserving the past and shaping the future—at Bethel and beyond.

The ding of a cell phone pierces the silence inside the Bethel University Library, an audible reminder that while many of their peers are still fully planted in the present, students in Diana Magnuson’s Introduction to History class are decades-deep in the past. They’re working to digitize runaway slave advertisements as part of a massive crowdsourcing project for Cornell University—a testament to Magnuson’s belief that the discipline lives beyond the pages of a textbook.

“I want students to be as engaged in the past as they are in the present,” says Magnuson, professor of history and director of Bethel’s history center. “Hands-on experiences help them understand that the people they read about lived in color, just like we do."

Although their work often goes undetected, history students have played an important role in preserving Bethel’s past for decades. From photographing artifacts to digitizing the records of former President George Brushaber, students are able to put their education to work the moment they step into the classroom. They learn to organize, investigate, and analyze large bodies of evidence, identify patterns in data, and utilize primary sources, studying everything from Scandia Church on Bethel’s campus to animated shorts of The Looney Tunes produced during World War II.

“When you interpret historical sources yourself, you have to think critically and try to set aside your own biases to truly understand how people thought back then,” says Sterling Harer ’18, a business and political science and international relations major. “It’s an important skill for the workplace, because you have to be able to understand your colleagues and their points of view.”

Harer and his classmates are also working through the Minnesota Historical Society’s oral history collection, which features hundreds of audio interviews with people who immigrated to the United States from the 1960s to the present. After analyzing primary and secondary sources, students will complete a research essay that contextualizes and identifies themes related to the immigrant experience in Minnesota.

“Listening to other people’s stories creates an empathy that affects how we live in the real world,” Magnuson says. “These immigrants could be people you run into at a coffee shop, or the person who serves your food at the Dining Center. The skills students are learning are transferrable everywhere.”

For Sophia Carlson ’19, a social studies education major, the course has shaped the way she develops her own teaching strategy. “There have been moments in class where I have saved certain resources because I can already imagine the lesson plan that I can build around it,” Carlson says. “Not only am I learning how to learn in a different way, but I’m also seeing the possibilities of what my future classroom could be—not a place with simple lectures and textbook questions, but a classroom with the exploration of artifacts, sources, and real research that will help students to love learning.”

While many of Bethel’s history students go on to work in education and business—30% land positions in marketing, finance, sales, and human resources—others enter fields like law or government. Job titles among alumni range from Apple test engineer to library scientist to senior policy officer for the National Guard—an indicator of the degree’s versatility.

“Many students don’t realize how many of these career paths exist,” Magnuson says. “Our goal is to teach students how to think, so that they’re prepared to serve in whichever field they choose.”

Learn more about the Department of History at Bethel.