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Faculty Spotlight: Dr. Lance Thurner on Animating Historical Empathy

Dr. Thurner (with Ursula): "If the past is worth knowing, it needs to prove it. "

Dr. Lance Thurner, PhD, is a Part Time Lecturer in the Department of History at Rutgers-Newark (SAS-N). He was awarded a Presidential Award for Excellence in Teaching by a Part-Time Lecturer in 2022. Dr. Thurner also led a faculty-learning community in AY22-23 on the topic of critical digital pedagogy.

Q: What is one innovative or unique teaching practice you’d like to share?

A: In recent years, I’ve been developing new (and, I think, better) ways of cultivating what we might call a historical imagination among students. I want them to see themselves as living in history - to think of themselves and those around them as living historically situated and significant lives – and to therefore see the study of the past as extraordinarily useful and powerful. It’s not easy – neither for me nor them. Most students enroll in my courses to fulfill a general education requirement and their expectations are low. They feel that history should be important (often pulling out the classic “those who do not remember the past…” adage), but few, if any, have actually found the past useful in a personal sense. I seek to turn that around. I like to start the semester with a short reading by Friedrich Nietzsche, who wrote, “We want to serve history only to the extent that history serves life.” If the past is worth knowing, it needs to prove it.

I try to cultivate a historical imagination in a couple of different ways. All of them involve jettisoning the traditional five-paragraph academic essay in favor of projects that prompt students to personally engage with historical materials. In my course History of Modern Latin America, for example, students create multimedia digital storymaps in which they interweave personal histories with analyses of primary sources from the past 200 years. Intellectually, it is a big lift as they struggle to find significance in events that occurred decades or centuries before they were born and in countries they’ve never visited and perhaps never will. Early in the semester I see the doubt in their faces (indeed, they flat out express their reservations), but by the end they get there. Historians call our ability to put ourselves in the shoes of the past historical empathy, and as students practice this skill, not only does the past seem livelier, but also more meaningful.

In another course, Latin American Lives Across Borders, my students design a historical research project around someone they know or have known who migrated across national borders within the last century. Many of my students are either immigrants themselves or are the children of immigrants, and the majority choose close family members. We spend the semester developing the skills and learning the tools to historicize their research subjects’ journeys. This is a reiterative and highly scaffolded process through which students use scholarship and historical sources to understand not only where their subjects’ experiences fit in history, but also how these experiences can inform new interpretations of the past. There is a great deal of uncertainty and confusion along the way, but invariably there is an aha! moment when they see how to pose an excellent and effective historical research question about something that is deeply significant to them.

Both projects are aimed at helping students overcome the alienating character of academic and official history. By virtue of being human, we all innately have a past that matters to us: personal history, family history, community history (however you might define that). The key is to help students see that these smaller histories are not different from, lesser than, or disconnected from big History (with a capital H), and are instead valuable and insightful pathways into the most important questions about the past.

You can see some of my teaching projects here:

Q: How does this work advance the university's mission as a publicly-engaged anchor institution?

A: At Rutgers Newark, nearly all of our students hail from within 200 miles of campus; most call home some place far nearer. It is through them that Newark and the region enter the university. If allowed and empowered to do so, students bring their families, their communities, and their experiences to coursework through their participation and engagement. And when the day, week, or semester is over, they return home where they relay what happened at college. It is in this manner that Rutgers is most intimately connected with our communities.

My teaching methods seek to build upon these networks and to help students see their lives, experiences, and communities as intellectual assets that can be leveraged to develop critical analytical skills. Just last semester, I had students reflect on growing up in the Ironbound to deepen their analyses of nationalism in twentieth-century Brazil and Cuba. Others drew upon the collective memories of the Egyptian-American communities of our region to understand authoritarianism in the Dominican Republic. And because their families and communities are already present in their work, students are excited to share their work at home. The storymap project mentioned above is exemplary: every semester students report to me the impressions of their parents, grandparents, and other significant figures in their lives.

The products of this work are not showy and are mostly invisible. There are no headline events or public partnerships that enhance the standing of the university. Mostly this work all happens in students’ heads and in conversation between me, them, and the place they call home. Nonetheless, I see this as a central aspect of Rutgers’s mission as a publicly-engaged anchor institution: We most succeed when our students experience their education as enhancing and building upon who they are and where they are from.

Also from Dr. Thurner:

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