Meet Our Majors

Meet some of our history majors.

 

Leah Harman ’20

Hometown: Minneapolis, MN
Major: history; minors: East Asian Studies and Spanish

What was your motivation to major in history? Was there a specific inspirational moment or experience?
My path towards becoming a history major was not always obvious to me. I loved history in high school, but was actually much more focused on science. I came in to Oxy as an aspiring biology major and pursued that path for my first three semesters. Throughout that time, I felt my passion for biology waning, and while I still loved the subject, the practice was not fulfilling my intellectual curiosities. It was in Professor Nina Gelbart’s “History of Western Medicine” class when I fully realized I could study science AND engage my love for history. I came to Professor Gelbart’s class every day excited to learn, discuss and explore past discoveries. Two years later, Professor Gelbart is my major adviser and I am fully committed to studying the history of science and medicine. Her class offered me the opportunity to shift my interests, and now having had most of the professors in the department, I am so glad I chose history.

Can you describe your working relationships with history professors? Any standout classes you’ve taken?
The professors in the history department at Oxy are some of the best on campus. Their excitement about what they teach is so fun to participate in and they go above and beyond to ensure their students have the resources to succeed. I have had the opportunity to work most closely with Professors Gelbart, Jane Hong and Marla Stone—three women who challenge and inspire me to learn. Hong’s “The United States in the World Since 1900,” Gelbart’s “History of Western Medicine,” and Stone’s “The Holocaust: History, Testimony, and Memory” have been my favorite classes at Occidental.

History is like a constantly evolving investigation and the more you figure out, the more interesting it becomes.”

Can you describe your senior comps project?
My senior comps project is looking at elements of masculinity within the American debate of contagiousness of puerperal fever in the 19th century. Puerperal fever, also known as postpartum infection or childbed fever, was a devastating and often fatal disease that resulted from a bacterial infection of the uterine tract following childbirth or miscarriage. Puerperal fever most commonly appeared in hospitals for childbirth or “lying-in hospitals” with crowded quarters, frequent vaginal examinations and infected medical instruments. Before what we now know as Pasteur’s germ theory of disease or Lister’s theories on antiseptic, medical professionals debated the contagious nature of puerperal fever, theorized how it spread and questioned physician culpability. I am arguing that due to the abiding gender dynamics of self-made manhood, heroic masculinity and the unacceptable nature of failure ingrained in United States society, most American doctors rejected the assertion of physician culpability regarding the spread of puerperal fever in the 19th century. 

What do you find most compelling about studying history?
I think one of the most compelling things about studying history is that it challenges you to analyze and understand the world from different worldviews. It is a combination of effectively communicating your own interpretations while also grappling with the conflicting assessments of others. History is like a constantly evolving investigation and the more you figure out, the more interesting it becomes.

Do you have any advice for a student considering a major in history?
The history department at Oxy is truly a hidden gem. The best advice for students considering a major in history is to utilize your Oxy professors. Learn about what they study, be inquisitive and curious, go to office hours for help or just to talk things through. I can only speak from my own journey, but becoming a history major is something I am so thankful for—you won’t regret it!

 


 

Bethany Widen ’21

Hometown: Mission Viejo, CA
Major: history

What was your motivation to major in history? Was there a specific inspirational moment or experience?

When I first arrived at Oxy, I wanted to explore different areas of study. I wasn’t convinced my casual love for history would be the right major for me. But a history course on the American Civil War, taught by the 2018-19 Billington Visiting Professor, Michael Vorenberg, became a transformational experience for me. From the moment I read through the syllabus, and throughout each subsequent class, I realized that every topic we studied was something I might have sought out on my own for fun. This course gave me the confidence to major in history—it helped me realize I could pursue a valuable and rigorous course of study in a topic I truly loved.

Can you describe your working relationships with history professors? Any standout classes you’ve taken?

The history professors I’ve studied with are fully committed to encouraging students to develop critical thinking and analytical skills through discussion and writing. They are approachable and happy to work with students beyond questions concerning their major to opportunities such as study abroad, internships and research. Notably, I enjoyed Professor Jane Hong’s course, “The United States in the World Since 1900,” which challenged my understanding of modern U.S. history, specifically how power and race informed the United States’ foreign policy throughout the 20th century. The class also elevated my skills in using primary and historiographical sources to enhance my study of history. Equally compelling was Professor Marla Stone’s course, “The Holocaust: History, Testimony, and Memory,” which I found particularly engaging because it incorporated survivor testimony, visual documentaries, and literary narratives to examine not only the history of the Holocaust but also the ways in which history is remembered and memorialized.

What do you find most compelling about studying history?

I find history compelling because studying the past informs my perception of current events. For example, my study of the Nazi regime engenders a deeper understanding of the political, social, cultural, economic and ideological factors that can create an environment that gives rise to authoritarian power in government—a critical issue we see across the world today.

What are your plans or ambitions post-Oxy? How has the liberal arts approach helped to shape these ambitions?

Currently, I’m interested in opportunities involving teaching, museum work, nonprofit organizations, politics, or government service. Once I’ve gained professional experience in a particular field, I hope to undertake postgraduate study. Through an emphasis on breadth and diversity of knowledge, my liberal arts education has provided me with the opportunity to explore a wide variety of distinct but interrelated topics. This curriculum fosters a holistic and interdisciplinary approach to analysis and research, written and verbal communication, and above all, critical thinking.

Do you have any advice for a student considering a major in history?

My advice is to explore different options. One of the advantages of a liberal arts education at Oxy is that you’re not locked into a course of study when you arrive. I found that experimenting with courses in various departments helped me narrow my focus in terms of what I was most interested in pursuing academically. Furthermore, I recommend that you attend the history department’s fall and spring parties—it’s your chance to gain a sense of what’s happening in the department, hear the experiences of fellow history majors, and connect with professors to get a sneak peek at upcoming courses and opportunities.

 


 

Milo Goodell ’20

Hometown: Saratoga Springs, NY
Major: history; minor: politics

What was your motivation to major in history? Was there a specific inspirational moment or experience?

It’s hard to pin down a single moment when I fell in love with history, but it certainly involved Lyrical Ballad, a used bookstore in my hometown. My Dad used to take me with him when he went to shop for presents or reading material and I would spend hours browsing the history section. I still have many books from that bookstore on my shelf at home—some of my favorites were a thick volume on the Pacific Front of WWII and the Cartoon History of the Universe. I didn’t really understand the context of Admiral Yamamoto’s daring or Martin Luther’s courage, but I loved the stories. I’ve learned to think critically about those stories and to put them in context, but the excitement I felt while searching for a new book in Lyrical Ballad has never really left me.

Can you describe your working relationships with history professors? Any standout classes you’ve taken?

The history professors at Occidental have been one of the highlights of my college experience. They are all incredibly passionate about what they’re teaching, and eager to share that passion with their students. You can’t help but take away a little of that passion after taking a class with them. I still remember and will probably always remember Professor Nina Gelbart’s lecture on Charlotte Corday’s dramatic murder of Marat from my first year, Professor Alexander Day’s explanation of the limits that horses’ grain-carrying capacity imposed on the effectiveness of early states, Professor Marla Stone’s lessons on Italian Fascism and Professor Michael Gasper’s colorful class on the Iran/Iraq war. They each have left a mark on me intellectually and academically.

Have you taken part in any academic research  opportunities at Oxy or elsewhere?  

I had the chance to do research with a Billington Visiting Professor at Oxy, Professor Michael Vorenberg. It was both intellectually rewarding and great fun. I assisted him with his ongoing work on the ambiguous end of the Civil War, specifically looking into what happened to black soldiers who fought for the Union but refused to be sent west after the end of the war. Many black soldiers were sent to Fort Jefferson, a military prison off the coast of the Florida Keys, where they languished for a number of years after the end of hostilities. It was a fascinating research project, and one that helped inform my senior comps project. I'm writing about Edward Coles, the scion of one of the five great plantation families in Virginia, who decided to emancipate his slaves.

Did you study abroad?

Yes, I studied abroad in Vienna, Austria. I worked about 20 hours a week for the European Environmental Bureau, the largest conglomeration of environmental NGOs in Europe. I worked directly with one of the VPs of the organization on lobbying, research and policy-making. I wrote a speech for a member of the European Parliament and participated in a conference on clean air in Bratislava, to name some of the highlights. It was an extraordinary opportunity.

What do you find most compelling about studying history?

My favorite thing about studying history is being able to make connections—when you find little details in the writings of Robespierre that remind you of something in the Federalist Papers or when suddenly land redistribution policies in China remind you of the great fights in the Roman Senate around farmland. There’s so much information to explore, and a constantly evolving way of applying it.

What are your plans or ambitions post Oxy? 

Right now, I’m interested in a career in foreign policy. I intend on taking the foreign service exam this winter, and hope to apply to the State Department or work in foreign policy on Capitol Hill.

Do you have any advice for a student considering a major in history?

Don’t feel pressured to specialize. Take classes across continents and time periods, and push yourself to find similarities and compare differences. Read with skepticism—just because a story has always been told one way doesn’t mean that way is right, or that is all there is to know.

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2018-19 Senior Comprehensive Projects

Laura Chun
Comprehensive Paper Title:
"The Evolving Representation of Vietnamese Women from 1963-1980: An Insight into American Culture"

 

Andrea Clawson
Comprehensive Paper Title:
“Opposing Strategies: Women Historians in the Early Twentieth Century"

Henry Doyle
Comprehensive Paper Title:
“Tracing Threads of Foreign Flags"

Rachael Goodman
Comprehensive Paper Title:
"The Dramatic Reaction to Nazism in America"

 

Kevin Grundy
Comprehensive Paper Title:
“The Polish-Jewish Renaissance and Lingering Anti-Semitism: What has been remembered and forgotten in post-Soviet Era Poland"

 

Meighann Mahoney
Comprehensive Paper Title:
“Ku Klux Klan in South Carolina During Reconstruction: The Use of Sexual Violence in Electoral Politics"

Darby Pak
Comprehensive Paper Title:
“The Politics of Comfort Women Memorials"

 

Pablo Saleta
Comprehensive Paper Title:
“Familial Relations in Mexican Immigrant Labor Practices"

Jack Schofield
Comprehensive Paper Title:
“Liberation Violence to Enforcement of Party Lines: The Transition of FSLN Violence from a Revolutionary Guerrilla Movement Tactic to an Anti-Democratic Authoritarian Party Strategy between 1990-2008"

Isabel Schwartzberg
Comprehensive Paper Title:
“To People Living With... Not Dying From Disease": Representations of the AIDS Epidemic in Rent and Angels in America
 

Caroline Silverstein
Comprehensive Paper Title:
“The most remarkable sports facility since the Romans opened their Colosseum in 80 A.D.": The New Orleans Superdome and the Making of an Icon