Nerddom at its Finest

Nerdom at its finest

For the past three weeks, Dr. Fea has graciously featured me on his blog for a new series he’s running called Dispatches from a History Major. The point of this series is to give people a better picture of what the life of a history major is like at Messiah College, and in my latest post, I tried to accomplish this goal by writing about what my coursework has been like this spring. It was great reflecting on my coursework, however, I feel like it would be disingenuous to just write about the work I’ve been doing and completely leave out the play. So this is going to be a post about the ridiculously nerdy game I played with 5 of my friends last January Term, and why I think it made me a better college student.

Late last fall semester, I gave a presentation in my Historical Methods class, and my classmates received it so well that afterwards it made me say to myself, “I need to role-play more.”

Yeah, you heard me right. Like Dungeons and Dragons roleplaying (except I had in mind a Star Wars version).

I won’t blame you if you fail to make the connection between my successful presentation and Dungeons and Dragons. The picture that comes to mind when someone says the word role-playing is far from historical or academic: a bunch of unsociable, adolescent boys, sitting around a dimly-lit table in a basement, dressed-up in costumes, talking in voices that sound like something out of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and doing nothing but rolling dice and screaming when they get a 20. Indeed, this image justifiably makes a person who doesn’t understand roleplaying question the mental stability of someone who pretends he is a High-Elven Mage. However, this picture is only partially accurate (please, I’ve never worn a costume), and certainly not the entirety of role-playing. At its best, role-playing can help you develop intellectual skills which are crucial for a successful college career.

Here’s what I mean. When you role-play, you work together with a group of people to create a story, and I think there are three major benefits to this:

  • You become less egocentric – stepping into the shoes of fictitious character is no easy task. Seriously, try to convincingly act like a burly dwarf form the Crystal Mountains for 5 minutes (it will not only improve your ability to empathize, but also markedly improve your Scottish accent).
  • You become a better communicator – good stories require solid narrating skills. Role-playing forces you to use vivid language, sustain an audience’s attention, and be quick on your feet. Nerds may be unsociable, but if you ever need a solid battle speech, turn to the kid wearing the Firefly shirt and he’ll probably knock your socks off.
  • You become more open-minded to new ideas – when you roleplay, a story can go in any I’ve had sessions when I’ve had to completely scrap my Game Master notes and follow the group’s led. This makes you more intellectually flexible, patient, and able to manage conflicts (it’s rare that everyone will want to take the story in the same direction).

I made good on my post-presentation words, and, when J-term rolled around, I spent the next three weeks playing a Star Wars roleplaying game with 4 other history majors and 1 engineering major. And, as I suspected, we sharpened some skills which are vital to any college student (though the emphasis on good narrative is particularly important for the historian) and laughed all along the way.

I acknowledge that there are better ways to hone intellectual skills than roleplaying, but I hope this short post is illustrative of a larger point: games, literature, and movies that are characteristically written off as a waste of time can have value and can make connecting with the past easier (I know if it weren’t for Tolkien or Age of Empires 2, I wouldn’t be nearly as interested in the past as I am now).

So, before you judge your nerdy friend’s hobbies, ask him why he likes them. You may just find that it’s because he has a genuine interest in people, culture, language, and expressing creative capacities.

James Mueller is a sophomore history major with a minor in French Language. He is a Student Fellow for Messiah’s Center for the Public Humanities, Member of the Digital Harrisburg team, level 34 Dark Elf Sorcerer, and contributor for History on the Bridge. 

An initiative of the Center for Public Humanities, the Public Humanities Student Fellows program encourages Messiah College School of Humanities students to engage in scholarship and reflection on issues of concern to the public humanities. Public Humanities Student Fellows are chosen from highly capable sophomores and juniors who are eager to connect their disciplinary knowledge and scholarship to public humanities projects that promote learning, conversation, and engagement with humanities beyond the classroom. The amount awarded to Public Humanities Student Fellows is $1,000 ($500 per semester) and 6 credit hours (3 credit hours per semester) for internship.

When Opportunity Knocks

In my time as a history major at Messiah College, I’ve done some incredible things and I love nothing more than to reminisce on my time and experiences here. When I first began college three years ago, I was a history major who knew little about the past and was barely involved in the goings-on of the History Department. My first job at Messiah was cleaning classrooms in a science building, and I never saw my future at Messiah even touching the present. As a first semester senior, I now hold three jobs at Messiah, each one exciting and important as well as providing me with work that I actually enjoy.

The first job, History Department Work Study, I began in my sophomore year. Through this position, I am able to work alongside the professors in my department and help them with varying projects, whether that is through copying papers for their classes, or helping them with researching their next book.

In the Summer between my sophomore and junior years, I began my newest position, Digital Harrisburg Research Assistant. If you don’t know anything about Digital Harrisburg, you can read all about it here and see our final product, the map of 1900 Harrisburg, here. In the past year that I have been working on this project, we have had an incredible amount of positive responses and interest in the project as well as massive success with completing the 1900 map. This coming semester alone, we have two conference presentations and several more presentations in the works, along with two courses at Messiah that will be working with the database we have created and hopefully expand the project.

Presentation at HACC GIS Day

Presentation at HACC GIS Day

Finally, in the present school year, I began my third job, Center For Public Humanities Student Fellow. Through this position, I work alongside fellow humanities majors to promote the humanities both at Messiah and in the Harrisburg community. Each of these opportunities has been meaningful to me and has given me experiences that will help me as I approach my graduation.

Outside of my employment at Messiah, I have also had the opportunity to take some truly wonderful history classes. Some of my favorites include Joan of Arc, Nationalism and its Discontents in Modern America, and the History of American Evangelicalism. Through these classes, I have gained both factual knowledge and a better understanding of how to research and think like an historian, something that is irreplaceable and will be a great factor in my future success. In addition to these amazing classes, I’ve had the privilege of developing and working on a senior honors project.

Through this experience, I am able to focus on one topic about which I am incredibly passionate while working with one professor, who is – if this is possible – even more excited about the project than I am some days. My honors project examines the effects of post-World War II American culture on the American Organ Revival.

This project will specifically focus on Reuter opus 1148, the organ that was recently refurbished and placed in Messiah’s own High Center.

Reuter opus 1148

Reuter opus 1148

This project has allowed me to put all of my love of history and music together in one project. The project itself has given me so many opportunities for conducting oral histories, event planning, working alongside many different people from different departments and outside the Messiah community, and most importantly, researching and producing a final paper and presentation. It’s incredible to me, even now while writing this blog post, to see just how much I have done in my short time at Messiah, how much I have learned about the past, and how involved I have become in the Department. I look forward to the next year and seeing how much more is to come.

Rachel Carey is a senior history major with a minor in music and a concentration in American History. She is the History Department Work Study, Digital Harrisburg Research Assistant, Center for Public Humanities Student Fellow, and a contributor for History on the Bridge.

Trivia Night!


This past year I spent my birthday at a historical society.

Let me clarify. By no means was this done purely out of dedication to my field – I love studying history, but I have my limits. Neither was it done because I was so overworked that I could not spare one day to spend with family and friends. No, it was an even mixture between time conflicts and procrastination. The Cumberland County Historical Society‘s library is only open on specific days at specific times, and I had become a boss at putting off my Historical Methods research paper.

This was the first time I had ever traveled off campus to do research, and I was going to get it done as quickly as possible. I hadn’t looked extensively into my chosen topic yet: most of my knowledge (or lack thereof) sprang from various internet sites and a couple black-and-white photographs. I’d chosen to write on the Carlisle Indian School, an institution known for its controversial Americanization of young Indian students. Developing my thesis for the paper was going to be simple – after all, the proof was in the photos! There were the Indian children prior to entering the Carlisle School: bedraggled long hair, traditional tribal attire, and looks of unsuppressed rebellion. And there they were again, as presented by the School: bleakly but well-dressed, expressionless, and identical. The school was quite obviously an indoctrination machine that sucked in Indians and spit out Americans. Its founder, General Pratt, was definitely a bigot – and I could probably throw in “cold-hearted” and “ruthless” as well. It all seemed easy to prove and appropriately dramatic. I would find my primary sources and be out of that place in no time.

I was there until the library closed.

This may seem like a harsh lesson in time management (don’t put off your paper or you’ll be sorry!) but overshadowing this were the lessons I learned about history in general and my motivations as a history student.

Let me transition for a moment. Everyone who has ever loved or enjoyed history knows that this particular discipline has a really bad rep. History students know this more than anyone (except possibly history professors. I guess they might know too.) People don’t understand why we study it. We all have had to endure that infamous get-to-know-you question: “What is your major?” Some are surprised at the word “history,” as if they didn’t even realize it was a major. Many become concerned that we do not aspire to become very rich doctors. Most reveal, in some way, shape or form, a general distaste for the study of history, as though it were a bad meal that had never really agreed with them.

Why is history viewed with such derision? Well, I’ve conducted informal interviews of various loved ones who have proclaimed to hate my field of study. Some common phrases I heard repeatedly were that history “doesn’t apply to me,” “isn’t important to me,” and “I just don’t care.” When I probed them further (“Well why don’t you care about history?”), it usually came down to the fact that history concerns itself, to put it bluntly, with “dead people.”

It’s interesting to me how people treat those who have “recently passed on” with such respect, and yet Albert Einstein, Joan of Arc, Confucius, Frederick Douglass, your great-great-great grandfather, Indian student Luther Standing Bear, and Navaho boy Tom Torlino – well, they’re just “dead.” And the assumption being made is that these historical figures no longer relate to what is current, what is active, and what is relatable. They no longer matter because they are no longer living.

This all-too-common mindset can manifest itself in a couple ways. Some people, particularly those who have little experience with history, might claim that since history is primarily the study of “dead people,” then it is simply not worth doing. History is in the past, and trying to take it out of the past is essentially a waste of time. Others, the more educated ones, will often abuse history to meet their own ends, whether that is to make a statement, to form an argument, or to win an election. Why worry about studying history ethically? If it’s all about “dead people,” then as long as you get what you want out of it, who is going to complain?

Now, I may gripe and groan about these injustices, but the truth is, I was committing these same injustices when I walked into that historical society. Not only was I failing to value my historical subjects enough to dedicate sufficient time to them, but I was also using them for my own ends. In my mind those Indian students (all of whom lived very real and very significant lives) were a thesis statement. General Pratt was a paragraph, not a person. Well, all I can say is – it’s no wonder I had little desire to linger long at that library. Why should anyone care deeply about this kind of history?

As it turns out, General Pratt was neither cold-hearted nor ruthless. Imagine my surprise when I found that many of Carlisle’s students actually loved General Pratt. It was one of the best moments of my relationship with history to have to sit back and say, “Wow. I totally misjudged him.”

Even better than that, however, was the moment I found the drawings. As I was leafing through my set of folders, smears of pencil and charcoal caught my eye. I started to pull out page after page of student work – original, creative student work. These were not newspaper clippings, magazine articles or homework assignments. These were images transferred from the students’ heads and onto paper: teepees, feathers, fields, Indians on horseback, Indians hunting buffalo… These drawings had nothing to do with white America or the Carlisle Indian School, and everything to do with life in an Indian tribe.

Cumberland County Historical Society, Carlisle Indian School Collection, Box 9

Cumberland County Historical Society, Carlisle Indian School Collection, Box 9

Cumberland County Historical Society, Carlisle Indian School Collection, Box 9

Cumberland County Historical Society, Carlisle Indian School Collection, Box 9

Those drawings destroyed even my most basic preconceptions about my research topic. The Carlisle Indian School did not “suck in Indians and spit out Americans.” It sucked in Indians and spit out Indians! Indians who wanted to return to their tribe, who never wanted to see their tribe again, who wanted to be Americans, who hated America, who were conflicted, who were frightened, who were overwhelmed, who were human.

Those students may not be alive today, but I interacted with them and I found a piece (even the tiniest piece) of their personal narrative. To realize your own shortcomings in the face of someone else’s incredible story: that, friends, is the beauty of history and why anyone should care enough to study it. I found that the Carlisle Indian School was not just a research topic, it was an institution created by and filled with human beings who were just as current, just as active, just as relatable, and just as significant as anyone who ever thought history is just about “dead people.”

I’d say it was a pretty successful birthday.

Emily La Bianca is a sophomore history major with a minor in politics. She currently acts as work study to the history department as well as this semester’s editor in chief for History on the Bridge.

My archaeology students learned a word last semester that they now love to use whenever we have a class discussion about the benefits of studying the past. “Sankofa” is an Akan term used in Ghana to denote reaching back to the past for something that will shape the present and future. It’s the word that historical archaeologist Barbara J. Little uses as a thread throughout her book Historical Archaeology: Why the Past Matters. Little sees sankofa as a word of potential that brings purpose and social action to historical archaeology today:

Sankofa is a useful concept for thinking about the way that we can relate the past to our current and future needs. Sankofa implies that our interest in the past is drawn from our circumstances in the present and our hopes for the future…Archaeology can offer glimpses into the human story as a source of hope and renewal. (pp. 15-16).

And from the conclusion:

I have tried to keep the avenues open to find ways of sankofa, of learning from the past—and the ideas we unconsciously and uncritically accept from the past—so that we might build a compassionate present…

As Little explains, using the past toward a present or future betterment does not erode serious archaeological scholarship about the past. Rigorous scholarship in fact remains the foundation of what we do as students of history. Yet, this rigorous scholarship is also useful for improving and healing society in different ways.

I was reminded of Little’s views of sankofa when I learned that Shatha Almutawa’s recent “Endnote” article from the most recent issue of Perspectives on History discusses Professor Fea’s recent book on the purposes of studying history. Like Barbara Little, Fea takes up the question of why study history, with a slightly different emphasis: empathy.

What is the historian’s role in relation to social justice?

At the Committee on Women Historians breakfast, Jacqueline Jones argued that historians should not apologize for their historical work, or for their commitment to social justice (see Debbie Ann Doyle’s report on the talk in this issue). Historians can take a more active role in learning to communicate with journalists, she said, because “a keen understanding of history presents solutions to problems” that the public should know about. In sharing their knowledge with members of the media, and consequently with a larger number of members of the public, historians could make a difference. At the same time, Jones cautioned that historians “work more deliberately and we are more attuned to nuance; at times it is not possible to give the media what they want and stay true to the evidence.”

Jones’s question about whether historians can in fact combine scholarship with activism reminds me of John Fea’s book Why Study History? Reflecting on the Importance of the Past. In this work Fea admits that the combination of scholarship and activism has a volatile history, but can be a moral stance nonetheless. He argues effectively that the work of the historian is fundamental to democracy, and believes that the world can be changed with the study of even the most obscure of histories.

Fea points to the tension between historicism—looking at history according to its own terms—and activism. He writes, “Good scholars of the past must, at some level, practice historicism. By trying to understand the past on its own terms, the historian treats it with integrity rather than manipulating it or superimposing his or her values on it to advance an agenda in the present.” In practicing historicism, historians must understand and accept that they have no control over the outcome of their research. They must be open to the possibility that the truth might not support their cause.

For the historian, Fea argues, changing the world is a by-product of careful study. When the historian takes on the role of “a tour guide through foreign cultures”—cultures from the past—“that has the best potential to transform our lives and the lives of those around us,” he writes. “It is our engagement with the otherness of these lost worlds that, ironically, prepares us well for life in the present.”

This is more in this article on Fea’s work and more on the recent discussions of social justice at the AHA. Read the rest of the piece here, and check out several articles on social justice in the rest of the issue.


Messiah History major James Mueller warns against it.

Here is a small taste of a piece published today at the blog The Way of Improvement Leads Home:

Not everyone is privileged enough to afford college or to make the best of their college experience. Some people can only afford a burger off the dollar menu. But there are some who can afford more. Many of my peers at Messiah College fail to make the most of their (often times quite pricey) college experience.  They shrug off the courses which don’t interest them and focus on the courses which directly relate to their careers.  It’s easier that way.  In the process they miss out on a good meal for the sake of a quick and easy road to a career. It seems like a bad investment to me. But, you know what they say about Americans and their cheeseburgers….  

Read the rest here.


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