Wednesday, October 2, 2013

A Visit To Mount Saint Mary's University

I spent most of day on Tuesday at Mount Saint Mary's University in Emmittsburg, MD.  "The Mount" is located about forty-five miles south of Messiah College on Route 15.  I pass it whenever I drive to the Washington D.C. area. This, however, was my first visit to the university. Thanks to Charles Strauss, a fellow alumnus of the Lilly Fellows Program in Humanities and the Arts at Valparaiso University and a relatively new member of the History Department at The Mount, for the invitation to speak to history majors and give a lecture on Christian America to the students in the university's "American Experience" courses.

I began my day at The Mount by having coffee with Curtis Johnson, the chair of the History Department and a well-known scholar of religion in the early republic.  I have admired his work ever since I read Islands of Holiness: Rural Religion in Update New York, 1790-1860 and Redeeming America: Evangelicals and the Road to the Civil War in graduate school.  He is currently at work on a project that will argue that Charles Finney's "New Measures" were largely ineffective in bringing upstate New York Baptists into the evangelical fold during the Second Great Awakening.  Look for his forthcoming article in The Journal of the Early Republic. Of course we also chatted about the challenges of presiding over history departments at small church-related liberal arts colleges and the differences between how a Catholic college like the Mount and an Anabaptist-Evangelical college like Messiah approach the liberal arts.

Over meals during the course of the day I got to chat with several members of Mount Saint Mary's History Department.  It was a pleasure meeting Jamie Gianoutsos, Michelle Patterson, Teresa Rupp, Liz Strauss, and Steven White.  (I hope I am not forgetting anyone).  There seems to be a real sense of camaraderie among the members of the department, something that you do not always see in the academic world. I also got a chance to chat for a few minutes with Joshua Hochschild, the Dean of the College of Liberal Arts.  Some of you may recall that several years ago Joshua was asked to leave Wheaton College (IL) after he converted to Catholicism.

In the afternoon I had a great discussion with history majors about my chapter "What You Can Do With a History Major?" in Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past.  (They read the chapter in advance). Many of the Mount's history majors share common anxieties about how to put their degrees to work after graduation, but I was impressed with how they were already thinking about how to market their degrees in fields like politics, occupational therapy, and divinity. We discussed the transferable skills history majors bring to the job market.

My evening lecture drew heavily from Was America Founded as a Christian Nation: A Historical Introduction?  My host for the evening was David Wehner, an Americanist in the English Department and the director of the American Experience courses.  Dave has developed a very innovative (at least to me) way for students to get the most out of these large lectures.  After I presented to about 200 students, we took a 3-4 minute break before the Q&A to allow the students who wanted to leave to filter out of the lecture hall. Everyone was invited to the Q&A, but only those who were interested in engaging more deeply with the topic chose to stay.  I am guessing about thirty or forty students stayed for what turned out to be a very good session.  I really like this way of handling plenary lectures, especially when students are involved.  It allows those who are only present because they are required to be there to exit the room without the kind of noisy and rude disruptions that often happen as students pack up and leave in the middle of the Q&A.

I always learn a lot when I visit campuses for speaking engagements and my visit to The Mount was no exception.  I will now drive down Route 15 in Emmitsburg with a new appreciation for the kind of intellectual pursuits going on at the second oldest Catholic University (1808) in the country.