Bicentennial courses examine UM history and future
This semester, in honor of the University of Michigan’s bicentennial, LSA is carrying on its tradition of a themed semester by offering over 20 classes centered around the 200th anniversary of the University.
The classes, offered in several different LSA departments with an overarching theme of Making Michigan, focus on the school’s place in important events of the past 200 years and where it lies in the current social landscape. Many also emphasize the future of higher education and the issues it faces today.
Terrence McDonald, the former dean of LSA and now a history professor as well as director of the Bentley Historical Library, is teaching a class called “22 Ways to Think About the History of the University of Michigan.” The class will offer many different perspectives on the school’s past. It is also cross-listed with the Applied Liberal Arts department, which houses classes that have extensive extracurricular opportunities and a multi-disciplinary focus.
“(In the class) we think of the University as a place, as a built form, as a kind of generator of records,” McDonald said. “We’re going to spend some time at the Bentley Library, attend a special tour of the show at UMMA on the history of the Union and the League, and we’re having a variety of guests come in and speak about other topics.”
McDonald, who has been teaching at the University since 1980, believes that studying the school’s past will help students understand its significance on a global scale.
“If you spend time studying the history of the University, one fact about it is that it was one of the most important universities in American history,” McDonald said. “I think we have a vague sense of the current rankings, but really from the 1950s on, the University of Michigan has been one of the most important universities in the country and in the world. I think it’s important to know that.”
American Culture Prof. Kristin Hass is also taking a hands-on approach to the bicentennial in her class, titled “University of Michigan Time Capsule.” In Hass’s class, students create work that will be included in the bicentennial time capsule, which will be launched into space this year and brought down for the tricentennial in 2117.
While preparing for the class, Hass discovered that very few time capsules have been successful in revealing novel information about the past. She wants her students to use the class to create pieces that will actually affect future views of the last century at the University.
“In 100 years, people will have so much more information about us,” Hass said. “The challenge is producing something that will cut through that avalanche of data.”
Hass describes the 16-person class as much more fun than most of her other courses. It’s an important one though, she said, because it hones in on the true purpose of the bicentennial.
“Having classes that really engage students for a whole semester celebrates the University by doing what we do best: teaching,” Hass said.
Other classes honor the landmark year in more abstract ways. Heather Thompson, also a professor of history, is teaching a themed class called “The History of Detroit in the 20th Century.” The class grapples with both historical and modern issues faced by the city and examines its relationship with the University.
“I think it’s really important that students know the history of the largest metropolitan area around,” Thompson said. “Over the decades, there’s been a sense that the University of Michigan and Detroit are really disconnected, and we’ve been trying to reconnect the two.”
Thompson’s class aligns with the bicentennial theme of challenging society, and she hopes her class will give students an insight into what she sees as a notorious gap between Ann Arbor and Detroit.
“I think it’s really important that Michigan students question why they are so disconnected from this major metropolitan region and actually engage,” Thompson said. “I hope they see it as a place that’s incredibly interesting, and … I hope they learn to listen to Detroiters, and what they have to say — what they feel needs to happen to their city, rather than treating it like a laboratory.”
There are also many bicentennial research projects focused on the solely University’s internal affairs. LSA Senior Katie Zoller, participated in a study, conducted by German studies prof. Dr. Kerstin Barndt, on the University’s museums. The experience, she said, broadened both her view and her appreciation of the school.
“(The research) tells us how we got started, how our university developed, and also shows us how the tradition of excellence that we see today has been here since the University started,” Zoller said. “There are lots of discoveries we made that have impacted the history of the University.”
The project ended in April, but Zoller is continuing her involvement with the bicentennial by taking “Michigan in the Era of Industrialization.” The class involves more research than Zoller’s other classes, and allows her to explore a more specific topic.
“It looks like we’ll have a lot more time to go to the Bentley library and do primary research,” Zoller said. “It seems really interesting to talk about the University at the University, as opposed to going to the University and learning about a lot of different topics.”
Aside from historical classes, bicentennial courses includes topics from the physical sciences to the social sciences. The theme is intended to involve all aspects of this institution this semester, and Professor McDonald says this is his favorite part about it.
“People from a variety of different disciplines are using the University as their case study for this semester,” McDonald said. “It’s a phenomenal banquet of intellectual interest that cuts across all these courses.”