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Historical Memory Applied: A Class for Assessing Commemoration

December 15, 2017

picture of newpapers hanging on a wall

picture of newpapers hanging on a wall
Photo by Jacob Van Blarcom, CLAgency student

This spring, University of Minnesota students have the opportunity to take a new class that will explore the University’s complicated past and tackle tough questions being asked across the country and beyond.

HIST 3000: A Campus Divided: Contested Histories from the University of Minnesota to Charlottesville arose in the wake of neo-Nazi protests in Charlottesville in early August. It was also inspired by an on-campus exhibit on display this fall (August–December 2018), called “A Campus Divided: Progressives, Anti-Communists, Racism, and Anti-Semitism at the University of Minnesota, 1930-1944.” The exhibit illustrates campus life during a time when conflict ensued between administrators and students over racism, segregation, and antisemitism. The exhibit depicts ways in which the University sought to suppress and surveille student and faculty progressives, and also raises questions about key figures from that time period.

“The course is going to start with the exhibit, the potential issues it raises, and the ways in which it makes us think about historical memory and commemoration,” says PhD candidate Joseph Haker, who will teach the class. Haker is well-versed in addressing ways that identity and conflict can center around memorials; his dissertation research focuses on contentious displays of the Ten Commandments in postwar America.

The course is designed to confront issues of memorialization and historical memory in a modern political context. “For example,” states Haker, “with the events in Charlottesville, in which members of alt-right groups contested the removal of confederate statues, we have competing narratives of why memorials like these exist. Our class’ job is to view the historical context and understand the history to really see what these statues represent.”

The class will confront ways that segregation and antisemitism played out at the University of Minnesota in the 1930s and early 1940s, and will examine how the University presents historical narratives about that era. Students will debate how they think the University should commemorate events that have such lasting impact and importance to contemporary politics.

The class will explore other cases of contested memorialization, such as the Vietnam War Memorial, Ground Zero, and the American Internment Memorial. It will also delve into comparative case studies in other countries to see what could be learned from—and outside of—an American perspective. The class will be primarily based on readings and discussions. Students will also be expected to write short essays and participate in a project about contested monuments not mentioned in the class.

Haker has two overarching goals for the class. The first is to equip students with a holistic understanding of the contexts from which specific hot-topic debates are born. The second is to get students in the habit of thinking critically about the history of whatever issue touches their lives.

“It’s important for students and the community to grapple with their own history,” he says. “The way we need to start questioning this is by digging into difficult questions that society does not want to have.”

This story was written by an undergraduate student account executive in CLAgency. Meet the team.