Challenging the comfort zone

May 11, 2016

Rick Brewer is a history fellow and major from Uniontown, Ohio and the author of “The Past Cannot Die” podcast series. As a member of the Big Red men’s basketball team, he was on the 2014-15 NABC Honors Court, which recognizes those men’s collegiate basketball student-athletes who excelled in academics during the past season. After graduation, he will further his study of history at Indiana University in the fall of 2016.

I was terrified of my first history class at Denison, “Doing History” with Dr. Joanna Tague. Having transferred from a community college in the fall of 2013, where classes were mostly big lectures, I immediately questioned my decision to study history here, where there were no giant classes to hide in.

During class discussion, I would get so nervous that I could feel my body temperature rise when I raised my hand to participate. I could not have been more intimidated by my fellow students; they all seemed so incredibly motivated and much brighter than I felt.

When I got my first paper back, I realized that I had no clue how to write a history essay. But with Dr. Tague’s encouragement, I stuck with it, and that first assignment turned out to be my lowest paper grade during my time here.

Today, I can’t help but laugh at myself when reflecting upon that experience. It’s difficult to comprehend just how much I have grown as a student since then. I owe my successes as a history student to Dr. Tague’s History 290 class, as it put me out of my comfort zone and challenged the way I thought about history.

One of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned as a history major is that analyzing the past is truly an exercise of the imagination because you are able to place yourself into the time and minds of people and places of long ago. Studying history has had such a profound impact on me that I made the decision to continue my education in the field at Indiana University.

Of all the great experiences I’ve had as a history student, I think the most valuable has been the opportunities to conduct independent research. While history majors are only required to take one upper-level research seminar, I was so excited about the different courses offered that I took two.

Not only that, but as part of the Lisska Center’s Young Scholar program, I conducted a summer research project, “Darkness and Gloom? Medievalists vs. Italian Renaissance Scholars in the Debate Over Humanism.” And for my major capstone project, I completed a year-long independent senior thesis titled “ ‘An Intimate Fellowship’? Muslim-Christian Encounters in the Crusading Levant.”

One crucial skill I have developed through all of this historical research has been the ability to read critically and distil a diverse number of primary and secondary source materials into my writing.

Despite the challenges of spending long hours alone researching, reading and writing, I have found conducting historical research to be my most rewarding experience as an undergraduate. Believe me, there were countless times throughout my research experiences when I felt I was going nowhere.

But those darkest moments of research, when everything seemed uncertain, pushed me to write and think on levels I never thought I could achieve. During the drafting stages of writing, it was remarkable to literally see my writing grow and feel my skills as a researcher improve after every project.

Another invaluable part of my research experiences has been the chance to develop personal relationships with my advisors for my summer research with Dr. Spierling, and senior thesis with Dr. Davis. Not only did I learn from experts in the field, but they also re-energized me to continue researching and helped me through some of the most stressful times. They also provided advice and support when I had to make difficult graduate school decisions and helped me determine where I want my professional career in history to go.

Studying history at Denison has been an experience that will stay with me for the rest of my life. It reinforced my enthusiasm for the discipline and made me realize that I want to dedicate my life to studying and preserving the past.

The history department faculty helped me believe in myself, which gave me the confidence to apply to graduate school. As I enter Indiana University this coming fall as a master’s student, I could not feel more prepared to begin rigorous course work and I owe that confidence to the dedication of this department to developing its students. Being a member of this department is one of the things I’ll miss most about Denison, for without this experience my life would not be the same.

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