Multi-course history/English class makes its debut

Apr 18, 2024 | General News, Liberal Arts

Southern History and Culture, a Louisiana Tech course combining Southern Lit with History Special Topics and taught for the first time this 2023-24 Winter Quarter, was born like so many things are in the South — over food.

The University’s recent focus on interdisciplinary courses, not just distinct units within each College, got history professor Dr. Elaine Thompson to thinking. She’d taken a team-taught, interdisciplinary course on Southern history and literature in high school and enjoyed the class but felt there was a better approach than just reading a bunch of Faulkner.

“Tech hired a Southern lit professor, Benjamin Bergholtz, a couple of years ago,” Thompson said. “The time seemed ripe to approach Ben to see if he was interested — so I asked him when I ran into him at the grocery store.”

Food for thought for Ben, who ate it up. Said he was in.

After getting permission from various department heads and the associate dean, “Dr. T” and Bergholtz worked together for an hour each week of fall quarter to mix the ingredients of what would become History 490/English 424 Southern History and Culture.

They discussed how the class would function practically (both would be in the classroom daily), what readings would be used, what assignments they’d make (like readings, discussions, papers) and more.

They also decided that the only distinction between students enrolled in the two sections of the class would be that the English students would write a research paper on a literary topic, and the history students would write a comparative book review of two monographs; otherwise, they’d do the exact same work.

There were 11 students in each of the class’s two sections.

“It was a lot of effort,” Thompson said, “but I think we’re both happy with how the course turned out.”

“It’s been fun, challenging, and rewarding all at the same time,” Bergholtz said. “As Dr. T suggested, we’re learning from one another at the same as the students are, so that’s been useful not just to this class but to my future independent teaching. It’s been challenging insofar as we have to plan more carefully in advance to make sure our own portions of the class complement one another, but the product of that planning has generally been engaged students and dynamic discussion.”

“We are examining the American South through the lens of Southern (White) male honor, as seen in the concepts of patriarchy and paternalism,” Thompson said. “We then divided the course into several themes, including the roles of white women, enslaved women, enslaved men, and finally mixed-race individuals after the Civil War. Our sources range from historical monographs to novels to blockbuster films to documentaries.”

The syllabus included “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl” by Harriet Jacobs, “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass” by Douglass, and Faulkner’s “Light in August.” The class watched “Gone With the Wind” and “12 Years a Slave.” Add documentaries, chapters from some history texts, poetry, even a visit from the author of “The Plantation Mistress,” historian Catherine Clinton, who spoke with the class about Harriet Tubman and her legacy.

“It was a busy class,” Thompson said, “but the daily discussions were fantastic.”

Sophomore Liv Caserta of Zachary, a history major studying to become an archivist, took the class because “as a resident of Louisiana I wanted to learn how our culture has influenced so much of the country,” she said. “I work at the famous haunted plantation — The Myrtles in St. Francisville — and always thought I had a decent understanding of what Louisiana culture was. This class showed me I only knew the tip of the iceberg. Dr. Thompson and Dr. Bergholtz are incredible professors and their passion for the program really shined through. 

“I would absolutely recommend this class for anyone who has ever been curious as to how and why our great state is constantly the backdrop for so many fictional works.”

A junior from Vinton and likely a future educator, Zachariah Bleichroth took the class because “the dual-style setup was intriguing to me as a student; it’s not something I’ve come across before, so I didn’t want to miss out on the chance to take it.”

Even though he is used to lots of reading in his upper-level English courses, Bleichroth said the “workload was very difficult for sure,” but that “most of the texts were pretty engaging, so that made the work worth it at times. A drawback from the workload is that class must be dedicated to very specific themes or lessons so that the most can be gathered from the course, and sometimes, time constraints don’t allow that to happen.

“Having a historical context added to novels we discussed helped place the book in history,” he said. “It was always super interesting to learn of the greater realm of things happening before diving into the viewpoint of one particular book. I also feel like I took away more from some of the novels we read than I would have without that background.

“I would recommend this class,” he said, “especially since it can do nothing but improve from this point. I think if someone is interested and can fit it into their class schedule, they should take it.”

“We’ve already begin talking about what we’ll do differently ‘next time,’” Thompson said. “That will probably be winter quarter 2025-26, which would put the class on a two-year rotation.”