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Popular First-Year Seminar Class Marks Its 10th Anniversary

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With a title like “The Secret History of the 20th Century,” it’s no wonder that Eric Selbin’s First-Year Seminar class is popular.

With a title like “The Secret History of the 20th Century,” it’s no wonder that Eric Selbin’s First-Year Seminar class is popular. But while one might think the class focuses on unknown CIA misadventures or conspiracy theories, it actually is about asking students to question their whole conception of the world.

“Many of the most interesting things in history aren’t in the history books and aren’t the sort of things we talk about,” says Selbin, a professor of political science at Southwestern and University Scholar. For example, he says, many students are shocked to learn that some of our ideas about democracy came from Pirate enclaves in the Mediterranean or that Nazi eugenics practices were modeled after laws on the book in places like Indiana, Ohio and West Virginia.

“I’m trying to show students that the way they think about the world reflects a choice – it is something they have learned,” Selbin says. “And if they think about the world in other ways, it can lead to all these other possibilities.”

Selbin’s “Secret History” seminar was one of the original First-Year Seminars offered when Southwestern started the program for incoming students in 1999. This fall, it is celebrating its 10th anniversary. Selbin says he came up with the name of the seminar from a 1989 book by American rock-music critic Greil Marcus titled Lipstick Traces – A Secret History of the 20th Century. The book examines popular music and art as a social critique of Western culture.

“I was so intrigued by this book – I kept going back to it,” Selbin says. Selbin begins the seminar by asking students to read a paper on “Temporary Autonomous Zones” by Hakim Bey and a paper on “Rhizomes” by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari – the kind of material that is normally assigned to first-year graduate students. Both papers present alternative ways of thinking about the world.

“I’ve never had to read anything so challenging in any other class,” says Mary Kierst, a 2008 graduate who took the seminar. “Eric’s class stretched me to my limits, and I don’t think I was the only one who felt that way. The conversations, and frankly, the arguments we had in that class were some of my favorite in college.” Kierst returned to visit the seminar every year she was at Southwestern because she says she “couldn’t wait to see how a new group of students tackled these things.” Selbin says one goal of the seminar is to show first-year students that it is possible to make a living pursuing questions that interest them. It’s a lesson many of them have taken to heart.

“Before I came to Southwestern I had definitely thought about being a professor once or twice, but it was when I met Dr. Selbin that I actually began to get excited about the prospect,” says Brian Gingrich, who graduated from Southwestern in May. Gingrich entered graduate school at Stanford University this fall with plans to become a German professor. Jenny Carlson graduated from Southwestern in 2002 and is now working on her Ph.D. in anthropology at The University of Texas at Austin. Her research involves topics she first became interested in while taking the “Secret History” class.

“Eric’s class was a watershed moment for me in a variety of ways,” Carlson says. “It is both an adventure and an experiment – a kind of laboratory that compels students to ask how historical phenomena ‘work’ in the real world. Even at the best of liberal arts schools, far too many courses deal in definitions, teaching students how to explain what a social movement or a popular happening ‘is,’ but not to ask what such an occurrence ‘does’ – how historical events work to craft a lens through which subsequent generations view the world. As I moved out into the real world after Southwestern, I realized how crucial the latter can be for problem solving.”

Carlson is organizing a reunion of the more than 200 “Secret History” alumni at Homecoming this year, complete with a presentation of academic papers that have been inspired by the class.

“I hope the presenters will apply the insight they gained through Eric’s classes to new cases and contexts and, in doing so, bring us all up to speed on new ways of looking at the problem and the practice of Secret History work in academics today,” Carlson says. The reunion underscores another unique feature about the “Secret History” class – the special bond that develops between students in the class as well as between Selbin and his students.

“Thanks to the great good fortune of being assigned to his FYS, I was able to have Professor Selbin as part of my entire college experience,” Kierst says. “And perhaps that’s the best thing about his FYS – after you’re in it, Eric is your friend and advisor for life.”