Roads Taken and Not Taken: Beth Salerno '91
Twenty years ago I was a Haverford sophomore with a difficult choice to make. I worked for the Study Abroad Office and always assumed I would study abroad my junior year. But as I talked to my advisor, I realized that the course I really wanted to take—Roger Lane’s American history survey—would only be taught my junior year. I had already given up my unrealistic dream of being a doctor. I had fallen in love with American history. How could I miss the crucial survey course? It was taught by the wiry, short guy whose entire closet was filled with white fisherman sweaters, faded blue jeans, and sneakers, but it was reputed to be a great class. Missing it was impossible. So I gave up on studying abroad and instead immersed myself in Professor Lane’s "keys to American history.”
Some of these are now forgotten, but I remember the square with a dot in the center (man on a farm with a gun), and the tic tac toe board (the divisions of American society by race, class, gender and geography). It helped that Rick Kahn ’91, in a desperate bid to write something on an otherwise blank quiz paper, provided twenty new versions of man on a farm with a gun (and a dog, and a wife, and a pinball machine), carefully explaining the historical significance of each. The laughter and excitement of that class carried me through emails from friends studying abroad in France and Russia who “wished I were there.” I never regretted my choice to stay on campus that junior year, though I thought I had missed an important experience living outside the U.S. After graduation I talked my parents into letting me travel in Europe for a month and that had to suffice.
Twenty years later, I now teach that American history survey course at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire as Associate Professor of History. I think of Roger Lane each time I do. I used notes from his class as I studied for my preliminary exams—the four two hour exams covering all of American history which I had to pass before I could start my dissertation. I used those same notes as supplementary aids in the history courses I taught as a teaching assistant at the University of Minnesota. I pulled them out again as resources when I designed my own courses at the University of Central Arkansas and ten years ago when I moved to New Hampshire. The notes are now lost, a casualty of our last move, but the memories are clear. I might have become a professor without Roger Lane’s course, but I am not so sure. It gave me a sense that U.S. history was exciting and that teaching it could be a satisfying, life-long challenge.
Even my dissertation topic was drawn in part from another junior year history class, the junior seminar. This involved researching a document from the Magill Library Treasure Room. Mine was a draft of a circular connecting women’s rights and antislavery beliefs. A decade later, my dissertation and then first book traced the founding and activities of women’s antislavery organizations across the north in the decades before the Civil War. My current book is a biography of the woman who wrote that circular, Mary Clark of Concord, New Hampshire.
My topics have provided little opportunity to travel the world, since the majority of my sources are tucked away in northeastern and Midwestern archives. My husband (Tod Ramseyer ’89, physics major and student in Roger Lane’s survey course two years before me) keeps suggesting a history of Caribbean beaches or international trade – anything to enable some foreign research time away from New England’s winters!
Yet teaching U.S. history did finally give me the chance to “study abroad.” For my sabbatical in 2007-2008, I received a Fulbright Senior Fellowship to teach American history in South Korea at Pyeongtaek University, one hour south of Seoul. Three times a week for a year I met with Korean students in American Studies courses to discuss race and gender, American political traditions, and contemporary American culture. I learned enough Korean to recognize the power of a language that places everyone into hierarchical relationship, and the impact of teaching my courses in English. When I was not teaching, I traveled all over the country, even briefly to North Korea, and reveled in the food, the culture, the history, and the hospitality of strangers. I had never been forced to face my race or my nationality quite so thoroughly before, or the privileges and prejudices that come with both. I gave talks on the American Revolution to scholars, discussed women’s history and human rights with activists, and shared classroom techniques with education students. I wonder whether I would have felt as welcomed, as comfortable, as incredibly enriched if I had studied abroad twenty years earlier, when I knew so much less about myself and the world. Clearly it would have been different, though enriching in its own way. I am not sorry I waited.
It took two decades but I finally got both my U.S. history class and the chance to live abroad. I am grateful that a path not taken turned out to be a path taken later.
Beth Salerno is an associate professor of U.S. history at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, N.H. Her research focuses on the United States’ antebellum period.