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Q&A: Scott Knowles on Why He Created Two History Courses to Engage All Students in Current Events

August 22, 2016

Scott Knowles, PhD, department head and associate professor in the Department of History.

This upcoming 201617 academic year is a monumental occasion for Drexel students. For starters, there’s the widely publicized 2016 presidential election, which will be the first time for some students to vote. It’s a big year on campus too, since this year is Drexel’s 125th anniversary.

Scott Knowles, PhD, associate professor and head of the History Department in the College of Arts and Sciences, is well aware of these important and historic facts. That’s why he developed two brand-new history courses this year to better inform and engage Drexel students with the current events that will undoubtedly shape their country and campus.

Those classes are "The History of Drexel" and "The History of U.S. Elections." Housed in the History Department, the classes are available to all majors above the freshman year.

DrexelNow recently chatted with Knowles, the co-editor of the upcoming book “Building Drexel: The University and Its City, 1891–2016,” about these courses. Here’s the inside scoop on his new and engaging ways for students to learn more about their surroundings and culture. 

Q: Let’s start off with “The History of Drexel.” It’s a great year to teach this course, since it’s the 125th anniversary of Drexel’s founding in 1891. Drexel will be celebrating the anniversary all year long. Why should students take this class?

A: This is a class that every student at Drexel could find interesting. We will touch on the founding of Drexel, the history of co-op, the role of Drexel in Philadelphia, Greek life, sports … you name it. The class will teach a different topic every week. It’s a great way to understand how Drexel University has changed over time — how the campus has changed, what it’s meant to be in a rapidly changing city. It’s a dynamic story, full of characters.  You will even find out why Drexel adopted the “Dragon” as its mascot!

Q: Is the class only offered this fall?

A: We will offer the course again in the winter and spring terms — also with new, different topics every week — so if students miss it this term, they could take it next term. Or, they could even take it a second time. We also hope to have alumni speakers, as well as a few surprise guests, too.

Q: What made you want to develop and teach this course?

A: Honestly, I have wanted to teach this for a long time, but we didn't have the knowledge base: the history of Drexel was collected across multiple books and in the Drexel University Archives. But now, with our book complete, we really have a complete picture of the rich history of Drexel.

Q: Does that mean your book — which focuses on the history of Drexel through the years as developed by its campus, departments, students and schools and colleges — will be required reading?

A: The class begins before the book will be released in the late fall, but we will have advance chapters for students — a sneak peek, if you will, and another reason to take the class! 

Q: Moving on to “The History of Elections.” How will taking this class help students this election cycle?

A: My hope is that students will see that the issues being discussed now are not new. In fact, many of them actually go way back into the 19th century. Tracing historical continuity helps us know what is new and what isn't so new — it makes us better citizens and more qualified to ask the hard questions of our elected officials.

The course is also co-taught by four faculty: myself, Jonson Miller, PhD, assistant teaching professor; Lloyd Ackert, PhD, associate teaching professor; and Tiago Saraiva, PhD, assistant professor. We each have different perspectives, so students will get a wide range of ideas.

Q: What kinds of students are you looking for?

A: This class will be exciting, I think, for students of any major who have an interest in the history of American elections. Even if you only know about this year, you will find this course interesting.

Q: Can you give some examples of standout elections you’ll connect to the 2016 election?

A: We will cover 1800, which had a real nasty election campaign between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. We will look at 1856, 1860, 1864: the Civil War elections.  And, more recent ones as well: 1960, 1964, 1968, 1980 and, of course, the landmark, contested election of 2000. We would cover each presidential election if we had time. It's a pretty comprehensive survey.

Q: Is this the first time this class has been offered?

A: We have never offered this course in the History Department. We are very excited that it overlaps with election season — and this is already a history-making election with the first woman nominated by a major party.

Q: What is the max number of students to sign up?

A: We aren't limiting the number — we want a big discussion!