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‘Presidential Scandals’ Jan Term course sparks critical thinking

January 24, 2012

Professor Bryn Upton chose the topic of his Jan Term course “Presidential Scandals” for its timely and universal appeal, but he designed the course to compel his students to flex their critical-thinking skills while contemplating events that have rocked the White House in the past 200 years.

“My field is intellectual history, but no one wants to take that class,” said Upton, who, in all of his courses, attempts to use engaging topics like presidential scandals to spark and fuel his students’ understanding of the historical process.

“If I do my job correctly,” he said, “at the end of Jan Term I could give them a test on how historians do their jobs, and they’d do pretty well on it.”

Upton’s students – many of whom are not History majors – look forward to his courses with their unconventional topics.

“This Jan Term takes a subject that nearly everyone has some interest or knowledge in,” said sophomore Joseph Wright of Westminster, Md. “It conjures up an abundant amount of imagery for not just the history-intensive student but also those who would not even consider taking history.”

Among the topics up for debate are the questions surrounding President Obama’s citizenship, the hard-to-come-by freezer delivered to Truman’s home in Missouri, the Teapot Dome scandal of Warren Harding’s administration, and Watergate, which ended the presidency of Richard Nixon.

Because the class has its share of history buffs and others interested in the political arena, Upton takes five minutes at the beginning of each class to talk about the current presidential race. It also comes into context when they are speaking of, for example, the Thomas Jefferson-Sally Hemmings affair, and can correlate that to scandal surrounding the one-time presidential hopeful Herman Cain.

Senior Rhaelynn Givens admits that, although she knows next to nothing about former presidents, politics, and scandal, she has found those hidden benefits Upton mentioned.

“My purpose in taking this class is to learn how to think critically and analytically about information that is presented to me,” said Givens of Mount Vernon, Wash. “‘Presidential Scandals’ does just that.”

 
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