Welcome to Our Newest Professor: Amy Poppinga

Amy PoppingaThe Bethel University Department of History is proud to announce that Amy Poppinga has accepted a tenure-track position and will begin full-time teaching at Bethel starting this fall. Amy graduated from Bethel in 1999 with a B.A. in History and Social Studies Education 5-12. After teaching social studies at a Twin Cities area high school, she shifted course and completed a master’s in Islamic Studies at Luther Seminary. She is currently working towards a doctorate in Islamic Studies and Christian-Muslim Dialogue at the University of Exeter in England, where her dissertation investigates the views of marriage held by young Muslim-Americans.

Amy has also taught several courses at Bethel in recent years, so she is already known to many of our students and recent alumni. But if you haven’t had a chance to meet Amy, or only saw her in one course… We asked her to talk a bit more about herself, especially her connections to Bethel and her interests as a teacher and scholar.

You were a History and Social Studies Ed major as a Bethel student yourself… How did you pick that course of study? What memories of the department and its people stand out from your undergraduate days?

I was a transfer student to Bethel during my sophomore year. I took my first college history course at the U of M at Morris my freshman year. The subject was the Vietnam War. I had a wonderful professor who had actually attended Kent State University and was active in the anti-war movement. Needless to say, she made the subject matter come alive. Also, knowing her own views on the war, I was impressed by her neutrality in her content presentation. I had always enjoyed history, but this class made me realize how nuanced and enriching the study of history can be in capable hands. I knew that I wanted to not only study but teach history as well. A good teacher can help even the students who claim they “hate” school or reading to find some level of connection with the material. I’m biased but I think history can inspire students who may, on the surface, appear tough to inspire.

My first classroom experience at Bethel was in Modern America with Diana Magnuson. In that same semester I also had G.W. Carlson and Kevin Cragg. Again, I was hooked. I also had a great group of classmates who really raised the bar. It was just a dynamic department, too. The professors were all very supportive of each other. As a teaching assistant, you were able to witness the inner workings of the department. Doors were always open to students and faculty/student conversations in the hallway were common. There were only five professors in the department at that time so you were able to interact with all of them regularly, inside and outside the classroom. I felt like I belonged to something, and as a transfer student at Bethel that can be difficult.

How’d you go from working as a high school social studies teacher to pursuing first a master’s degree and now a doctorate in Islamic studies?

I really loved teaching high school. Over time I have figured out that I just love teaching. I like middle schoolers as well as college students! After a few years of teaching, I was ready to go back to school. One of the challenges facing teachers is learning how to effectively connect with students who may be from different cultural or religious backgrounds than the majority. I decided to pursue a degree in Islamic Studies with the intention of returning to the secondary school system as a cultural liaison, working with teachers and staff to better understand the needs of both Somali and Muslim students of varying backgrounds.

Well, shortly after my program began the tragic events of September 11th occurred. There was now a national interest in learning more about Islam. I had stayed in contact with my professors from Bethel, and I was invited to submit a course proposal that would revive a course on Islam that had previously been offered [HIS212U Introduction to the Muslim World]. I enjoyed teaching the course so much that I chose to alter my career plans. This led me to pursue a PhD in Islamic Studies, with the hope of obtaining a full-time position in a college or university.

Tell us a bit about your dissertation. How’d the topic develop? Have you started to draw any conclusions from your research?

One of the things I learned during my senior year at Bethel is that I do my best academic work when there is a human element to my research, specifically interviews. My Senior Sem topic, my master’s thesis, and now my dissertation all follow the same model: start with a person’s story to serve as the backbone of the project and then frame the larger research question around that story.

I was staying with a young Muslim friend at her apartment a few years ago. It was very early in the morning, and I was in the kitchen getting ready to head to the airport to fly home. I could hear her in the living room performing the first of her five daily prayers. As I went to open her fridge I noticed a movie poster from the film “Twilight.” On the poster the two main characters, Edward and Bella, were running hand in hand through the dark forest. Only my friend had taped her picture, in full hijab, over Bella’s face. So here is my friend, a devout Muslim, who also clearly has a little bit of a thing for Edward.

To me, this was a prime example of a person of devout faith who is also clearly influenced by culture. Both Muslims and Christians in America try to balance the influences of faith and culture everyday in almost everything we do. Secondly, marriage is a frequent topic of conversation among young Muslims, just as it is with young Christians I encounter. Both faith and culture shape how young people perceive their relationships and eventual marriage. So, in my dissertation project the intersection of faith and culture serves as the lens used to examine expectations of marriage. It helps that young people seem to really like talking about relationships and marriage. It may not sound on the surface like a historical topic, but it most definitely is. Story telling is history. With each individual’s story, I have to trace their roots and compare their experiences with those of their parent’s generation.

Why would you encourage students at an evangelical Christian university like Bethel to take courses with you on the history of Islam?

I could go on and on about this but it boils down to one of the chief responsibilities we are tasked with as Christians: being a good neighbor. There are roughly 1.2 billion Muslims in the world, around 6-7 million in the U.S., and we have a significant Muslim population right here in Minnesota. In order to have effective relationships with Muslims, we need to be educated. This means separating fact from rumor and hype. We should hear their stories, study their history, and know about their faith. Many of our students will encounter Muslims in their jobs, communities, and extra-curricular interests.

Secondly, the United States has a significant presence in parts of the world that have Muslim majorities. We need to understand the history of these areas in order to better understand both our conversations and our conflicts. Being a good neighbor is not just a local thing, it’s a global thing as well.

What most excites you about coming back to Bethel?

The faculty discount in the campus store?

Just kidding. First, I truly have a passion for teaching and it is a tremendous honor to know that I will get to practice the profession I enjoy in a place that I appreciate. While no place is perfect, I have seen that Bethel is always striving to be better. At the same time, Bethel remains true to its values and core beliefs. I know this is not always easy. I am fortunate that I know many of the people I will be working with in both the History Department and the greater College of Arts and Sciences. It is a weird but wonderful thing to become colleagues and friends with those who have taught you.

I think we all understand that no one can “replace” G.W. Carlson. But since you are joining us in the wake of his retirement… What’s your favorite G.W. story? Do you expect to inherit and continue any G.W. traditions?

Amy Poppinga and G.W. Carlson, 1999
Amy and GW at her graduation in 1999

I think the best I can hope to achieve is to carry on in the spirit of G.W. Carlson. He has been my professor, my advisor, my employer, and my mentor. To be honest, I am not sure I can conceive of a day-to-day Bethel without G.W.

There are multiple things I admire about G.W. but two that come to mind are his availability to students and his advocacy for the underdog. As a teaching assistant, I must have heard “Well, I’m getting ready to leave…” multiple times each Tuesday and Thursday afternoon only to have G.W.’s departure delayed due to a student, colleague, alumnus, or former classmate stopping by. He would just put his bag and coat on his desk, sit down, and plunk his feet up. He always makes every person who walks through his door feel important, mainly through his personalized greeting that captures both your persona and your stage of life. I have never seen him rush anyone out of his office. In regards to advocacy… You may not be living up to your potential, but if G.W. thinks you have it he will beat it out of you. If you promise to follow through and keep your head up, he will fight for you. And he has a soft spot for the B+/A- folks. Thank goodness!

In terms of what I can inherit, I hope it’s a little bit of the things I just mentioned. In terms of his teaching style, nobody picks course books like G.W. He has never wavered in his commitment to getting students to read, even when there seems to be a general decline in what students can be expected to read. When students come into his office, they are in awe when they look at the walls around them. However, they are not intimidated. They always seem to find it inspiring. His love of learning truly makes them want to read more. I hope that my courses will also allow a good book to become a vehicle for great discussions in the classroom.

Oh! And I fully intend to sneak out at 2pm on Fridays to engage in the frameworks of golf or racquetball!

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