From AC 2nd to… Graduate Study in Ancient History

Today we continue From AC 2nd to…, a series profiling former Bethel History majors, with Katie (Thostenson) Dunker (’05).  Having already earned a master’s in Ancient History from the University of St Andrews, Katie is currently completing her doctorate in Classics at the University of Edinburgh, researching issues of gender, sexuality, and the body in the writings of the early 3rd century Latin Church father Tertullian.

Why did you choose Bethel?

While my faith journey began long before, I really only seriously dedicated my life to Christ the summer before my junior year of high school. When it came time to start looking at colleges, I still felt quite vulnerable spiritually and I wanted to find a place that would nurture and encourage my newfound faith, but that would also challenge me to grow intellectually. When I visited Bethel as a prospective student, I had the opportunity to sit in on one of Dr. Rivera’s classes as well as have a conversation with Dr. Cragg. It was obvious even after the short time I spent with them that they were passionate about their faith and what they taught and were very dedicated to their students. Their passion and commitment stood out from other history professors I had met during visits to other universities and I became very excited about the prospect of being able to study history at Bethel. Overall, I felt like Bethel was a place that would inspire me spiritually and intellectually—and I wasn’t wrong! Choosing Bethel was one of the best decisions I have ever made!

Why (and at what point) did you decide to major in History? Did you consider any other majors?

Although my father has made his living as an engineer and farmer, he has always had a keen interest in history. When I was young he read to me every night and most often our reading was about some historical person or another. He had an old set of the Encyclopedia Britannica and would often read some of the historical entries out of that to me. I remember that the entry on Catherine the Great was a particular favorite of mine—merely I think because she had the same name as me (albeit with a different spelling)! Even at that early age I remember loving that history is full of mysteries and that I could try to explain some of those mysteries by using my imagination to immerse myself in the times and places of those I read about. As I got older my father and I still connected through our love of history, often having long discussions about ancient Rome (still my favorite subject)—a tradition that we still carry on to this day.

I decided to major in history in my senior year of high school, largely because of these discussions with my father. While my childhood reading sessions taught me to love using my imagination to unearth the mysteries in history, these later conversations with my father taught me the value of trying to solve those mysteries in the first place. I realized that studying history is not only something that is challenging and enjoyable, but that it is also valuable and relevant. By this I mean that often I find my motivation for doing historical research is not so much to uncover something of the past, but rather to find another perspective from which to view my own existence and a place to ask hard questions about the specific time, place, and culture I come from.

At what point (in college or after) did you first consider graduate school?

I already had a notion that I wanted to go on to graduate school before I started at Bethel, though I don’t think I seriously started preparing or thinking about it until my sophomore year. I knew that I most likely wanted to pursue a career as a professor of history, since I thought it would be a career where I could both exercise my passion for teaching as well as continue to explore topics that interested me through personal research.

What about your Bethel History major best prepared you for grad school? What do you wish you had done differently in preparation for graduate study?

Katie Dunker at Roman ruins in Cologne
Katie at the ruins of the Roman Praetorium in Cologne, Germany

There are many aspects of the Bethel History major for which I am very thankful. Taking courses on a broad range of historical subjects helped me to look for and appreciate the relationships and patterns that exist between all different times, places and civilizations. The seminar style of most courses helped me gain confidence in engaging with academic debates and expressing my opinions orally, while the writing-intensive nature of upper-level courses gave me practice in research and critical writing. All these skills are essential for graduate work in History and I know that I would not have been able to successfully pursue graduate work if I had not started developing these skills at Bethel.

The only thing I wish I had done differently is to study more languages. All graduate work in history, and in the humanities in general, requires that you be able to read scholarship in French and German, as well as any primary sources that are relevant to your field of research in their original language. As an ancient historian, I must also be proficient in the now-dead languages of Latin and Classical Greek. Learning any language requires a lot of time and effort and while as an undergraduate I had a busy schedule and lots of commitments, I have even less time and energy to put into language study now and my research has not always gone as smoothly as I would like because I am still struggling to learn Latin and Greek. Since Bethel does offer a lot of great modern and ancient language courses, I regret that I did not take advantage of more of them.

However, beyond the more pragmatic skills I mentioned above I think the single most important thing majoring in history at Bethel gave me was a sense of purpose. Graduate study is very hard—not just intellectually (and financially), but emotionally and spiritually as well. It often feels like you’re running a marathon, except that you’re not even always sure where the finish line is. And perhaps, in a way much like training to be a world-class athlete or musician does, it requires a lot of sacrifices. Many of my friends from Bethel who went straight into the workforce already have careers, houses, and families—in a word, stability. I, on the other hand, will most likely begin my career as a professional academic just shy of a decade after all of them, and may not have job security until another five years after that. (If ever!) While many other professions may pose similar challenges (e.g., medicine or law, just to name a couple), I think what makes graduate study in history or the humanities unique is that you rarely get to see the direct impact of your work, and once more, you often have to defend why what you do has relevance or is worth doing at all. So, perhaps it is not surprising that some days I and many of my fellow graduate students in history struggle to understand why we are spending the first 30 years of our lives in school and spending thousands of dollars to study a subject that many people in society would describe as ‘worthless’.

However, it is on these days that my history major from Bethel sets me apart from my peers. Through the excellent examples set by the Bethel History professors, I learned that an academic career could be a calling. They taught me that we can worship God in many different ways, and academic work is a way that we can worship God with our minds. Furthermore, an academic career can also be a ministry—though academia has sometimes gained a reputation for being anti-religious, it also provides a forum for open and honest debate about many topics that directly, or indirectly have spiritual significance. And finally, while we historians admittedly must spend hours alone in libraries and archives, etc. it is surprisingly also a very social discipline. The Bethel History professors demonstrated that the real significance of your work is often realized through the relationships you form with your supervisors, colleagues, and students. So, on the days where I really struggle to carry on, I can still move forward with the assurance that I have been instilled with this passion and calling for a reason. I may never fully understand what that reason is, but if I am blessed it might just be to inspire one student the way the Bethel History professors inspired me.

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