A 50-Year Evolution
Rosemary Williams has been teaching history full-time at Howard Community College since 2012. In honor of the 50th anniversary of the school’s founding, she wrote the continuation of HCC’s history, an endeavor started by Vladimir Marinich, professor emeritus of history. Dr. Williams shares her methodology, advice for aspiring students, and why historical context matters when considering present-day challenges.
In updating the college’s history, what questions did you seek to answer?
As a historian, I am always interested in exploring continuity and change, so I wanted to address the question, “How has the college changed, and how has it stayed the same?”
The history of HCC from 1970 up to 2012 had been completed by Professor Vlad Marinich. He was one of the ‘founding faculty’ and had been here from the start of the college. Vlad’s approach was to write about the ‘life of the college,’ as he put it “the story of HCC, its people, its culture, and its challenges and achievements.” I decided to follow this approach in writing Volume 6 of the history (2012–2020). As well as including all the major events from 2012–2020, I wanted to look at broader topics, such as the role of the arts, the student experience, the contributions of faculty and staff, diversity, and the role of the college in the community.
What aspect of HCC’s history fascinated you the most?
One thing that I found fascinating was the extent to which innovation was always central to the college. We might think that remote learning, dual enrollment, and interactive classes are modern developments, but these were around from the start. Remote learning was provided by ‘telecourses,’ rather than online courses, but the principle of accessibility was the same. [One professor] described an early lecture room that was equipped with buttons for each student to press to respond to questions, kind of an early version of Kahoot (a game-based learning platform).
We are in the middle of a pandemic, and the Black Lives Matter movement for racial and social justice, and one of the most polarized election years in American history. 2020 has been full of complex historical moments. How have you approached these multifaceted issues in a way that remains relevant to HCC’s history?
This has been an unprecedented year, and it’s not over yet. It is too early to tell how 2020 will be remembered in history, and how much lasting change it will bring about, but it will certainly be a year for the history books. In terms of the impact on the college, HCC began 2020 in a celebratory mood, with lots of events planned to celebrate the 50th Anniversary, and instead it has faced probably the most challenging year in its history. It will be a while before we can fully understand the longterm impact of 2020 on the college and the country.
What is something you feel people should know about history?
Our understanding of historical events is not static. Events are constantly being re-evaluated and reinterpreted, and how we view past events changes over time. History is written by individuals who may have their own agendas and biases, so you always have to be aware that there may be other ways to interpret the same events. This has come to the fore recently with the debate over statues commemorating Confederate generals and slave-owning founders. We are now reconsidering what message these statues are expressing, when and why they were erected, and whether we still want to commemorate these
individuals in the same way today.
Social media has provided an overabundance of primary sources. How do you think this will affect how history will be recorded in the future?
When I began studying history as a student, to find primary sources you had to hunt through the archives in the library. I remember as a graduate student poring over smudgy carbon copies of typed documents that had been smuggled out of Eastern Europe. Now nearly everything is available online and is easily accessible. The job of the historian is easier, but there are new challenges. How will the plethora of information and disinformation on social media be preserved and documented?
What advice would you give students who are only just discovering their passion for history?
My advice for aspiring historians would be to take as many different history courses as possible, read a lot, and then focus in and become experts on the areas that they feel most passionate about. I have learned a lot from students who are experts in a certain topic, for example World War II tanks or Civil War battles, and have been able to share their knowledge with the class.
What single year would you want to live in before time-travelling back to the present? What message do you think you would have for the world on your return?
One period I would be interested in visiting would be pre-Colombian America, before the arrival of the Europeans. So let’s pick 1490. It would be fascinating to learn more about indigenous American culture and social structures, and one message that I think this trip would have for us today is about land use, conservation, and respecting the natural world, which is one area where we are not making much progress today. I think that any trip back into the past would come with the lesson that, even though we face problems today, we are making progress in most areas. The world we live in today is generally more tolerant and equitable than most periods of the past.