History students tackle seminar abroad

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Between June 13 and 22, 15 fourth year history majors from Wilfrid Laurier University will be traveling to Russia to explore both Moscow and St. Petersburg in order to complete their seminar, entitled “War and Memory.”

While all fourth year history majors are required to take focused seminars, this one is far different than others.

“One of the things that makes it dramatically different is that it actually goes outside [the classroom],” explained Leonard Friesen, the history professor leading the seminar. “I think too often, history is seen as something that only deals with the past, and so what I think makes it [this seminar] different is that we can actually demonstrate how history has a profoundly contemporary role of understanding the world.”

War and memory is a hot topic within the field of history right now. How a certain event is remembered, compared to what actually occurred, can differ. The juxtaposition of myth and reality can be difficult to separate.

As a result, Friesen stated, his goal is to teach the students what Russia actually is from his own perspective.

“[I will] introduce students to my own experience with the country,” he said. “I think it adds some authenticity to students when the professors they have … are not people who simply have a book knowledge of the place.”

Because Friesen possess an intimate knowledge of both cities, he will be teaching the students how war and memory is preserved in the landscape, through urban planning, architecture, monuments and museums. They will also visit prominent spaces, such as the Red Square and Kremlin.

He added that the wide range of diversity regarding the preservation of memory will allow the students to study a number of historical events. As a result, they will not focus on a single period.

“It’s war and memory in the broadest possible way,” continued Freisen.

Despite having a tight schedule, the students will also be given some free time.

“I think it’s important for the students to have wandering time,” Friesen emphasized. “In part because that ties in directly to seeing sites that I’ll be pointing out to them.”

He further explained that having the students interpret certain aspects of the cities on their own and then going back with an instructor will further their understanding of the different ways in which war and memory can be interpreted.

However, there will be obstacles for the students to overcome.

“Language is an issue; very few signs are transliterated into English, they are only in cyrillic,” explained Friesen. “The ones that are brave, they’ll be fine, but the others that are cautious about this, they can hang out with me.”

But despite language barriers, the students are excited to travel.

“When you sit in a classroom and learn about a country, you can only get so far,” stated Jordan Burrows, a fourth year history major enrolled in the seminar. “To actually go through a city and see the people and culture unfolding in front of your eyes is a really valuable experience.”

As an undergrad, Burrows has been focusing on Russian history, and hopes to gain a much more in-depth understanding of the country with regards to how its own memory is preserved, as well as cultural aspects.

“I hope to get a better sense of what daily life is like in Russia, what the country looks like, and get a sense of the history from what is preserved today … what it is trying to preserve and what it actually preserves can be very different,” he stated.

Overall, the trip is expected to severely benefit the student’s learning, and give them a much more realistic approach to the subjects being studied in their seminar.

“It’s going to be a great trip,” summed up Burrows.

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