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Finding History in Landscapes: Kent Germany wins 2021 Michael A. Hill Professor of the Year award

Posted November 10, 2021
By Aïda Rogers

Those who know history professor Kent Germany know he’s rarely without his bike. And it was on his bike in 2019 when he and his wife saw something they can’t forget — the Red Waterfall. Rushing down a slope on the Allegheny Passage near Pittsburgh, its clear water reflects the color of the rust-stained rocks beneath. “Otherworldly” is how he describes the steam rising from the scene.

“That’s where my History Outside class came from,” Germany said, explaining how a leak from an abandoned coal mine caused chemical reactions that changed the color of the rocks. “That’s what I love for students to experience — what kind of history existed in this place that you wouldn’t know about unless you’d done this research.”

Nationally known as a historian of the American South and an expert on the 800 hours of Lyndon B. Johnson tapes, Germany found himself captivated not only by the Red Waterfall but by his wife’s response to it. A first-grade teacher, Mary Germany was stopped short by the spectacle, which included an abandoned, corroded child’s bike at the bottom of the falls.

“Her reaction was one of confusion and wonder,” he said. “It’s hard to see something like that and not ask why. She learned so much from physically riding in a place that you can’t experience any other way. We slowed down enough to have it become a part of who we are.” 

Back in Columbia, Germany began designing his course for the South Carolina Honors College. History Outside: A Field School in Finding America, uses the Palmetto Trail as a source for study. While there’s no Red Waterfall on the Palmetto Trail — that landmark is on the Great American Rail Trail from Washington, D.C., to Washington State — it provides plenty of history from Awendaw, South Carolina, on the coast to Walhalla, South Carolina, in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

And fortunately for Germany and his students, the trail comes right through Columbia, offering 10.2 miles and centuries of local material for walking tours and analysis. Students and professor examined parts of the trail’s Columbia Passage, from Fort Jackson through city neighborhoods and on to the University of South Carolina campus, State House grounds, and downtown to the Broad River and Riverfront Park. They read old newspapers, discovering that the infamous Columbia Correctional Institution once housed the state’s fiercest criminals in the very place where students now live in the leafy CanalSide neighborhood. They learned that early in the 20th century, before cars became ubiquitous, that the frequently flooding Rocky Branch had once been slated for parks — a plan that never materialized. In short, they learned a lot about what was all around them. And they appreciated it.

“Dr. Germany is an excellent facilitator of conversation and deeply cares about pushing his students to write well and help them see the world around them differently,” wrote Kylie Wallace, ’21 public health, in her nomination letter for Germany to receive the 2021 Michael A. Hill Professor of the Year award, which he did. “He led the class in exploratory conversation of the South and its complicated history while also discussing the landscape’s role in literature. We read several books about southern experiences and these books facilitated probing conversations about racism and poverty not only in the South but also across the United States. Dr. Germany also required us to write several narratives. I found that this class and Dr. Germany’s guidance really pushed me to better my writing and storytelling skills and that I enjoyed writing, so much so that I now write more frequently on my own time.”

For their final projects, students explored the history of a landscape and wrote what they learned. Several studied different parts of the Palmetto Trail. One student strolled onto the State House grounds during a pro-Trump rally after Joe Biden had been declared president. The student, who didn’t support the former president, got into a conversation with someone who did. In their report, that student described the monuments on the State House grounds and connected them to the moment they encountered someone who thinks differently. An engineering major who’d camped near lakes Keowee and Jocassee, close to the Palmetto Trail, researched that area’s Cherokee history and Duke Power’s creation of those lakes from rivers. He studied how and where the rain falls in the Upstate, and how that water becomes part of the power grid and part of the history that keeps the lights on in university classrooms. One student created a podcast documenting their hike from Lake Katherine back to the Honors Residence Hall, using their modern footsteps to tell a story of Columbia’s urban development and its long history of racial segregation and economic inequality. 

“This gave students the chance to be storytellers,” Germany said. “I like for them to insert their specific experiences into the story they’re telling.”

Germany’s ability to facilitate conversations and learning is the requirement for the Michael A. Hill award, given by the senior class each year at Revocation. And indeed, facilitating conversations reflects his philosophy about teaching history. To him, the most important lesson for students is that their understanding of history is their personal decision.

“History is not dead, as Faulkner said. It is constantly being revised and reborn and every human being has their own understanding of it,” he said. “It’s up to you to figure out what’s the most honest history. That’s why evidence is so important, because if history comes down to what people believe about it, there has to be a standard upon which it rests. It can’t just be fiction; it can’t just be imagination. It has to be rooted in evidence — the best evidence that you can possibly come up with as close to the time period you’re talking about. I tell students that history is the most important superpower because it is about how our minds work and about how power gets distributed in society. And you need to know your history before somebody uses it against you.”

A native of Ruston, Louisiana, Germany grew up in the 1970s and ‘80s. His was the first generation in that state to spend all 12 years in integrated schools. Still, he noticed the races didn’t mix outside school and sports, and he couldn’t reconcile what he saw and heard in everyday life with what he read in the Bible and learned about American principles of equality. Those contradictions led to his scholarly interests.

Students like learning about contradictions, he said.

“When I ask what they like about history classes, they say they like that it is complicated, that they have to participate and they have to use critical thinking skills. Every defense people have of humanities, every defense of public education is to create critical thinkers.”

History classes in public education settings are prime places for those lessons and conversations to occur.

“If you can’t talk about things that were controversial in the past in a history classroom, then you are turning your present into something that is potentially quite dangerous,” he said. “We need to expose them to a robust history about the country in which they live, and let them decide.”

Challenge the conventional. Create the exceptional. No Limits.