Elmhurst in Depth

Making History

The quarter-century that has passed since Robert Butler began teaching history at Elmhurst College has seen the rise of digitized archives, online databases and Internet resources like Wikipedia that offer students easy access to information about the past, albeit of sometimes dubious value. 

But Butler wants his students to know that a historian’s work sometimes requires, as he says, “getting your hands dirty.” So each January, Butler and the students in his popular Historiography course troop across campus to the College’s archives, deep in the lower reaches of Buehler Library. There they get an introduction to archival methods from the College’s archivist, Elaine Fetyko Page. And they begin plotting out their approach to the course’s big assignment: to complete a short, original piece of historical research based on primary sources found in a local archive, library or museum. 

“To do any kind of deep historical work you have to get your hands dirty. You have to dig into archives and find the primary sources,” says Butler, who was named the Joan and Lester Brune Chair in History last year. “I want them to get at the diaries, the letters, the board minutes, and write about something no one has ever written about before.” 

The assignment has produced some extraordinary student work. Last year, one of Butler’s students, Rachel Lebensorger, won the award for best oral presentation at Elmhurst’s annual Research and Performance Showcase for her paper on the first class of women to enroll at the College. The work for Butler’s class was her first foray into primary-source historical research. “I felt like I was writing history rather than writing about history,” she said after receiving the award. 

That distinction is a crucial one, Butler says. He calls his Historiography course an introduction to “how history is written.” It traces the making of history from Herodotus, the Greek chronicler who worked in the fifth century B.C. and is widely considered the first historian, to contemporary multimedia storytellers like documentarian Ken Burns. By the time they finish the class assignment, his students can claim to have made history of their own.

“Students are intrigued at the prospect of making history,” he said. “It’s a small project, but they get caught up in it and invested in it.”

The January Term course is not the only Butler offering that has captured the imagination of Elmhurst students. One of the best-known classes on campus appears in the course catalog under the anodyne name History 212: Great Personalities in History. Butler, though, has reshaped that course into a term-long consideration of the role of evil in history. His students call it simply “the evil class.” Not only did Butler’s reinvention of the course dramatically increase student interest, but its new focus on evil and villains has opened broad avenues of intellectual inquiry. Students consider whether there is a universal conception of evil, and they explore episodes of evil at work, like the Holocaust. Butler himself has made evil part of his scholarly work. He is presenting a paper on architecture’s commemoration of evil at a conference in Prague this spring. 

Butler says his appointment to the Brune chair has already proven helpful to his scholarship. For example, his trip to the conference in Prague was funded by the chair’s endowment.

Butler calls his appointment to the chair “a great honor.” 

“It was totally unexpected. I was floored,” he said of the moment when he learned about the chair. “There is only one of these, and I am humbled to hold it.”

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