Letter from the Chair

Dear Alumni & Friends of History at WSU:

Many of us at WSU spent the summer of 2021 stressed out over what to expect for fall. Would students really be back on campus? Would we be able to hold in-person classes? Would mask mandates incite rebellions? Many of us (or maybe just me) expected the worst: super-spreader events, mass quarantines, campus shutdowns, and on and on.

Matthew Avery Sutton.

But the worst didn’t happen. We had a great year! Students and faculty worked together to stay safe and to ensure that we could and did mostly return back to normal.

However, I suspect returning to “normal” life on campus was even more challenging for students than for faculty. We had a class of freshman who mostly spent their senior year of high school online, sophomores whose freshman year at WSU happened online, and juniors who got to campus in 2019 and then saw it shut down as COVID hit. In other words, we had essentially three classes of first-year students this year, and they did really great. They were eager to participate in class discussions, to dive into ambitious research projects, and, of course, to cheer on the Cougs!

This year we were thrilled to see approximately 75 undergraduates earn their bachelor’s degree in history and we inducted five students into Phi Alpha Theta, the national history honors society. Students also revived the History Club. They held many movie nights, organized discussion sections with faculty on current events, and hosted trivia contests. They have also been working on a long-term project: helping to restore a long-forgotten rural cemetery in Whitman County. They are identifying graves and working with the Whitman County Historical Society to learn about the people buried in them.

The History department is continuing to support a major research project called “Fallen Cougs” and led by Prof. Ray Sun and a team of students. The researchers are diving into the archives, poring over old newspapers, and studying military records to learn the fate of approximately 200 WSU students who gave their lives for their country during World War II. You can read their stories online.

We are pleased to welcome to the department two new faculty members who will be starting this fall. Marlene Gaynair earned her PhD from Rutgers University in 2021 and spent the last year on a postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard University. Her research explores the social and cultural contributions of the Jamaican communities in Toronto and New York City. She uses an interdisciplinary approach to examine how both cities facilitated a particular notion of Jamaican diasporic identities. She shows how comparative immigration histories, particularly those that examine understudied spaces, are especially important in that they highlight how the “locals” differently shape similar communities unlike anywhere else in the world. Looking at the hybridized identities that Jamaican peoples create in Toronto and NYC disrupts the narrative of a monolithic Jamaican identity and challenges what it means to be Canadian or American in the twentieth century. Gaynair also curates an amazing digital project that (re)creates the space and place of Black Canadian/West Indian immigrants in twentieth-century Toronto. She uses spatial analytic software to transform analog documents into a multidimensional interactive mapping exhibition to create an ongoing public historical archive. Inserting pieces of oral narratives, music, advertisements, and photographs.

Islands in the North makes space for “Blackness” in Canadian and Black Atlantic literature, histories, geographies, and experiences. Gaynair will be teaching classes in modern American history, immigration, the history of the Caribbean, and race and slavery.

Ryan Booth earned his PhD from WSU in 2021. He is currently revising his dissertation, Crossed Arrows: The US Indian Scouts, 1866-1947, into a book. It explores the military service of two tribes, the Northern Cheyenne and White Mountain Apache, as representative of the complicated story of U.S. empire, the martial race theory, and military service as a means to greater Indigenous self-sufficiency. Booth is also working on a project stemming from some of his earlier interests and connection with the Jesuits to research Jesuit Native American Boarding Schools in the Pacific Northwest. This project is part of a larger effort by the U.S. Department of the Interior to examine the historical legacy of the boarding schools and to help identify gravesite locations and student identities within historical archives. He will teach courses on early American history, Indigenous history, the Civil War, and military history. A member of the Upper Skagit nation, he will also be working with WSU leaders to reconfigure the University’s tribal leadership programs.

Once again, faculty published important and pioneering books that will shape their fields moving forward. The department celebrated the release of three new books this year: Peter Boag published his latest book Pioneering Death: The Violence of Boyhood in Turn-of-the-Century Oregon with the University of Washington Press. Nikolaus Overtoom published Reign of Arrows: The Rise of the Parthian Empire in the Hellenistic Middle East with Oxford University Press. Finally, Puck Brecher published Animal Care in Japanese Tradition: A Short History with the Association for Asian Studies, distributed by Columbia University Press, 2022. In addition, faculty have published about a dozen original articles and book chapters. You can read more about our publications.

While faculty are rightfully proud of their research, our department has long boasted some of the best teachers on campus. This year, faculty ran the board, winning the University’s top teaching awards. Jesse Spohnholz won the 2022 Sahlin Faculty Excellence Award for Instruction. Ken Faunce has won the 2022 President’s Distinguished Teaching Award for career-track faculty. Finally, Karl Krotke-Crandall, who earned his PhD from WSU last year, won the 2022 Excellence in Online Teaching Award. You can read about all of our faculty’s awards and achievements.

Last but not least, I want to acknowledge the crucial role played by our donors, alumni, and friends. Your support is critical to the success of our programs. Without it, we would have a harder time supporting and rewarding the fine teaching, learning, and scholarship for which the department is known. As the 2021-2022 record of achievement indicates, this help is having a positive impact.


Matthew Avery Sutton, Chair