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Joshua Childs Essay

Historians tell stories through careful analysis and critical examination of records from the past. In this way, historians help create new understandings of people, places, and events through their interpretation of historical evidence. As an undergraduate, I have learned about historiography in several of my history courses here at WVU. Fundamentally, historiography is the study of the changing interpretations of historical record that evolve through time as new scholarship emerges. Travel relates to historiography and how we understand the past because travel - especially immersive experiences like studying or working in a foreign country - helps give us new perspective, insight, and context that shapes the way we see the world around us. As historians, the new perspectives we gain through travel can help shape the meaning we find from studying the past. As Alice Kessler-Harris, Professor of American History at Columbia University said, “we have come to understand that the world view of a historian necessarily emanates from the world in which he or she lives and that our views of the past may well be conditioned by our relationships to the present.” To a certain extent, my own time spent abroad and experiencing a new culture through travel has influenced the ways I understand the past and imagine my future as a young historian.

Before studying abroad in South Africa, my travel experience had been limited. I hadn’t seen as much of the U.S., let alone the world, as many of my peers and surely not as much as any of my professors. Living here for half a year has shown me just how much I had always been missing. I’ve found that one of the great things about staying in a new place for so long is that it has given me the opportunity to feel a deep connection to the country and the people who live here. Thanks to my time in South Africa, I have begun to develop a new lens through which to see the world. For example, though I knew about apartheid and the country’s struggle for democracy in the early 1990’s, my understanding has been broadened through discussion with my peers and adults and the first-hand experiences I have had here. In ways that I could not have learned through studies alone, I now recognize how crippling the racist apartheid laws were and how their affects are still being felt today. In this way, my experience in present-day South Africa has helped me better understand the country’s past. My time here has also influenced what topic I hope to examine during my upcoming history capstone course. Inspired by the wave of student protest that I saw sweep the country over proposed university fees increases, I want to focus my capstone research on student protest during the U.S. Civil Rights Movement and what role it may have played in shaping public opinion and precipitating policy change.

Travel has given me a new way of understanding South Africa’s history and the perspective that I have gained through this experience allows me to look at history in new ways and will help shape the way I approach my future studies. Ultimately, historians are storytellers, and my time abroad has given me a new vantage point from with to study and interpret the past.