MaKing History With Petra DeWitt

Does history repeat itself? If not, then Petra DeWitt has a lot of explaining to do.

As a historian, the assistant professor insists that history doesn’t repeat itself because the context is always changing, yet DeWitt has received Outstanding Teaching Awards five of the six years she’s been a full-time instructor at Missouri S&T. Her consistently high marks on end-of-course evaluations are even more noteworthy given the fact that she regularly teaches four, sometimes five, classes a semester with a new batch of diverse students each term.

While history is non-repetitive, she says, it is highly instructive for the present. Which begs the question: What can DeWitt share with us about her past successes? 

She struggles a bit for an explanation. “Maybe it’s that I’m not taking myself too seriously?” she ventures with a laugh. “I have very lively classrooms. I feel like I get a workout by the time I am done! I do have a lot of passion.”

DeWitt found her passion for teaching somewhat serendipitously. She never expected to find herself teaching in a university classroom when she was growing up in Germany. She didn’t have the grades for entrance into university there, so she became certified in technical drafting and worked as a civilian at a military installation. It was there that she met her husband-to-be, Melvin Clay DeWitt, an American originally from the Midwest.

Non-traditional student

When the couple relocated to Rolla in 1986 and her husband was looking at retirement, DeWitt considered trying on for size higher education as a non-traditional student. Obviously, Missouri S&T was a perfect fit. She initially went through the teacher education program, training to be a high school teacher, but professors in her history classes noticed her writing talent and suggested that she pursue a career in academia.

She took their advice, got her bachelor’s degree in history in 1996, then a master’s from Truman State, and, in 2005, a Ph.D. from University of Missouri-Columbia. While still writing her dissertation in 2003, she applied for an open faculty position in the S&T history department, knowing that it was an impossible long shot.

John McManus got that appointment, but Larry Gragg, then chair of the department, contacted DeWitt about coming on board as a part-time adjunct as she finished her program. That was the foot in the door that led to her becoming a full-time lecturer in 2007, then an assistant professor in 2010.

Gragg hasn’t regretted that move for one minute. “Petra has been a remarkable contributor to our department,” he says.  “She is an extraordinary and dedicated award-winning teacher, but she is also an outstanding scholar.”

DeWitt’s bookDegrees of Allegiance,”a regional perspective about German-Americans during World War I,won the State Historical Society of Missouri Best Book award last year. She continues her research when she can while maintaining her high teaching load.

DeWitt cites her personal teaching philosophy as challenging students to think for themselves “about anything, about everything! I want them to be engaged in life rather than have life happen to them.”

Toward that end, one of DeWitt’s favorite roles in the classroom is playing devil’s advocate. Not only does her deliberate “contrariness” keep the discussion lively, she believes it also promotes critical thinking skills.

She asks her students questions constantly. “They never know from which field I’m coming – the right, the left, the top, the bottom,” she says. “I ask them, ‘Why did you say this? What do you mean by that? Does anybody else have a different opinion on this subject?’ I constantly keep them on their toes.”

Interpreting history

One assignment that she uses to promote critical thinking skills is to have individual students research and report on a single historical event, with different students using different primary documents. As each of them present their “piece of the puzzle,” to the class, often with contradictory perspectives, students see how historical events are incomplete without a breadth of sources. “History is about interpretation,” she says. “Certain events happened at certain times, but why they happened includes interpretation.”

All of DeWitt’s homework and tests are essay-based because she believes that in order to assess critical thinking skills, she must see students’ written arguments. Her questions are posed in such a way that students have to express an opinion. They are not graded on their opinion, however, rather on how well they can formulate their arguments, using evidence from the course readings.

“I can see the wheels move in their heads when they are writing down their arguments; how things fit together,” she says, “cause and effect relationships.”

She also meets with her students after the first exam, in which they typically receive a grade lower than they expected, to discuss what they did to prepare for the test as well as what they could change next time.

DeWitt teaches American survey courses, Historiography (the history of the study of history), World Regional Geography, Making of Modern Germany, and European Migrations. Approximately 75 percent of her survey classes are made up of freshmen, with class size ranging from 25-40.

DeWitt admits that, in addition to her out-of-class duties -- including writing instructors’ manuals for history textbooks and completing the accreditation assessment reports for her department -- grading essays for multiple classes can sometimes be overwhelming. Once in a while she gets tired and considers what else she could be doing with her time. “But I would be missing something,” she says. “Every time I go into the classroom I am refreshed. It’s the classroom atmosphere that I live for.”