University of Dallas history professor Dr. Susan Hanssen, who teaches some of the most popular sections of American Civilization (or, as it’s typically called, AmCiv), takes a unique approach to the course by using what’s become her pedagogical trademark: a timeline approach to history.
The timeline is one of the most important aspects of Hanssen’s AmCiv. Timelines are drawn in every class, and this repetition is crucial for memorization. That, in turn, is vital for her midterms and finals — both of which always include the timeline, an essay and the Gettysburg Address.
Senior Emma Chaplin laughed as she spoke about the beautiful chaos of this approach.
“Dr. Hanssen’s timelines are a hot mess,” Chaplin said. “I say that with the utmost love for them. Walking in off the street, someone would probably think, ‘What kind of nutjob university is this?’ But she does such a beautiful job of using the timeline to weave together her lecture in a visual fashion that also helps with remembering chronology and dates. She caters to both visual and auditory learners, while giving more hands-on learners a creative outlet.”
In an email, senior Kerry Kennedy wrote about the orienting experience of AmCiv with Hanssen.
“AmCiv put a lot into perspective for me,” Kennedy wrote. “You think you know American history until you show up to Gorman. Dr. Hanssen does a fantastic job of placing you in history, putting in perspective where you’ve been and where you’re headed.”
Regarding the history of the AmCiv course, Hanssen said that originally, the class was just one giant section of AmCiv, taught in Lynch Auditorium by a single professor who loved to impart history by telling stories — a tradition that still continues.
“This sequence has always been a big part of the Core: English, history and, traditionally, philosophy all have four classes offered,” Hanssen said. “And it’s a kind of universal opening experience for freshmen here at UD.”
AmCiv also gives a sense of what the history department brings to the Core: context for the other major texts students read.
Chaplin noted that Hanssen is at the heart of what makes AmCiv different from History 101 at other colleges.
“As with so many things about UD, it’s not necessarily the class itself that’s legendary, but the people,” Chaplin said. “My roommates and I actually met up with Dr. Hanssen in Madrid for one of our long weekends during the Rome semester. We were looking at a painting of St. Jerome by Murillo in the Prado and Dr. Hanssen turned to me and said, ‘I’ve always thought we should have this painting in the chapel at UD. I think the problem is that we give up on prayer too easily.’ And then she just walked away. Her class was full of poignant moments like that one. But she balances them well with lighter moments. That same day, she drew a timeline for us on a napkin at a churro shop.”
Kennedy, too, remembers AmCiv as formative for the rest of her UD education and not simply because of the content of the class.
“There was one section of the timeline where Dr. Hanssen wrote out the seven liberal arts and how they weaved themselves into (or kept themselves out of) the curriculum of the time,” Kennedy wrote. “I had never seen education put into perspective like that, and for me, as an education major, it was so meaningful.”
Kennedy added that she hopes to emulate Hanssen’s enlightening focus on the unity of the liberal arts.
“In the classrooms today, I see a lack of continuity between students’ educational experiences; there is no unifying force, no progression of grammar, rhetoric, and logic,” Kennedy wrote. “I hope to revive this lost art in my classroom. [AmCiv] actually inspired me to do a few too many projects and presentations on the Great Books and liberal education and to be a part of Dr. Hanssen’s pilot course, History of Liberal Arts Education. With Dr. Hanssen as your teacher, the liberal arts are never dull; they are enticing, elevating and bound to change anyone who decides they are worthy of pursuit.”
Hanssen said that AmCiv is unique in its fostering of love for and loyalty to one’s heritage.
“I think both [AmCiv] courses contribute to what I would call an intelligent patriotism; that is, the triumphs and tragedies of our own past and a desire to live up to the highest ideals that have been present in the Western, Christian, American heritage,” Hanssen said. “And I think that conception and that perspective is very unique to UD.”