Professor’s continuing education helps connect AU students to Asia

MSoderstrom

Mark Soderstrom, Assistant Professor of History

Although an ocean separates the United States from Asia, an Aurora University professor is making sure students aren’t distancing themselves from learning about the world’s largest continent. Over the summer, Mark Soderstrom, Assistant Professor of History, traveled several thousand miles to study new ideas to incorporate into his East Asian History and Trajectories of Human History courses, among others.

Soderstrom participated in two three-week workshops in Hawaii. The first, the Japan Studies Association’s Freeman Institute, included workshops about Japanese history and culture that were taught by experts from Japan and America. The second workshop, the East-West Center’s Infusing Institute, focused on Chinese and Japanese cultural, religious and literary traditions.

“I am constantly looking for new ideas—readings, activities, teaching strategies—for the courses that I teach, and I knew that these workshops would be an excellent source of such ideas,” said Soderstrom. “The Freeman Institute workshop was particularly valuable for me, as most of my training in East Asian history has focused on China, but the courses I teach at AU cover the entirety of East Asia. I also was interested in participating in the Infusing Institute workshop for the reading suggestions I hoped it would provide, and I wasn’t disappointed.”

Soderstrom’s original interest in Chinese history stems from his research on the history of Siberia, which shares a long border with China. “When I was completing my PhD I decided that I would need to develop a working knowledge of Chinese history in order to better understand my topic,” he said. “I soon found myself supplementing my readings on China with a raft of books on Japan. I was particularly fascinated by the tremendous differences between Chinese and Japanese histories—and by the role Western nations have played in these countries in the past few centuries. There is no better way to understand what one’s own culture is all about than to see it at work in—and in the light shed by—other cultures.”

It’s in this spirit that Soderstrom shares new ideas, readings and activities with his students. “Good teaching requires regular, ongoing revision,” he said. “A teacher needs to have his or her finger on the pulse of change and rethink how best to make content meaningful in light of that change. To do so effectively is enormously challenging, but that is what makes it so fascinating. Continuing education for those who teach at universities takes many forms. Teaching workshops are particularly valuable, as they allow one to focus intensely on revising one’s teaching—and to learn from peers seeking to do the same.”

Soderstrom also attended Dominican University of California’s Big History Summer Institute. “Big History” is a subfield of history that attempts to help students develop an interdisciplinary view of historical change that blends human and natural history in a seamless way. Soderstrom has long been interested in Big History for the way it tackles fundamental questions about origins, about what it means to be human, and about the present challenges and future possibilities in provocative and compelling ways.

“What most drew me to the workshop at Dominican was my work here at AU, where I have been working with faculty colleagues to create the Trajectories of Human History course, one of AU’s new general education classes,” said Soderstrom. “I’ve already incorporated many ideas from the summer workshops in my design of the course.”