My goal in teaching is to open minds and broaden perspectives. By looking at distant places, cultures, and mentalities with a sympathetic or even empathetic view, you can open students' eyes to recognizing other mentalities in their own world. I like to make a direct connection between my research topics and their lives.

When Ann Tlusty searches for voices in the archives, she's not looking for ghosts; she's trying to uncover the language of ordinary people of the past.

With her collaborative partner, a professor of linguistics at the University of Augsburg, Tlusty examines samples of language and history "from below," or the dialect and daily life of the common people of 16th and 17th century Germany.

In her investigations, she has discovered snippets of dialect that point to colorful aspects of life for Germans in early modern Europe. "I've found dirty songs that were confiscated after they were sung in the streets at night. There are notes people had to turn in to go drink in the countryside, where they got a tax break, and there are cases of fraud. In one letter, a boy posed as an executioner warning a wealthy family of a curse. The weaver who hired the boy to write the letter said he could protect them — he was hoping for a tip," says Tlusty.

Her research partner identifies dialect forms and other stylistic features in the documents, and Tlusty puts them into a historical and social context.

Looking at "ordinary voices," she says, reveals that there is not one "correct" language with incorrect lower languages or dialects, but rather that the language of the common people is simply a different, viable language form. At the same time, the work reveals aspects of the personal, social, and political lives of people often overlooked by history - people whose collective assumptions and beliefs have influenced contemporary American and European society.

Ordinary voices inform Tlusty's other research projects as well, which focus on gendered behaviors and cultural rules in German towns from the 15th through the 18th centuries. Everyday events such as swordfights, drinking bouts, card games, shooting matches and marital squabbles have all left their traces in the archives. These sources, she maintains, can tell us a great deal about the construction of institutions and cultural perspectives that we now often understand as "natural" or "original" (for example, categories of class, gender, race, ethnicity or national identity).

Whenever possible, Tlusty brings her research to the Bucknell classroom. "The Right to Bear Arms in European Perspective," "Witchcraft and Magic in Early Modern Europe," and "Fairy Tales as Historical Documents" might seem like whimsical course topics, but the subject matter in fact plays into many of major debates of history. It also leads Tlusty and her students to fascinating discussions of pressing 21st century issues.

"The right to bear arms translates into a complicated issue of who's loyal to whom and raises broader questions about arms and violence in general," says Tlusty, "and studying the witch craze reveals how torture gets you bad intelligence — an issue that has become relevant again."

"In the fairy tales course," says Tlusty, "students find out that what Disney Studios has done to the Grimms' fairy tales is not significantly different from what the Grimms themselves did to the tales they got a hold of. In other words, each generation changes their stories to fit the current media and culture. I'm hoping that when students watch these tales change over time, they see how each generation reinterprets and reconstructs culture - and sometimes history - to meet our own agendas."

Her teaching philosophy is simple yet profound: "My goal in teaching is to open minds and broaden perspectives. By looking at distant places, cultures, and mentalities with a sympathetic or even empathetic view, you can open students' eyes to recognizing other mentalities in their own world. I like to make a direct connection between my research topics and their lives."

Reposted Aug. 24, 2009

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