History professor uses past to teach students interactively

Dr. Sweet trains her students about firearms used during the Continental Army. Photo courtesy of Baylor History

By Lily Nussbaum | Staff Writer

When taking one of Dr. Julie Anne Sweet’s classes, students are guaranteed one thing: They will learn about history, and it will be interactive.

“The majority of students today are not going to pick up a book and be like, ‘Wow, this is so good,'” Sweet said. “There are other ways to learn history.”

Assignments in her history classes range from watching “Hamilton” to making a trip to the Historic Village at the Mayborn Museum Complex. Through these creative teaching opportunities, Sweet said she aims to invite students to be a part of historical dialogue.

“They say the past is a foreign country,” Sweet said. “It’s not that foreign. Whether you’re from 1100 A.D. or one of the Founding Fathers in the 1770s or, you know, a student today, we all have the same basic questions and basic needs.”

In college, Sweet double majored in history and theater. Rather than the spotlight, she said she preferred the technical side of running lights or creating props. When technical theater didn’t work out, public history called.

Sweet said she spent time as a park ranger and a part of Living History with Colonial Williamsburg. She said her dive into history and many of her teaching skills trace back to her days of reenacting historical events.

Dr. Julie Anne Sweet's office.
Dr. Julie Anne Sweet's office. Lily Nussbaum | Staff Writer

Dubbed “the props closet,” Sweet’s office is like stepping into a history-themed antique store — the walls lined with various countries’ flags, a George Washington puppet, historical glassware, British soldier figurines and more.

“That like ‘wow’ — it really gives you that opportunity to touch, to connect with the past in a way that you can’t normally do,” Sweet said.

Marshall junior Elizabeth Anne Palmer said seeing the colonial musket and learning to fire it was one of her favorite moments from taking Sweet’s class in American military history to 1865.

Palmer said Sweet’s teaching style made learning easy, as it was like listening to a story.

“Her creative style makes history come alive,” Palmer said.

Sweet said her tendency to collect items and trinkets stems from her mentor back in college: the Rev. Robert Kerby. With a great gravelly voice — described by Sweet as similar to that of James Earl Jones — Kerby would teach military history using his own weapons and props.

“I would show up literally half an hour before class to go through all of his stuff,” Sweet said. “We were a natural fit together.”

Sweet said she continues to use the knowledge she obtained from the Notre Dame professor. When she teaches her American military history class, she said she still uses her college notes from his class, and a wise statement of Kerby’s constantly sits in her head and serves as a mantra.

“Teaching is theater,” Sweet said. “The classroom is a stage. And how you use it, how you make it work for you, just kind of depends on your teaching style.”