History professor hopes her students will “engage thoughtfully with the world”
Assistant Professor of History Dr. Corinne Gressang brings to her work enthusiasm for research, teaching, and mentoring; openness to interdisciplinary approaches; and commitment to the connection of faith and learning.
Gressang, who teaches courses in European and Latin American history, joined the Erskine College faculty in the fall of 2020. Her own undergraduate days at a small Christian liberal arts college in Pennsylvania prepared her for many elements of the Erskine experience.
“There is something incredibly alluring about a small community, close relationships with professors, and Christian fellowship,” she says. “Grove City College was where I decided that I wanted to be a professor of history at a small college.”
After majoring in history with a minor in legal studies, she went on to earn her master’s and Ph.D. degrees from a large state institution, the University of Kentucky. But she never forgot her small-college experience and her desire to teach.
“God has been very gracious in placing me somewhere that is just like I imagined!” Gressang says, adding, “I will say, I enjoy the diversity at Erskine. Grove City is very homogeneous and does not offer the same variety of perspectives and student experiences as Erskine.”
An energetic scholar throughout her brief academic career, Gressang has already received numerous awards, fellowships, and grants. What inspires her efforts?
“First, I do love my project,” she explains, referring to her doctoral work. “I am one of those few people who still love their dissertation even after completing it.”
Gressang defended her dissertation, “Breaking Habits: Identity and the Dissolution of Convents in France, 1789-1808,” in 2020 at the University of Kentucky.
Her keen interest in her subject area, she says, “makes applying for grants and fellowships more enjoyable because I am determined to tell this story.” When she needed funding for travel to France for research, she says, “I worked hard to make sure I would have the opportunity to do the project justice.”
In addition to a strong and continuing interest in her dissertation topic, she cites the competitive job market in the field of history as a motivator. “I was terrified I would not be able to get a job. I may not be the smartest person in the world, but I can work hard,” she says with a laugh.
Gressang says she entered graduate school “knowing I wanted to study the French Revolution.” During her first year of graduate studies, she came upon a 1799 newspaper editorial about the fate of nuns during the Revolution and wanted to learn more.
“I tried to fact-check some details to learn more and realized that almost no one had written on the nuns during the revolution,” she recalls. “This quest to understand as much as possible about religious women during the French Revolution still animates much of my research and writing.”
Here at Erskine, Gressang’s teaching focuses on Modern Europe and Latin American history. So how does Latin American history fit with her fascination with the French Revolution? “My primary research area is the French Revolution, but you cannot tell the story of the French Revolution without understanding the Haitian Revolution,” she says. “Slowly my knowledge crept across the Atlantic Ocean until I found myself taking graduate courses on Latin America alongside Europe. History does not contain itself within the borders of specific countries. Therefore, to understand any topic you have to zoom out and see the global context.”
Recently, Gressang presented “Resistance and Obedience: The Politics of Martyrdom during the Revolution” at the online conference of The Consortium on the Revolutionary Era. Her talk was based on a chapter of her dissertation. “This was a sticky chapter where I found that a small percentage of women went to the guillotine during the Revolution,” she explains.
“While the revolutionaries called these religious women ‘fanatics,’ ‘counterrevolutionaries,’ or ‘enemies of the republic,’ the church called them ‘heroes’ and ‘martyrs,’” she asserted in her presentation. “The very same action that the church representatives saw as obedience, the state saw as resistance. Religious questions were and often remain even today, political issues.”
Gressang views the women she has been studying as political actors, but her research reveals much more about them. “I love reading these women’s letters because some of them are very unique or personal,” she says.
“Some have numerous words misspelled or shaky handwriting, yet they still took up a pen to advocate for themselves,” she adds admiringly.
The new professor acknowledges a close link between teaching and research. “I think good teaching stems from research,” she says. “I like to model for students the sort of research I expect them to do. For example, if I assign them a book review, I will send them a book review I wrote recently. Good scholarship stems from mentorship.”
Another key element of good scholarship, in Gressang’s view, is an interdisciplinary approach. “All projects are interdisciplinary,” she says, “or you are likely misunderstanding them.” Her doctoral research in history required forays into other fields, including sociology and religion.
“For me, a liberal arts education means that you are developing the whole person. You are not only trained to perform a job, but you are prepared to engage thoughtfully with the world,” she says.
“For example, in history, I try to get students to understand, not just to memorize a body of facts. I want them to think about how information gets filtered through their worldview. We do not need to share the same worldview, but we need to understand how different people see the world.”
Gressang cherishes the teaching awards she has received, which include a Graduate Student Teaching Award in 2019. She was named a GradTeach Live! Finalist at the University of Kentucky in 2019. “I care about students and I care about developing their skills,” she says.
Her “holistic pedagogy of kindness,” developed during her time in graduate school, is well suited to the Erskine environment. “Kindness is not ‘niceness,’” she insists. “Sometimes I must have harsh conversations in order to be kind, or even do a difficult thing which may be the kinder thing.”
Gressang says she sees herself and her students as on the same team, “working together to achieve the same goal—learning.”
Her classes are challenging, but challenging her students amounts to “doing them a kindness by helping them work to their potential,” she believes.
“Kind doesn’t mean easy. But it does mean valuing students as people first. As a Christian, I think it is the right thing to do,” she says. “Kindness is essential for learning. It builds mutual trust. I am concerned with teaching students to be curious and engaged humans, not just preparing them to take tests.”
For Gressang, there is a clear connection between her faith and the path of learning she and her students walk together. “I am thankful for a God Who does not hold every mistake against me and for One whose Son showed us unconditional kindness.”