Seeing through many lenses

The lens through which you look at something matters — just as much as the thing itself at which you’re looking. That’s what Penelope Adams Moon, associate clinical professor and director of Arizona State University’s online graduate programs in history, teaches students in her historiography courses. The class, which looks at how historical interpretations change over time, is a key part of the curriculum in ASU’s online master’s degree in history.

“In high school and to some extent in college, students have the impression that history is about the facts,” Moon said. “But really, historians are themselves embedded. Who they are and when they’re writing shapes the questions they ask and informs their interpretation of evidence. It matters if a historian was looking at the same matteris writing in the 1920s versus the 1960s.”

Moon’s focus in her teaching, as in her own studies of 20th century American history, is to always be mindful of the lens through which one looks. Indeed, she even applies this tenet of historiography to her broader view and knowledge of online education.

“What really gets me up in the morning is that we’re serving a different population of students online,” Moon said.

Moon’s passion for online education brought her from the history department of a small liberal arts college in Kansas to ASU in 2014. In 2014, Moon was hired to launch the online master’s degree program in history, which she did just four months after starting.

“All of our online students, be they working parents, lifelong learners, active duty military personnel, they all come to this degree from vastly different backgrounds and at different stages in life,” Moon said. “They look at the subject matter through their own lenses and offer their own perspectives. But by offering the degree online, we’re reaching new and different types of students, students whose voices have, to a large extent, been absent from graduate education and from the discipline of history simply by virtue of their inability to travel and devote themselves full-time to study. In effect, we’re democratizing higher education and, in the end, that will pay intellectual dividends.”

This is crucial not only for looking back, but for looking ahead, according to Moon.

“If historians are right in their belief that an understanding of the past can inform how we move toward the future, then studying the past is a remarkably valuable endeavor. The more and different people we have who are committed to infusing what they do with historical context, the bringing historical context to whatever they do can only result in better our decision-making will be.”

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