New history professor makes her mark

William Wehrs

Dr. Johanna Mellis came to Ursinus in the fall of 2018 after getting her PhD from the University of Florida. Though she initially came to do a two-year visiting professorship, this spring she was hired as a tenure-track assistant professor, a post she will formally take on in the fall.

Mellis came to Ursinus after a national search by the college which posted a highly specific description with a long list of qualifications. “The position description for this tenure-track line was detailed and demanding. It emphasized not only certain content knowledge and scholarly expertise, but also a particular approach to teaching, student engagement, community build- ing, and collegial teamwork, as well as engagement in the digital humanities and interdisciplinary programs,” said Dr. Susanna A. Throop, Associate Professor and Department Chair of History.

Mellis comes to Ursinus hav- ing won many awards during her graduate studies, including being a Fulbright scholar and a Foreign Language and Area Studies Fellow. “Throughout the search process, Dr. Mellis demonstrated her ability to meet that position description most fully. We are both delighted, and extremely fortunate, to have been able to hire her in this tenure-track position. She has great ideas for our department and for the college, and we’re very excited to work with her in the years to come,” said Throop.

Students have also responded well to her. “Dr. Mellis’ classes are always run with great care and foster a collaborative learn- ing environment where students are encouraged to explore their personal interests through the texts we read,” said Cori Cichowicz ’19.

Mellis teaches courses in European history and world history and her deep abiding interest in history stems from two sources. One of these sources was her own teachers. “Through them, [I learned] understanding people’s motivations is important to understanding how history plays out,” Mellis said. The other of these sources is how history always allows one to discover new things. “I always like to ask people questions, and it’s fascinating to learn about people’s stories and experience that history with them,” she said. This extends into her research, in which she interviews Cold War athletes. Not only is this experience rewarding for her, but also for the people she interviews, since many of them had not had people with whom to share their stories.

Ursinus has been quite a different experience from the University of Florida. One obvious difference is the size. The University of Florida has 55,000 students, which dwarfs Ursinus’ current size of around 1,500 students. The approach to teaching is also quite different, with Florida placing a greater emphasis on old-fashioned lectures. Conversely, Mellis noted that Ursinus is much more about teachers working with students. “Teachers and students are all invested in the same goal,” she said.

She has also been highly pleased with how the students at Ursinus typically do the reading: “here, it’s expected everyone does the reading, and by and large, the students are really in- vested in the reading,” she said.

Mellis also encourages stu- dents never to be afraid of taking a history class or be afraid if they are struggling with material. “Talk to the professor about any concerns you might have, and keep talking them as the course develops, that way the profes- sor can help you as a student. If you’re interested in the material, then take the course. It will be a challenge, but the personal growth will be significant,” Mellis said. She noted that in one
of her courses there were two non-history majors who were struggling, but since coming to talk to her have greatly improved and are now much more willing to “dive into the material.”

In the future, Mellis is eager to teach courses on sports history. “I’m really excited about teaching sport history to students who are athletes or non student athletes to show that sports or sports culture matters to everyone, whether you are a sport fan or someone who does yoga,” Mellis said.

For now, however, in the fall, she will be teaching two courses, a course on World War I and a course on how to do conduct oral histories.

Mellis is already contributing a great deal to Ursinus despite her relatively short time at the college.“I think Dr. Mellis has already become a vital member of the Ursinus community in her short time here,” Cichowicz said.

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