Unusual Research Topics Challenge Sister Justine's Students

Monday, October 8, 2012 1:25:00 AM

Sister Justine Peter, OSF, Ph.D., ’50, used to hate history. Growing up, she regarded history as a dull, monotonous exercise in memorizing dates. But today, Sister Justine, who has taught history at Stritch for nearly 30 of her 40 years at the school, now relishes deep examination of historical time periods, events, and people.

The turnaround for her came during her college studies at St. Clare College, the forerunner to Cardinal Stritch University, when she took a history class taught by Sister Narcissa Zeitler.

“She really knew how to teach history,” Sister Justine said, remembering Sister Narcissa. “She didn’t just make it names and dates. She tied together significant events and dealt with all aspects of that, in the political, social, economic, philosophical and cultural realms.”

Sister Justine’s students say she does the same thing in her history classes.

“She teaches you about, as she calls it, the ‘so what?’” said former student Richard Schneider, ‘01. “How does this information pertain to other things, to your life?”

Sister Justine’s quest for the “so what” is never more evident to her students than in the history senior seminar class. She has become legendary among students and alumni for the unique and fascinating topics she chooses for the seniors to research each year.

In this culminating, research-heavy class, Sister Justine expects her students to engage in original research, to examine the evolution of history from a unique topical perspective never before fully explored by writers, historians or scholars.

“I try to find something that will be stimulating for students and pique their curiosity so they really have to track down the subject,” Sister Justine said. “I don’t want one trip to the library to solve all the questions.”

At the outset of each spring semester, Sister Justine announces on the first day of class what the topic will be. Past topics (see below) have included: “The Social and Economic Effects of Large Gatherings on the Host Cities,” “The Political and Social Role of the Public House Throughout History,” “The Burial Place as Reflection of the Community,” and “Political Theology: Its Use and Abuse.” For more than 25 years, Sister Justine has mulled countless topic ideas, careful to select only those that would challenge students’ research abilities. But her selections are not always popular.

“I threw a hissy,” said Tracy Lunzmann, ’00, of her initial reaction to the “Art as Politics” topic her class had to research. Prior to the start of the semester, Lunzmann had been trying to get Sister Justine to consider a topic involving costume or architecture. Pat Clemens, ’01, who took Sister Justine’s class the year after Lunzmann and studied the topic “Significant Nobodies,” said his class petitioned for a topic about pets or animals in history. Prior to the official announcement of the topic each January, it’s not unusual for students to lobby for months in an attempt to influence Sister Justine’s decision.

“Sometimes I take their suggestions,” Sister Justine said,” but it has to be something that demands rigorous research and that can yield solid historical content.”

Throughout the semester, senior seminar students spend ample time digging deeply to find nuggets of information for their research.

“I spent a lot of time in the library, at other libraries, photocopying, on the Internet,” Lunzmann said.

“The research is pretty extensive,” Clemens said, noting that his bibliography for the class included more than 60 books.

“They complain to the skies about all the work. I just say ‘Look at what you’re getting for your money,’” Sister Justine said with a smile.

Previously, students in the research seminar could choose their own topics. But, Sister Justine said when she decided to require all students to focus on a single, common topic, she noticed the class discussions became more interactive, students showed more enthusiasm, and the seniors really took pride in their research findings. Class discussions now are a satisfying exchange of discoveries. The best part is Sister Justine learns right along with the students.

“I always learn,” she said. “It’s very rewarding to work with the classes because they’re all talking about the same thing. We’re able to discuss topics in some depth.”

“I’ve learned a lot just listening to other discussions and that’s been good,” Clemens said, echoing Sister Justine.

A few times student findings have managed to surprise her. In 1993, when the topic was “Wives and Mothers of Famous Men,” a student discovered that Albert Einstein’s wife did his math for him. In 2001, a student’s research into the topic “Significant Nobodies” uncovered the fact that the woman responsible for starting the first kindergarten lived in Watertown, Wis. In fact, that student’s great-grandparents lived next door to this woman, so the student had a lot of original books and articles on the topic. In 1978, the study of “The Role of the Professional Fool throughout History” revealed who today’s professional fools are.

“We don’t have court fools, but we have cartoonists,” Sister Justine said. “They can tell the truth about people in power without being prosecuted for it.”

She also remembers discussions with one class about the topic “Pilgrimage: from the Holy Land to Graceland” when the focus centered on Harley Davidson motorcycle riders and their treks to Milwaukee for reunions. “They had to convince me that really was a pilgrimage,” Sister Justine said.

Students have the opportunity to share their findings with an even wider audience at a history department dinner at the end of each academic year. Students, faculty and alumni join together for an exchange of ideas, formal presentations, and some fun.

For Sister Justine, some of her favorite topics over the years have included “The Legal Status of the Widow,” which preceded feminist studies on the topic, and the “Position of the Outsider in Society.”

Regardless of the topic, students find Sister Justine’s classes among their most rigorous, and, over the years, they have adopted a nickname originally given to her by her family: “Little General.”

“She is tough, firm, fair and driving,” Schneider said. “I think that a good general is all those things.”

Schneider noted that in the many classes he took from Sister Justine, he never ceased to be amazed at how much she knew and how rare it was for her to refer to any prepared notes. Clemens shared his awe.

“Sister Justine is amazing,” Clemens said. “She has more facts in her brain than anyone I’ve ever met. You can’t try to fool her. She keeps us on task.”

Lunzmann says the work she has done for Sister Justine gives her a leg up for future studies. “I totally feel prepared for a higher level of education. Research for any master’s program will be no problem.”

Even though the fall semester barely has begun, Sister Justine already is mulling topic ideas for the start of the next senior research seminar in January. And while it’s anybody’s guess as to what topic might be next, it’s a certainty that next semester’s students are doing their best to influence her decision.


1975: “The Social and Economic Effects of Large Gatherings on the Host Cities”

1976: “Wills as Social, Political, Economic, and Religious/Philosophical Indicators”

1977: “Immigration: the Decision, the Journey, the Destination”

1978: “The Role of the Professional Fool throughout History”

1979: “The Legal Status of the Widow throughout History”

1980: “World-Views of Saints and Sages”

1981: “Political Culture as Reflected in Church Architecture”

1982: “On the Move: Transportation of Cultural Context to Frontier Locations”

1983: “The Position of the Outsider in Society”

1984: “The Search for Security”

1985: “The Burial Place as Reflection of the Community”

1986: “A Study of World-Views”

1987: “A Study of Constitutional Ideals”

1988: “The Political and Social Role of the Public House throughout History”

1989: “Political Theology: Its Use and Abuse”

1990: “World Sports”

1991: “Heroes/Heroines: Whose and Why?”

1992: “Cultural Encounters throughout the Ages”

1993: “Wives and Mothers of Famous Men”

1994: “Pilgrimage: from the Holy Land to Graceland”

1995: “Women in Sacred Leadership”

1996: “Propaganda”

1997: “Women and War”

1998: “Celebration: Its Myth and Meaning”

1999: “Millennium”

2000: “Art as Politics”

2001: “Significant Nobodies”