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Three Mercyhurst profs pen text on the 1930s

Monday, February 16, 2015

When three Mercyhurst University professors set forth a few years back to teach an interdisciplinary course –  American Life in the 1930s – they went in search of a textbook, tried several, but came away disappointed. One bombed in the classroom. Another lacked sufficient rigor. Rather than continue what had seemingly become a futile exercise in trial and error, they did the unexpected: they wrote their own.

John Olszowka, Ph.D., associate professor of history; Marnie Sullivan, Ph.D., assistant professor of English; and Brian Sheridan, lecturer in the communications department; authored America in the Thirties, the latest addition to the America in the Twentieth Century series published by Syracuse University Press. Dennis Hickey, Ph.D., professor in the history, anthropology and world languages department at Edinboro University also co-authored the text.

When they began their original research for a text, they were surprised at what they found. The 1930s was either ignored or covered uncritically as the bleak time between World War I/the Roaring 20s and World War II, Sullivan said. Even good studies of the 1930s offered narrow focuses, like the Dust Bowl, the Great Depression, or the Golden Age of Cinema.

“The three of us had all but given up hope and began discussing the production of a course packet, when, in the spring of 2012, I found a decade-by-decade series from Syracuse University Press that looked promising, however the space for the 1930s was blank,” she said. 

At that point, Sullivan reached out to series editor Robert Greene to ask if he would be interested in her interdisciplinary team writing the book, and so began their collective journey. In brief, she said, it was “a demanding, arduous, sometimes tense, but ultimately gratifying process to craft the manuscript collaboratively.  John did the bulk of the writing. I produced the chapter on the Dust Bowl and most of the chapter on gender, and worked with Brian to produce the chapter on media. Dennis wrote his chapter on world events.  John, Brian, and I all contributed to the chapter on African Americans.”

While it was a challenge to reconcile different writing styles between and even within chapters, Sullivan said she believes the final product is polished and utterly unique. 

Syracuse University Press officially released the book in December 2014, but offered Mercyhurst some advance copies to use in class.

“After reading the first chapter, one student told me it was riveting to read,” Sullivan said. “That’s just what we wanted.”