Many people think of U.S. history in terms of battles, pioneers, and presidents. But for Elizabeth Tollefson ’11, studying history became much more personal—and much more local—by her last year at Macalester.
In January 2011, Tollefson completed a month-long internship at the Ramsey County Historical Society in downtown St. Paul, one of many internship opportunities for history students within a few miles of campus. She was charged with the task of transcribing letters between two sisters living in Minnesota in the 19th century.
“Every time I made a judgment call about punctuation or spelling, I thought, ‘I shouldn’t be editing what she actually wrote!’” Tollefson says. “The consequences for this tiny bit of editing are not big, but it gave me a hands-on way to see just how constructed history really is.”
Tollefson says her history classes in college have emphasized understanding the personal experiences of historical subjects. “Reading the letters of Lillie Gibbs was a way to look at very personal accounts of the past and ask how they can provide historians with an understanding of what they will never experience,” Tollefson says. “It was a wonderful reminder that the mundane things in any person’s life are informed by their contexts, so what we are experiencing now is not the norm and indeed one day could be interesting to historians.”
Tollefson encountered the history department on campus right away her first semester, since her first-year seminar course was “The Global in the Local” with Professor Peter Rachleff. Her approach to the subject has evolved tremendously since her high school history courses. “I loved U.S. history in high school, and what drew me then was learning and memorizing days and historical events, and wow, has the way I study history changed since then,” Tollefson says. “It’s much more analytical and theoretical. I’ve had some great professors here.”