Cool Class: HIST 12: Pennsylvania History

Hist 12 begins with the native tribes of Pennsylvania and covers the hallmarks of state history until present day.

classroom sign that says Cool Class HIST 12


One of the first things Penn State Schyulkill professor Harold Aurand does on the first day of his Hist 12: Pennsylvania History class is put up a blank map of the state and and ask students to draw the Susquehanna river on it.

“These students grew up a few miles from the Susquehanna,” Aurand says, “but most of them have no idea where it is.”

Aurand ’86 Lib, a second generation history professor—his father emeritus professor Harold Aurand ’63 MA, ’69 PhD Lib taught at the Hazelton campus—confesses that he, too, knew little about his home state when he was growing up, and he had no real interest in Pennsylvania until he returned to the state as a freshly minted PhD from the University of Minnesota and began teaching at Penn State Schuylkill. “They don’t really teach Pennsylvania history in public schools anymore,” he says, “and a lot of students come in saying ‘this is something I haven’t had,’ so it’s a pretty popular class.”

Hist 12 begins with the native tribes of Pennsylvania and covers the hallmarks of state history until present day. One of the big assignments students are given is to plan a vacation in a particular Pennsylvania county. “I try and pick places no one’s gone to and where there isn’t a whole lot to do,” Aurand says. “They have to plan an itinerary, figure out where they’re going to stay, and what they’re going to do, and then tell me about it. I’ve had students come back and say ‘I actually did my vacation.’”

old sepia photo of Schuylkill County almshouse, courtesyBut the most popular section of Aurand’s class is the nineteenth century, in which he covers public welfare, alms houses, and the history of the Schyulkill campus itself. The campus is built on the site of the county alms house and is, according to popular legend, one of the most haunted places in the county. Many claim to have had eerie encounters, and Aurand himself says he’s smelled pipe smoke on more than one occasion over the years. “The theory is that the doctor who was in charge of the building goes about his rounds checking up on everything,” he says. “They say is his name is Jerome, but I don’t know where that came from.”

At the start of every academic year, Aurand leads new students on a ghost walk across campus.

“Many students start out saying they don’t believe in ghosts,” he says, “but by the time we get to the graveyard that’s behind campus, most of them have got scared and floated away.”

Aurand, who’s researched mine fires and Christmas traditions in Pennsylvania, also teaches Amst 105, an American Studies course through the lens of two iconic American pastimes, baseball and Disney.  The class had a third component, teenage movies, but “it’s not really working anymore,” he says, so Aurand has asked students to crowdsource another theme that he can teach next year.