BA in History

Zach Arlt, 2020

Zach Arlt

How did you decide on the history major? 

Storytelling has always been one my passions. I have spent most of my undergraduate career looking for a way to study storytelling and how to understand other’s perspectives. Deciding on a major was incredibly difficult for me. I had changed my major quite a few times before I found my home in the History and Art History department. Being a history major gives me the ability to uncover stories about the past that I haven’t traditionally been exposed to and critically examine narratives that have been constructed or highlighted by others.

Are you minoring or double majoring in anything else? If so, how do the two work together – or  separately?

I have a minor in theater, which works great with my history major, because again they are both rooted in storytelling. One class that really connected the two was Theater History, with Prof. Kristin Johnsen-Neshati. In every class we would read plays and discuss how they contributed to the development of theater but also how they reflected the time period they were written in. Taking a course in theater history allowed me to look at time periods that I have already studied but through the lens of performance and dramatic theory.

What have you learned in a history class that really surprised you/changed your perspective?

There are three distinct moments from my time as a history major that jump out. The first is reading Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi in Prof. Jane Hooper’s class on the history of Africa during the transatlantic slave trade. I had never been exposed to a history class that uses a well-crafted and well researched piece of fiction to guide discussion about real events. The way Prof. Hooper used this novel to guide our exploration of the human narratives that surround the slave trade and African history really helped me understand how storytelling and history interact.

Another moment that really changed my perspective was getting to spend time in the Special Collections Research Center at Fenwick Library for my research methods course. I felt like a real historian sitting among documents and photos from the past. Having the opportunity to do original primary source research on something that I was passionate about also helped me better understand the process of writing an extended research paper. I learned that sometimes you can have a solid plan of what you are going to look into and an idea of what you might find, only to be pleasantly surprised that the story you are following is more complex. In fact, you can be led in a completely different direction than what you were intending and still have a great paper to write about.

The final moment is the discussions that I have had in my Narrative History course with professors Zach Schrag and Scott Berg. I was interested in taking a course in narrative history because it blends my love for storytelling and history beautifully, and I also have the opportunity to develop my own piece of narrative history. Profs. Schrag and Berg have woven into the course many interesting discussions and examples of ways that we can better tell stories and that history does not have to exist only as an academic field, but rather it can take on a creative and artistic form.

Tell us about your dream occupation…

I am still trying to sort out what I would like to pursue. I would like to end up in the  theater world, but I would like to bring my historical research skills to the rehearsal room. I hope that someday I will be in a position where I would get to teach and also still help develop and practice theater. Through my internship I've found that I also would love to work in a job that allows me to explore how theater can be used as a tool for learning about the past, like in a museum setting or at a historical site.

Can you say more about your internship and any interesting jobs or volunteer experiences you've had?

For the past six months, I have had the pleasure of interning with Discovery Theater at the Smithsonian! My primary responsibility is researching, designing and editing educational materials for different productions. In addition to that, I use the Smithsonian’s digital collections to create collections of primary sources based on the different productions that the theater produces on the Smithsonian’s Learning Lab program. I don’t just do research and desk work, I also get to work in the theater. During the summer season, I was part of the front-of-house team that welcomed hundreds of children to the Smithsonian on a daily basis to see educational and cultural programming. While I am not in the theater as much this semester, helping to run the Smithsonian’s Theater for Young Audiences certainly has kept me on my toes.

In addition to working at the Smithsonian, the past semester I have also had the opportunity to make my debut as a dramaturg with Mason Players on their production of Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare. Working as a dramaturg has been my absolute dream. This particular production of Twelfth Night is set at the Woodstock Festival, so having a background in historical research skills has been a huge help during the early production process. Part of my work as a dramaturg is to research the historical context of the piece, its production history, and the actual text and then distill all of that information into a packet for the actors and production staff to read. I also get to be a part of the rehearsal process and make sure that everything makes sense and fits together while supporting the director’s vision. I think that being a history major and looking at themes and change over time has really helped me succeed in this role.

Any accomplishments you’re proud of? Opportunities you’ve taken advantage of? Brag a little!

While here at Mason, I have had great opportunities to become involved on campus. I am currently employed with Housing and Residence Life as a Community Assistant and I am a part of the poetry and prose staff for Volition, the undergraduate literary arts magazine. One of my favorite things that I am a part of here on campus is Mason Ambassadors. The Ambassadors are the tour guides that you see walking around on campus showing prospective students all the things to love about Mason. During my third year at Mason, I had the opportunity to serve as Vice President of Visits for Mason Ambassadors. The position was challenging, as I was responsible for coordinating our Ambassadors for all of the University tours and I played a significant role in developing the training that all new members received. At the end of my time serving in this role, I had developed confidence in myself as a leader and gained valuable experience organizing volunteers.

Tell us something people would be surprised to know about you.

I study American Sign Language! I hope that I am able to continue to learn ASL after my formal course work ends this semester, because the language and Deaf culture are so interesting.