AcademicsMay 13, 2021

updated Jul 21, 2021

Seeing Ourselves in Our Stories

History Teacher Liza Burbank, Ph.D., is challenging dominant narratives alongside her students

It was a memorable year in which to teach U.S. History. There were some things — interacting with students via Zoom, instead of in the classroom — that History Teacher Liza Burbank would change. There were others — opportunities to discuss the extraordinary events of the year and history as it happens — that were invaluable.

“Everything we were studying, whether voter suppression in the post-Reconstruction south or the fight of women and others who have been marginalized to be included in decision-making, shows us how we got here,” Liza explains. “On Thursday, January 7, we were learning this as history was happening right then, and these are powerful moments.”

It’s those powerful moments in the classroom — or on Zoom — that Liza lives for as a teacher. “I love being in the classroom, and I love the organic moments that come up and the insights and realizations that happen during the course of a discussion,” she says, noting that a year of hybrid classes was hard.

“It’s the buzz and the energy of being together and being with students while they are learning that are my fuel,” she adds. “The year was different, but we still had really amazing moments.”

Liza’s path to MHS, where she started in 2013 as an Academic Support Specialist in the Leonhardt Academic Skills Center (ASC), wasn’t a direct line. She originally planned to teach at the college level and be an academic. The trouble was, while writing her dissertation (“Advertising Love: Personal Ads, Product Advertisements, and the Consumption of Romance”), Liza realized she didn’t enjoy research and writing as much as she thought.

Sarah Virden

“A career in academia was not all that appealing,” confides Liza, who finished her Ph.D. at Brown University and returned to Pittsfield, where she grew up. Friend and MHS English Teacher Rebecca Cook-Dubin P’24 suggested she consider Miss Hall’s, which was looking for help in the ASC.“

I hadn’t thought much about all-girl education, but once I got here, I loved the whole package — the girl-centered education, the students, and my colleagues,” says Liza, who joined the History Department in 2015. “It was a circuitous route, but I love being in the classroom with students, and this is a much better fit for me.”

Liza teaches U.S. History and two electives, Introduction to Gender Studies and A History of Race in the United States. In 2021-22, she added Hallmark History of American Advertising, which, as the subject of her dissertation, is in her wheelhouse. Liza is also the Sophomore Class Advisor.

With a compressed schedule for 2020-21, History Department Chair Matthew Rutledge — who also teaches sections of U.S. History — and Liza changed the course’s curriculum, with an eye toward making the best use of limited time.

"We were forced to look at what was essential,” Liza says. “We also had an opportunity to be responsive to what was going on in the United States — the summer of racial reckoning and what was happening in Washington.”

The first term focused on the inherent conflict in the story of a nation based on the ideals of liberty, equality, and justice while at the same time enslaving a group of people based on racial identity. The second term continued to interrogate the truth behind the notion of “We the People,” examining the experiences of women, indigenous peoples, and others impacted by U.S. expansion and imperialism, and immigrants and the working class.

Hallmark History of American Advertising

During Alumnae Weekend 2021, Liza delivered a virtual master class of her innovative Hallmark course.

Click here to watch

Challenging the dominant narrative is a regular staple in Liza’s classroom and she has long been drawn to the stories of people left out of traditional histories. She wants her students — who come from all sorts of backgrounds — to see their histories in the lessons.

“As much as possible, I try to find ways that students can connect to what we’re learning,” she says. “I am always looking to enable students to see themselves in what they are learning, as well as encourage them to see other stories that they’ve not been exposed to.”

The goal, she notes, is to develop critical- thinking skills.

“Yes, we need to teach the year something happened, but I am much
more interested in the connections and relationships between events,” Liza explains. “We can look up the ’when.’ What’s more important is the relevance. That is what is so powerful for me about teaching in this moment. So much in history explains what is happening today.”