One of the great blessings of my life is that I’ve come to count several of my colleagues among my closest friends — maybe even closer than that: more like siblings. So it was with no small sadness that I learned last fall that we’d be losing a wonderful colleague who has become a sister to me: Dr. Amy Poppinga.
No, losing is too strong a word. Amy will continue to teach multiple classes in our department and even spend time in her office next to mine. And that sadness is leavened by happiness that she’ll get to dedicate more of her time to some other work that excites her.
But as we come to the end of the 2022-23 year, she is stepping down from her full-time position as associate professor of history. So it was an honor to spend last week putting together the not-quite-farewell to Amy that follows.
Now, all she actually asked me to write, as her department chair, was an announcement to let our students, alumni, and colleagues know what’s happening. But as her friend, I couldn’t come to this moment without seizing the chance to look back over the first acts of her career before she starts another.
While my name is on my posts for our department blog, I generally strive to mute my own voice and let others speak — in this case, some of the colleagues and alumni who were kind enough to quickly turn around my request for comments. So though the choice of themes in this morning’s post certainly reflects my own appreciation of her unique gifts and how she employs them, I didn’t get a chance to thank her publicly myself.
So I’m reposting here on Substack: both because I know the announcement will reach Bethel-connected readers who don’t otherwise follow our department on WordPress or social media, and because Substack’s footnote function makes it easy for me to annotate the post with some of my own words of reminiscence and tribute.
In 2012 Bethel’s Department of History hired Amy Poppinga ‘99, then an adjunct instructor, to join the faculty as a full-time professor. After eleven years in that role, Amy will return to her part-time status next fall, in order to pursue more of the consulting and contract work in her areas of expertise that have already become part of her career.
In most ways, I doubt students will notice much of a change. In 2023-24, “Doc Pop” will continue to teach several of her regular courses: Modern Middle East and Intro to Geography in the fall; Muslim Women in History in January; and History of Islam and History and the Human Environment next spring. While more of her teaching may take place online, Amy will still be present on campus.
So what follows is not a farewell. But because this is an important transition — for Amy and for our department — we wanted to mark it with a written tribute to our colleague and friend.
And if you read this post and want to add your own words of gratitude and appreciation, just click this link or use the Comments section below. We’ll gather all those responses and pass them on to Amy.
A History and Social Studies Education major during her own undergraduate years at Bethel, Amy first returned to her alma mater to teach in 2005. Among others on our faculty, she reconnected with history and political science professor G.W. Carlson, having previously been his teaching assistant as a student.Amy later co-taught History and the Human Environment with that course’s creator, Kevin Cragg, and continued to teach it after his retirement.
According to history professor and Christianity and Western Culture coordinator Sam Mulberry, Amy “really is the inheritor of her History Department predecessors” like GW and Kevin, embodying many of their same strengths and adding her own. A fellow member of the History Department class of 1999, Sam loves “that Amy is a teacher who is a storyteller… who invests her energy and enthusiasm in the classroom. When Amy teaches, her personality shines through.” That approach to teaching is a powerful one, as international relations professor Chris Moore explained: “Whether it’s geography, the environment, or Muslim women, students learn from Amy because they fall in love with the subject.”
Amy teaches on multiple topics, but she brought to Bethel a particular expertise in Islamic studies, a field that she had studied as a master’s student at Luther Seminary and in which she would earn a doctorate (while teaching full-time) from the University of Exeter in England.
In a 2017 blog post for Patheos, Amy explained that it was unusual for a school of our type and size to hire a historian of Islam. But adding such a scholar to the faculty helped Bethel students better understand Muslims, rather than “reinforce an ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ narrative.” Although her graduate education was in the multidisciplinary field of religious studies, she emphasized the particular value of her undergraduate discipline: “Time and again, learning the roots of Islamic history changes the way students view Islam today. I have seen (and read) how students become more compassionate and understanding.” Reflecting on courses like History of Islam, history professor AnneMarie Kooistra was struck how Amy “has tackled teaching students the skill of historical empathy with patience and grace.”
Ultimately, taking one of Amy’s courses has represented a turning point in their Bethel education for many students. For example, Kyle Kilgore ‘19 recalled how Modern Middle East “challenged quite a bit about how I viewed that area of the world” and “encouraged us to evaluate, empathize, and ultimately understand an incredibly complex issue at the most human level….”
Amy came to her interest in Islam through her first job after graduation, teaching social studies at a local high school with a growing number of Muslim students. Even after she became a college professor, Amy continued to serve schools by preparing future teachers.“Dr. Poppinga taught me more about how to teach well than any education class I took,” wrote Micayla Moore ‘16, a Spanish immersion teacher in Minnetonka, MN. “Just by being her student, I learned what solid teaching practices looked like. She truly cares about her students.”
That care extended beyond teaching. Amy has advised and mentored many of our Social Studies Education majors, several of whom also served as her teaching assistants. Now an assistant football coach at Bethel, Kyle Kilgore appreciated that Amy “was always encouraging, curious to know how life was going beyond the classroom, and willing to share her life — ingredients for an awesome mentorship.” “She’s real,” added Celia Blattner ‘21, head volleyball coach at Crown College. “She didn’t try to act like her life was perfect. She admitted her faults and shared her joys and everything in between.”
This coming Saturday Bethel’s class of 2023 will join Amy on the Bethel alumni roster. We often explain that we call that ceremony Commencement because it marks the beginning of a new chapter in life,not just the close of another. In that same spirit, I know that Amy is about to mark a new commencement, and all of our gratitude, admiration, and love go with her.
If you happen to know Amy and want to add your own tribute to a document I’m compiling for her, just email me or leave a comment below.
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I wasn’t quite sure how or whether to fit it into the department blog post, but I’ll echo what several departmental colleagues said when I asked about Amy: that she is the glue that holds our department together, not just in planning most of our events but in helping to foster relationships across the disciplinary divides in our merged department of History, Philosophy, and Political Science. I know she won’t be able to do quite so much of that work in the years to come, but I am glad that she’ll continue to be present in our departmental suite.
This gets back to something I’ve learned from Amy, in her role as the bridge between generations of history faculty at Bethel: that we celebrate these transitions is not only a way of loving our colleagues, but of serving our university — by using our skills as historians to record and tell its story.
Fun story: the seeds for that hire were planted during my own job interview at Bethel, two years earlier. Before I taught an evening seminar, the faculty took me out to eat at a local Italian restaurant… the same night that Amy and her husband happened to be dining there. She was taken aback to see all of her former history professors — plus one gangly stranger — suddenly crash her dinner date. Anyway, I think she and GW got to talking, and after Amy finished her master’s degree, he hired her to come back to Bethel and teach what then was still called Introduction to the Muslim World.
Not just multiple fields in history… Amy has long been a member of the Christianity and Western Culture team with Sam, me, and several other colleagues. For several years she also taught a course in our Honors program that I’ll temporarily cover next spring.
This is the main point I wanted to underscore. It’s hard enough to complete graduate coursework, comprehensive exams, and then research and write a dissertation when you’re a relatively unencumbered twentysomething. (That was the story of my doctorate.) Doing all of that later in life, as a full-time professor with young children… and doing it at a university across the Atlantic Ocean… well, that’s a whole other degree of difficulty. Amy would say that many people at and beyond Bethel helped her bring that program to its completion, but as her chair and friend, I know well the strength, perseverance, and courage she drew upon to complete that degree.
One of my favorite things about editing The Anxious Bench: I occasionally got to introduce a wider audience to amazing Bethel profs like Amy.
She’s also highly active as a parent-leader at her kids’ school.
You should click that link: it takes you to Amy’s own benediction for the Class of 2021, shared at the end of our first commencement ceremony after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Congrats to Dr. Poppinga! I remember my time in her classes fondly. I also owe her a great debt. I would not expect her to remember this moment, but it was pivotal in my development as a man of character and hard work. I was taking her course and had truly had a terrible week. A week in which I was overwhelmed and busy. That “busyness” led me to not do the reading or studying for a test I had in her class that week. This was not a typical thing for me to do as any reading or work for my history courses always took priority. However, this week it didn’t. Needless to say, I did not do well on the test. The following week, Dr. Poppinga asked me to come to her office, where she was joined by Dr. Kooistra. I felt a pit in my stomach. However, they both kindly, yet firmly, told me I was better than this. That they expected more. Yet, they also asked if I was okay and if they could help. The conversation challenged me to be better but also humbled me due to their kindness. I never let that happen again. I still apply the lessons learned from that meeting today. Dr. Poppinga was new to Bethel at the time. She was still working towards her PHD. Yet, she cared enough to take the time to help me.
I still call this the Poppinga protocol when I have to do something similar in my career.
1. Bring a mentor or someone you trust into the room for a hard conversation, especially if you don’t know the person well. Dr. Kooistra was my mentor and someone I knew and loved. Her presence helped both of us.
2. Be direct, but kind. Dr. Poppinga did not mince words. She was disappointed in me and rightfully so, yet she still took time to care for me as a person. Hard conversations will happen in the workplace, and sometimes we choose to not care for the individual. Dr. Poppinga showed me, even as a young college student, how to do that well.
3. Follow up. Over the next few weeks, she would pull me aside after class to see how I was doing. To make sure I was handling the workload and life. I think it would have been easy to have the one conversation and not do the follow up work. However, Dr. Poppinga did the exact opposite.
Will be forever grateful to her and to all my History Professors at Bethel.