Cynthia Van Zandt
Excellence in Teaching
Assistant Professor of History
College of Liberal Arts
Back to the archives
There's a certain consuming contemplation Cynthia Van Zandt possesses, as if she always deliberates upon her thoughts and concepts, weighting them with knowledge learned over her lifetime and the lifetimes of those she has studied.
It's a pausing one feels from her; a pausing to understand the cultures of people from centuries past, a pausing to understand her students, and a pausing to understand herself.
She is, in every sense, a scholar.
"I am one of those people who has the privilege of doing what she loves," says Van Zandt, associate professor of history. At UNH since 1998, she specializes in the history of Colonial North America, Native America, and the Early Modern Atlantic World.
"Some people study history because they identify with the past and want to learn more about their heritage. But if we stay at only that level, there are whole worlds we are not understanding. We also can learn about the ways in which our ancestors' world and worldview were different than ours. That's when you're really becoming a student of history," she says.
After earning her undergraduate degree, Van Zandt expected to go to law school. But while working as a legal assistant, she decided against it. Instead, she began reading in the hopes of finding another path and soon was drawn to early Colonial American history.
"I enjoyed developing an understanding of the lives of people who are now long dead and feeling that sense of communication between their world and our world," she says.
How did the people of Colonial America make the decisions they made when faced with a world of so many possibilities? How did such an incredible mix of cultures and people figure out how to live together in that time and place?
"The period was extraordinarily precarious for people, but it also led to alliances and arrangements of mutual self-interest," says Van Zandt, ". . . [people] were interested in living together because that was the only way in which they could survive."
Once Van Zandt began researching and writing articles about the period, the teaching followed. "When you have that kind of passion for learning about a subject yourself, you want to tell people about it," she says. "I want to open that door between the world of the present and the world of the past and try to let my students move through it."
Van Zandt encourages her students to think of the 17th century as a foreign country. Many students, she notes, have a tendency to believe that the English colonists were similar to themselves, but Van Zandt pushes them to recognize the strangeness of the people they study.
"To understand why people made the choices that they made and acted as they did, you have to understand what their world was like. And to do that, you have to think of the differences," she says. "If you can look at anyone in the past and understand why they took a particular course of action, you are much more prepared to think thoughtfully about how we all act today."
Van Zandt has written articles on colonial settlements, culture, and life; presented her research to national and international scholars; and been honored with awards and fellowships. Her first book, Brothers Among Nations: Mapping and the Pursuit of Intercultural Alliances in Early America, will be published in 2006.
She also has become a favorite professor of both undergraduate and graduate students. Her Ph.D. students say she has a knack for making each one feel as if he or she was Van Zandt's only doctoral student.
For Van Zandt, teaching allows her to relive the experience of discovery as it washes over her students as well as hone her scholarship and research. Much of the direction that her first book took arose because of questions asked by her students.
"Sometimes they hit upon areas where we don't know enough or nobody has thought to look at this particular kind of source before, which is why being a scholar and a teacher is such a great thing," she says. "I want my students to keep asking me things that send me back to the archives."