Studying Holocaust education on both sides of the Atlantic

Author: Ryan Elkins

Ryan Elkins at the Tate Modern Art Museum
Ryan Elkins visits the Tate Modern Art Museum in London.

Ryan Elkins ’24 is an applied and computational mathematics and statistics (ACMS) major with a minor in Classical studies: civilization. During the winter break of the 2023-24 academic year, he traveled to London to complete research related to his capstone project on Holocaust education, particularly to compare and contrast approaches in the U.S. and the U.K.

I have always had an interest in Judaism and the Holocaust; my paternal grandfather is Jewish, and my maternal grandfather’s Polish family left Europe after World War II. At Notre Dame, this personal connection has developed into an academic interest. In the spring 2023 semester, I throughout enjoyed the course Christianity and Judaism, taught by Tzvi Novick, the Abrams Jewish Thought and Culture Professor of Theology. I also took a class on contemporary Russian film, taught by Tetyana Shlikhar, assistant teaching professor of Russian; my final paper for that class discussed the portrayal of Jewish identity in several films the class discussed. Through Shlikhar and also the Ukrainian Society at Notre Dame, I was introduced to the Nanovic Institute for European Studies and its research priorities: peripheries, big questions about Europe and humanity, human dignity, memory and remembering, and faith and religion in Europe.

To anyone considering applying for a research grant from Nanovic, I advise starting early. The sooner you know your topic and how you will conduct your research, the more feedback you can gather and the more you can refine your proposal.

With this background, I began looking for a research project to bring to the Nanovic Institute that would fit within its mission. Early on, I narrowed my search to focus on Holocaust education. There was a wealth of existing literature on the topic in primary schools in England, so I began to develop my proposal from there. Andrea Christensen, associate teaching professor and director of Education, Schooling, and Society (ESS), agreed to serve as the advisor for this project. Simultaneously, I enrolled in the capstone course for my ESS minor, which entailed completing a research project in the field of education. After exploring several other problem spaces with Matthew Kloser, the capstone course instructor who serves as associate professor and director of the Center for STEM Education, we decided to adapt my Holocaust Education project, which had already been fleshed out, to the United States. This focus allowed me to compare my results in London with those in the U.S., offering a more complete picture of modern Holocaust education.

While in London, I spent most of my research time exploring London museums, seven in total: the British Museum, the Imperial War Museum, the National Army Museum, the Royal Air Force Museum, the Victoria and Albert (V&A), the Tate Modern, and the Freud Museum. The V&A and British Museum required several visits because of their vast collections. Other days were spent doing research and writing. For this, I must thank the many coffee shops with free WiFi near my Airbnb. On some days, I was also able to work in some tourism around London, for which I am grateful. The most memorable experience in this regard was riding a cable car over the River Thames.

Holocaust Memorial in Hyde Park, London.
Holocaust Memorial in Hyde Park, London.

The interviews I conducted occurred over two days; two were with multiple teachers at the same school. During the remaining days, I wrote up my museum observations, transcribed the interviews, and coded the data.

Thankfully, my Capstone project furnished much of the necessary experience to conduct this research. While I was familiar with conducting interviews and coding my data, finding participants to interview caused me the most difficulty. Of the six participants, four were contacted through people associated with Notre Dame. To find the remaining participants, I emailed at least 100 school offices, getting their contact information from their websites. Only four responded, and only one agreed to an interview, though I spoke with two staff members at that school.

Deciding which museums to visit also proved to be more of an obstacle than I expected; I wanted to select only those with a content focus that would encompass World War II, so I needed to read about them online. I had hoped to visit the Jewish Museum in London, but their main branch was closed during my stay, as they were finding a new location. The same was true for the London Museum. However, I collected quite a lot of data despite these gaps; I was surprised by how closely I had to examine the museum collections. On an entire floor, there might have only been one object relevant to my project.

As I am graduating and heading into ACE Teaching Fellows, the most immediate impact of this work will be to inform how I teach about the Holocaust. Further, if I pursue additional graduate education, this experience will be valuable for designing, conducting, and writing future projects.

To anyone considering applying for a research grant from Nanovic, I advise starting early. The sooner you know your topic and how you will conduct your research, the more feedback you can gather and the more you can refine your proposal. I was fortunate to begin the process at the start of the fall semester; by the time the application to Nanovic was due, I had received funding from the Institute for Scholarship in the Liberal Arts (ISLA) to cover part of the project. I also had Institutional Review Board (IRB) approval and had started the process of finding participants. If I had waited until I received the grant, these things would have been difficult, if not impossible, so make sure to start them as soon as possible.

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