Doctoral Student Profile: Stories in Flux

April 29, 2014


PhD student helps recast the role of social studies education, and the ‘American’ way

By Nicole Geary

“We are not comfortable unless it looks like this,” Associate Professor Avner Segall said, balancing a globe on his desk with Antarctica pointed straight down, America front and center.

“But, it doesn’t have to be this way.”

Social studies is primarily about a sense of place, about how we see the world, he tells the group of secondary teaching interns.

Michigan State University’s College of Education is a place where students and faculty, like Segall, are often known for turning things—ideas, assumptions, even globes—upside down. That’s especially true when one considers the tradition of critical studies in the college.

Avner Segall

Associate Professor Avner Segall. Photos by Ben Curtis.

It’s what brought doctoral student Mark Helmsing to campus over four years ago. He read a book edited by Segall and two MSU colleagues, Elizabeth Heilman and Cleo Cherryholmes, at a time when he needed inspiration as a high school teacher. Through that volume, “Social Studies—The Next Generation,” and the long line of scholarship before it, MSU has become a leading voice for asking why social studies should be restricted to certain (often problematic and unquestioned) assumptions about the world and its people—and how teachers can break out of those molds.

Both a connoisseur of history and a shrewd observer of current events, Helmsing had been reimagining methods for learning about society through the minds of youth in classrooms in Indiana, Arizona and even Scotland. He came to the Curriculum, Instruction and Teacher Education (CITE) program at MSU to study with some of the nation’s most innovative thinkers and to test his own theories. More than just a school subject, he argues social studies is about making sense of stories and narratives that can come from anywhere, such as daily interactions with people, museums and television shows ranging from Mad Men to Jersey Shore (both on which he has presented research papers).

“The reality is teachers are clamoring to find ways to use and teach about popular culture, to help their students become more critical consumers of what they see in the media,” said Helmsing, who also has a special interest in the myriad meanings of “America.”

“We as educators need ways to respond to the fact that our country is becoming an increasingly diverse landscape.”

A critical history

Research in social studies education doesn’t often acquire large grant funding or garner much attention as the public, increasingly, focuses on raising achievement in reading and mathematics.

However, at MSU, professors like Stanley Wronski, Jere Brophy and Jan Alleman have helped create “a long tradition of excellence that I think everyone in the field of social studies knows,” said Margaret Crocco, a leading social studies scholar who was a visiting professor at MSU during the 2013-14 year. 

Arguably, she says, no other U.S. university has a stronger reputation for critical studies in education, which represents a progressive—and what some call radical—analysis of how schools interact with culture and politics in society. MSU Professor Emeritus Cleo Cherryholmes, who died in 2013, is credited with introducing the work of critical theorists such as Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault into social studies education in the early 1980s. Current faculty leaders include, for example, educational philosopher Lynn Fendler and curriculum theorist Kyle Greenwalt, who studies moral and civic identity in schools.

Within this community of scholars, Helmsing has been a stand-out student. He was a recipient of the University Fellowship (see below) upon arriving at MSU, and recently became an editorial board member (an unusual feat for a doctoral candidate) at the new International Journal of Critical Youth Studies.

Faculty members say he has already been successful at making a case for improving K-12 education (not just in social studies) by empowering teachers to consider multiple narratives for presenting their curriculum. Helmsing says the skills and knowledge young people will need to be culturally literate citizens can be woven into formal social studies classes, such as history and economics, as well science classes.

“If you look at issues of sustainability, population, consumption and production, migration and regional development—those are social studies concepts that could be powerfully integrated with existing STEM education frameworks that are taking crucial priority in a lot of schools across the country,” Helmsing said. “What I am hoping to show teachers is that even though they are teaching in an era of high-stakes accountability and a lot of teachers feel constrained, they actually have an infinite number of choices in how they want to tell the story of their own subject matter.”

For his dissertation, he conducted case studies on four high school social studies classes (civics, history, economics and geography) and found teachers were conveying four different, often competing interpretations of the United States based on the type of story, or emplotment, connected with the content. Civics comes across as a romance, for example, and economics more like a tragedy. But teachers can be more conscious about, and even alter, how those narratives come across through their choice of materials and how they frame the objects they teach about—from the stock market and Wall Street to maps of Michigan.

“You can position the way in which your students read the world,” Helmsing regularly tells teacher candidates.

An ambitious academic

Just as he advocates for integrating multiple perspectives into K-12 classrooms, Helmsing does the same as a scholar. He traverses different disciplines and has never accepted not knowing as an option.

It’s the spirit that made him a first-grade dinosaur collector and 10-year-old ancient Egypt expert, an educational advisor to the provost as an undergraduate student at Indiana University, and the kind of PhD student that capitalizes on literally every opportunity to learn.

“He’s singular in my experience, in the range of his interests and the depth of his reading and theorizing in different fields,” said Crocco. “You would think he was a professor who has been at it for 20 years.”

Mark Helmsing InstructingUnder good advice from University Distinguished Professor Suzanne Wilson, Helmsing said he has made a point to begin creating an academic career from day one of graduate school, and he does not think of himself as simply a student taking courses. Faculty members in the College of Education not only allow that, he says; they highly encourage doctoral students to contribute to research and the scholarly discourse.

Helmsing spent two years as a research assistant for Wilson on a National Science Foundation grant project focused on how middle school teachers can improve science teaching via professional development in New York City museums.

He has held student leadership positions in the American Educational Research Association (AERA) and has presented more than 25 refereed conference papers covering topics such as teaching about Africa in U.S. schools, how teachers make sense of the events of 9/11, and an economics curriculum that uncritically and too narrowly focuses on outdated ideas. He has published peer-reviewed articles in international journals and chapters in edited books on topics ranging from the cultural narratives of the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn, Mich., to cultural narratives teenagers have historically learned from popular culture. For example, one of Helmsings latest chapters was on the history of soap operas as informal curriculum in the U.S.

He also taught MSU courses in curriculum and instruction at the undergraduate, post-BA and graduate level. Teaching is something Helmsing does constantly, says Segall, who recently co-taught the internship-level social studies course (TE 802/804) with him. 

 “Mark always thinks two to three steps ahead of me. He gets into the minds of people to find out what they know and what they need to know,” said Segall, who is also his advisor.

Although Segall says, “I don’t take any credit for Mark,” Helmsing clearly has been prepared to lead through his experiences interacting with faculty and fellow students in the College of Education. He recently landed a job as assistant professor at the University of Wyoming, where he will be responsible for all secondary social studies education and advise the entire state on social studies teaching. Helming is achieving his mission: to elevate the status of social studies as a force for solving global issues through our future citizens.

“Social studies is in a moment of trying to rediscover itself,” he said. “As a subject area in schools, it can help students and teachers think about the world in a variety of different ways. The challenge is to find ways to make it a critical, interdisciplinary space for them to think about current issues, social problems and ways to connect the past to the present.”

University Distinguished Fellowships

Doctoral students recruited to MSU as University Distinguished Fellows receive full tuition coverage, a $25,000 annual stipend and help with health insurance. Also, they are not required to provide research or teaching service during their first and fifth years.

For Mark Helmsing, receiving the fellowship was a major factor in deciding to attend MSU, one of few universities that could offer him generous, guaranteed funding for all five years of study.

“The fact that I was able to take a full load of doctoral courses my first fall, spring and summer unencumbered by work obligations gave me a ‘running start’ in reading much more than I could have as a first-year student,” he said. “It also gave me time and money to attend five conferences in my first year to explore which academic communities felt like the right fit for my research interests. Now in my fifth year I am free to devote work full-time to my dissertation.”

Each year only two to three students in the College of Education receive the University Distinguished Fellowship, which is funded by the Graduate School and the academic departments.

To learn more about how you can support graduate student fellowships in the college, visit