By Kendall Hurley ’17
After teaching at Pacific Lutheran University for 14 years, a professor in the Languages and Literature department at PLU is going on sabbatical to focus on her upcoming book. Her behind-the-scenes impact on PLU reflects her encouraging nature towards the students she has taught.
Claudia Berguson, Ph.D., began teaching at PLU in 2003. When invited into her office, painted in tones of blue and filled with books, her passion for literature and the discussion of it as a representation of history is palpable. This interest has colored both her own research and how she approaches the classroom.
“I like to be able to complicate what seem like simple issues,” said Berguson of her teaching style. “There’s not been much written about (Sigrid Undset), and I like to be able to find those areas that will illuminate something new.”
Berguson said that over time, her teaching focus and methods have developed and sharpened. A discussion of diversity, multiculturalism and women’s rights into her classes is important to Berguson to include in her classes. In her time at PLU, her research into the historical novel has developed through her work with Norwegian author Sigrid Undset, who lived in New York City in exile during Word War II. Berguson has been working with the letters of Undset since 1999, when Undset became the focus of her Ph.D. work. Berguson said she feels that her research has been in step with PLU’s innovation of the Holocaust and Genocide Studies program. Berguson said she would like to go further by teaching a class at PLU on Scandinavia and the Holocaust.
Undset has been a part of Berguson’s life since the late 1980s, when she read some of Unset’s books for her master’s, before narrowing down her research for her Ph.D. Undset, known in Norway for her historical novels, the most famous of which is “Kristin Lavransdatter“, a trilogy set in Medieval Norway centered around the female protagonist of the same name. Undset fled Norway after the German invasion in 1940, due to her strong opposition to the Nazis. She returned to Norway in 1945. Berguson has focused her research on the concept of history and truth, as well as the letters written by Undset during her time in exile. She has published several articles on Undset, and during sabbatical next year will continue work on a book about Undset, while in Oslo, Norway.
“Her letters are a way to dig deeper than what the official story is,” said Berguson of her research.
It isn’t only Berguson’s unique research that makes her a great professor and an important part of the PLU community. Her involvement in multiple programs at PLU and dedication to her students also makes her exemplary.
“Claudia is a wonderful asset to the university bringing years of academic experience to students from a range of disciplines. I had the opportunity to study with Claudia both in a classroom and in independent study. Her wealth of knowledge in writing, Scandinavia, and migrant literature exemplify the Scandinavian department and the history of PLU.” Said Jonathan Dennie, ’15, a former student of Berguson’s.
Her own journey to PLU and the programs of Norwegian and Scandinavian Area Studies began when she was working as a medical technologist, studying biology and chemistry as an undergraduate. Realizing her desires lay elsewhere, she shifted back to her main interest, language and literature, and returned to grad school. Such a change may sound relatable to a graduating PLU student, the process of discovering what to do with their life. Berguson credits a couple of things to her interest in Scandinavia: curiosity to her family background to the Nordics, as well as interaction with exchange students in her hometown and her own study abroad experience to Scandinavia as a student.
Inspired by her experiences, Berguson was an integral part in initiating the Peace Scholars program at PLU, which began in 2011 and works to deepen students’ understanding of violence and peacemaking. The annual program is one of several that sends students to Norway from PLU to study and become part of an international dialogue. She has also worked on numerous committees, aimed at enriching the curriculum for students.
“The PLU community is really important to me,” said Berguson. “Committing in those ways, so it’s not just our program, so it is who you are as a colleague within the larger community.”
In her parting advice to students, Berguson stressed the importance of having confidence in the skills gained while studying at PLU. Critical thinking, expression both verbally and through writing, and exploring different perspectives are things something she strives to focus on instilling in her teaching, as she believes they are essential. Berguson has received emails from past students who have contacted her about her influence and the impact her classes made on them.
“It’s great if I can instill in people a lifelong learning,” said Berguson, “even if it won’t be their profession, but something they can enjoy.”