Lifelong Learning

Discovering Lincoln

Some thoughts on Understanding Lincoln

by Sue Segal P'13

By way of background and context, I am an attorney in Phoenix, Ariz., where I have practiced law more than 30 years. Although I love the practice, I have always had a passion for American history. In college and law school, I was driven by circumstance to pursue classes toward my degrees, leaving little time for classes outside my declared majors or areas of study. I wanted to now take a course to enrich my mind, without regard to where it would take me professionally. I also felt like I needed a new challenge outside of law, and perhaps I was getting a little too comfortable in my own little legal niche.

Our son Noah Segal graduated from Dickinson in 2013. During our visits with him there, I became fascinated with the depth and breadth of the area's history. I also knew the high quality of instruction and the dedication of the professors who teach at Dickinson. When I learned that Understanding Lincoln was being offered as a MOOC [Massive Open Online Course], I thought this would be a wonderful opportunity to pursue my dream of studying American history. Boy, was I in for a delightful and engaging experience!

Great expectations 

I had never taken a MOOC before and was worried it would be three hours of listening to a “talking head” lecture. (Alas—visions of law school.) I was wrong. Matthew Pinsker, associate professor of history and Pohanka Chair in American Civil War History, did a fantastic job of engaging the students online and encouraging feedback. During every class, shortly after the session began, the online comments went wild in terms of the sheer number of people chiming in and commenting with engaging and insightful observations. The excitement of others was infectious.


Understanding Lincoln was not an easy course by any means, but the assignments were so interesting and the questions he asked us to address were so stimulating and thought-provoking that the research and writing were a pleasure to do. Matt was always readily available to answer questions by e-mail throughout the week. He always responded with helpful and patient guidance.

When I told my son I was taking the class, his Dickinson history-major friends said “Ohh ... Mrs. Segal, do you really want to do that?” They warned me that Matt is a tough professor, but they added that the work is well worth it and could be accomplished by being diligent. I agree. I worked full time as a practicing attorney while I was taking the course and was able to get every assignment done.

Not everyone can teach an MOOC. I think that, as an attorney, I am pretty good on my feet. But I was constantly in awe of Matt and his ability to be engaging on his feet without missing a beat. He is intellectual, funny, astute and a delight to listen to. He injects humor and personal insight while discussing Lincoln, as well as scholarly commentary. He will readily point out when he does not agree with something (such as the portrayal of Lincoln in the recent movie) and back up his points with facts. He is willing to admit that he does not have all the answers.

I learned so much from Matt in this course. I never wanted to miss a lecture—so much so that, once, when I was out of town in Carmel, Calif., and I was delayed getting to the hotel, I tuned in to the session on my iPhone in the taxicab from the airport so I could listen. I think the cabdriver thought I was crazy when I made him wait outside the hotel until the class finished.

More to learn

I wondered when I started the course what else there was to learn about Lincoln in light of all of the books, articles and movies about him. I was oh so wrong. Using the original documents from the House Divided Project, Matt taught us the “back story” about what was going on and what message was being delivered through Lincoln’s words. He directed me to articles and books written by others that I would not have found on my own. 

I cannot wait to take another course through the Gilder Lehrman Institute, although I am fearful that, after Understanding Lincoln, my expectations are very high. 

I am not a K-12 teacher, but this course was relevant to me in so many ways. I improved my writing and research skills in a non-law related area. I learned so much about leadership and hardship and have a new appreciation of what Lincoln and the nation went through during his presidency.

I often teach law students and make presentations to other attorneys. This course taught me how to make a presentation engaging and exciting. And I even learned how to start and maintain my own blog and make iMovies for close readings (although Matt gently observed that I still was no Steven Spielberg.).

A personal touch

The highlight of the course was the last class at Gettysburg to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg address that was broadcast live from the David Wills House. Matt made sure that we saw and met dignitaries and, afterward, he gave us a special tour of the Gettysburg Cemetery. He introduced us to other Lincoln scholars, some who wrote the very books and articles I had used in my research. One other student and I decided we were “groupies” when it came to these scholars, such as David Blight, James McPherson and Gabor Boritt.

While we were in Gettysburg, we had the opportunity to meet other students from the class. Although we came from all parts of the country—Oregon, Arizona, Virginia, Pennsylvania, South Carolina—and we all had followed different career paths and backgrounds, we all hit it off. One of the classmates and I correspond with each other still.

On a personal level, as a mother of a newly commissioned 2nd lieutenant in the Army, I was slightly worried about how I would be affected by some of the readings that focused on the devastating personal losses of Americans during the Civil War. When those topics and other similarly troubling issues came up, Matt was perceptive and intuitive about the personal experiences of those whose lives and loved ones were affected by war. He taught us to look at Lincoln’s words and identify what Lincoln and others were thinking and feeling when those words were put on paper.

All in all, this class was a life-changing experience for me. It taught me that I still have a lot to learn about American history; that learning is a lifelong experience; that learning does not have to be driven by a particular degree or career path; that in-depth study provides so much insight into personalities, leadership and challenges; that drilling down into original sources, such as Lincoln’s writings, offers invaluable lessons in understanding history; and that new technological skills can be mastered. It also and confirmed what I already knew about the superb caliber and quality of the faculty at Dickinson College, represented by none other than Matt Pinsker.

Learn more 

Read "Rediscovering Lincoln" for the full story on this highly successful MOOC.

View the House Divided research database.

Register for the summer 2014 course through the Gilder Lehrman Institute. (Registration open until May 27.)

Read more from the spring 2014 issue of Dickinson Magazine.

Published Apr. 22, 2014