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New history club aims to encourage audience participation

New history club aims to encourage audience participation


Have you ever listened to a fascinating history lecture and wished it were more of a discussion? A new Charlottesville group is making sure history buffs get to join in the conversation.

“People are curious. They want to know more,” Charlottesville History Club founder Robert Toplin said. “There’s a hunger for more information.”

Toplin, a retired history professor who taught at Denison University and the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, envisioned a scenario in which people could not only ask questions, but also share their own opinions, creating stimulating conversations about history.

Charlottesville History Club meetings begin with a half-hour presentation by a speaker, often a member of the University of Virginia’s history or politics faculties, and then dive into 30 minutes of discussion time. Diverse opinions are welcomed.

“One fundamentally important aspect is participation,” Toplin said. “It’s so important that people get to share their views. We’ll invite people to participate. They can agree or disagree.

“They’re not just sitting and listening and taking notes; they’re part of this whole exercise.”

At the club’s next meeting, which is set for 7 p.m. Sept. 6 at Northside Library, University of Virginia professor Marc Selverstone will speak about President John F. Kennedy and the Vietnam War before the conversation begins.

Club meetings are scheduled in the evenings to give more people a chance to attend. There’s only one catch: Although the club welcomes everyone, the library seats only 100 people, so folks need to sign up ahead of time to reserve their seats.

“You can’t just show up, because we’d be overwhelmed,” he said.

Demand already has been brisk, and only about a dozen seats remain for the Sept. 6 event, Toplin said.

If you’re interested in attending, email and get on the membership mailing list. That’s the best way to save your seat for upcoming meetings.

Toplin, the author of 11 books and more than 100 articles on history, said many of the first monthly meetings are focusing on U.S. presidents at pivotal moments in their administrations.

October’s meeting takes a break from studying the presidency to focus on placing the rallies and violence of Aug. 12, 2017, in a historical perspective. On Nov. 1, the topic will be President Lyndon Johnson and his role in the civil rights movement. President Ronald Reagan’s work during the Cold War will be December’s subject.

One of the themes that’s likely to fuel upcoming discussions involves examining presidents’ roles in important moments in history. To what extent do presidents set policy and make history of their own? How many of their decisions are based on reacting to situations created by their predecessors’ choices and circumstances? Toplin thinks there’s plenty of material there to get the new club’s meetings off to a strong start.

And to keep the conversation lively, Toplin said, he encourages the presenters to take a position or offer an opinion.

“Don’t just give us information,” he said he tells speakers. “Give us a spin.”

Membership is free. To learn more about the club, or to reserve your seat for a future event, email

Jane Dunlap Sathe is the features editor for The Daily Progress. Contact her at (434) 978-7249 or

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