Faculty Spotlight: Dr. Nicholas Marshall

Bryan Terry, Assistant Director of Content Marketing & Communications
Dr. Nicholas Marshall rides his bike along the riverfront at Longview Park. Photo by Nelson Echeverria/Marist College.

March 5, 2024 — A four-hour bike ride through picturesque hills and valleys will make anyone’s mind parallel the weaving roads, winding from idea to idea.

“Out on your bike alone is a great time to think about any number of things,” said Dr. Nicholas Marshall, Associate Professor of History.

He should know.

Marshall makes such a trek twice in a single day, journeying over eight hours round-trip between his home in western Massachusetts and Marist’s Poughkeepsie campus on two human-powered wheels. 

Of course, this lengthy commute is not a daily routine for Marshall, but he’s taken part in the ritual once per year, usually in September, for the last ten years.

“There’s always a moment when I’m like, 140 miles into this thinking, ‘Why am I doing this?’ I really have to push through,” he said.

Image of Marshall sitting at Hudson River.
Portrait of Dr. Marshall sitting along the Hudson River at Longview Park. Photo by Nelson Echeverria/Marist College.

Although first inspired by a “bike to work” challenge, each year brings new reasons for pedaling the long distance, and one of those reasons connects bicycling with teaching Civil War history. Substitute the battlefields of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, as the setting for Marshall’s ride, and topographic awareness gains historical significance, providing a teachable opportunity.

“On a bike, any hill matters,” said Marshall. “You don’t always notice these things in a car, and riding through these historic areas gave me a much better sense of how people might’ve experienced the land at the time.”

Marshall uses this as context for his Honors Civil War history course, a class he teaches every two years that includes a trip to these very battlefields in Gettysburg and the surrounding areas.

Although the class explores the fields on foot as opposed to bike, he nonetheless helps students grasp the experiences of the people who fought in those places.

“Being able to recognize where we were standing and knowing specifically what occurred there was incredible,” said Monica Dugan '24, a history major who went on the trip. “We were able to ‘recreate’ Pickett’s Charge, the Civil War’s turning point, and it was amazing to see what the soldiers had to endure.”

One of the sites of this battle is Cemetery Ridge, where the Union forces held their ground against the Confederate army.

“It’s just a little swell in the land, but it’s significant geographically and held meaning in terms of how the battle, and thus the war, turned out,” said Marshall.

Image of students on Gettysburg trip.
Dr. Marshall (front-right) and the 2023 cohort of students who visited Gettysburg. Photo courtesy of Dr. Robyn Rosen, Professor of History.

Marshall credits Dr. Mark Morreale, previously a professor of English at Marist, for much of the conceptualization of how the in-class experience and the trip to Gettysburg stitch together. The students familiarize themselves through historical reading and discussion in the classroom, which gives greater meaning to visiting the site in person.

“All these places, events, and people we read about over and over again, escaped the pages of books and came almost alive,” said Will Dougherty '24, a double major in history and political science.

“There’s a diary we read of a soldier who loses his brother in battle,” said Marshall. “That would be moving even if we just read it in the classroom, and yet out there in that moment with the sun going down—it provides a different experience.”

These experiences help Marshall to not only teach the factual information about the Civil War, but to give students the opportunity to critically examine the way history is told and discussed.

“To get a sense of many opinions and approaches to the war, then create our own stance, and then go and analyze the national park’s approach to the content was crucial,” said Lorah Murphy '24, an English major. “It helped me not only retain the details, but also really understand and apply that information in my research and coursework.”

Image of Marshall teaching students in Gettysburg.
Dr. Marshall teaches students on-site at the Civil War battlefields of Gettysburg. Photo courtesy of Dr. Robyn Rosen, Professor of History.

The Civil War course is just one of many interesting classes Marshall teaches. From Conspiracy Theories in American History to Sex, Death, and Disease in America, the subject matter he covers is wide-ranging.

“I’m a social historian,” he said. “I focus on the actual lived experience of people in pre-Civil War America. We can understand the big things better if we understand what’s really important to common people.”

Marshall embraces the opportunity to bring students into the fold as he develops his scholarly ideas.

“One time Dr. Marshall recorded our class discussion to use for an academic paper he was writing,” said Laura Pendergast '21, who graduated with a history degree and took three courses with Marshall during her time at Marist. “Being included in his research really made us feel as though he valued our thoughts and contributions.”

Marshall’s collaborative nature and attention to social dynamics reflects back to his athletic pursuits as well.

Image of Marshall playing basketball in recreational game.
Dr. Marshall (left) playing alongside other Marist staff in the basketball game that he organizes. Photo by Nelson Echeverria/Marist College.

While the lengthy bike ride provides valuable moments of solace, Marshall also organizes a twice-weekly recreational basketball game in the McCann Center, open to any faculty, staff, or students who wish to participate. He coordinates an over-40 soccer league near where he lives too.

“It’s a great way to have little conversations about other parts of campus,” he said of the basketball game.

As for the 8-hour biking commute: “The problem is now I’m kind of stuck with it. I feel like I have to do it every year or else maybe, you know, I’m getting old.”

But he’d love to turn the long ride into a social opportunity as well, and invites students and colleagues to join for all or part of the journey.

Has anyone expressed interest? Marshall sighs. “Nobody.”

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