Dr. Alena Pirok is one of the newest professors to join Armstrong State University’s History Department. An Illinoi native, Dr. Pirok’s main area of research is how Virginians use ghost stories as a way to teach and learn about historical places. As a student in Dr. Pirok’s Colonial/Revolutionary America course during her first semester, I was glad to conduct an interview with her regarding her teaching and historical research.
When Dr. Pirok entered college as a freshman at Southern Illinois University, she did so as an education major. She reveals with a laugh that inconvenient class scheduling was a significant factor in her decision to change majors. “I decided I was just going to major in history and see where that took me,” she says, leading her to ask her professors about their work. After learning what went into being a historian, she says “all that sounded really great to me, so by sophomore year that’s when I started getting really serious.” Dr. Pirok moved on to go to the University of South Florida after completing her undergraduate program, where she’d receive her doctorate in history and graduated in August 2017.
The fall 2017 semester is Dr. Pirok’s first time teaching classes here at Armstrong. She has tried to take some influences from her previous professors and combine them with her own methods. “My teaching style, or what I’m sort of experimenting with now in the classroom, is sort of lecture and document based.” Dr. Pirok believes that “students need more hands-on experience looking at documents” in the classroom to help develop their understanding of history. She draws some influence from her dissertation director to “try to make the classroom more of a discussion than a monologue.” Throughout the semester she has taken her experiences and is using them to continue to improve her methods, finding what doesn’t work and quickly adapting.
Every historian has an area of research that they specialize in. Dr. Pirok’s research lies in Virginian ghost stories and how they tell history. Her interest in this field developed from “a culmination of many things,” including research undertaken during her undergraduate and graduate programs regarding spiritualism and myth-making in American history. Dr. Pirok says that the summer before beginning her PhD she spoke to her advisor about researching ghosts and historical sites. “We were in Virginia at the time at the field school and he said, ‘go read some local ghost stories and see what emerges,’ and that’s really where it started.” After reading some Virginian ghost stories, Dr. Pirok realized that “they were all very historical.” “The moral of every story was,” Dr. Pirok says, “‘Virginia’s so historical that we have ghosts’.” From there she continued her research, studying Colonial Williamsburg’s ties with ghost stories and how such tales helped tell about historic places. She has a clear passion for her research, and intends to continue expanding on it while at Armstrong. “I was very happy that I was offered a job in Savannah because there was this preexisting thanatourism (ghost tourism) and ghost culture that I knew would be receptive to what I do.” She has yet to delve too deeply into Savannah’s ghost culture, but hopes to look at the region as well as other Eastern coastal cities in her future research.
Dr. Pirok will continue to develop her teaching methods and research as Armstrong transitions during the Georgia Southern University merger. She believes that new opportunities will be available for students through cross-campus cooperation. Dr. Pirok will also be hosting a course this summer that takes students to Virginia for fieldwork involving excavation.
Interview by Brian Lee
About the author
Brian Lee is a junior history major at Armstrong State University. He plans on pursuing a master’s degree after finishing the undergraduate program.
Lee, Brian. “History and Haunts: An Interview with Dr. Alena Pirok.” Armstrong Undergraduate Journal of History 7, no.2 (Nov. 2017).