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Historic Relevance

January 4, 2013

NEW ORLEANS – Facing pressure to justify their discipline in an increasingly job-oriented higher education culture, history department chairs on Thursday discussed everyday challenges and how to stay relevant during an American Historical Association annual meeting session.

Despite differential tuition proposals that would be punitive to the humanities, institutional metrics that can seem to value enrollment and graduation rates over all else, a lack of tenure-track positions, larger class sizes and shrinking salaries, among other obstacles, panelists advocated a proactive rather than a reactive approach to preserving the discipline.

“We have to take an aggressive stance, not a defensive stance,” said Tracy Neal Leavelle, history chair at Creighton University, in Omaha. “We must reclaim the subversive stances of history…. We need history now more than ever and if we can’t be relevant now, it’s our own fault.”

At Creighton, where athletics and science and business education are funding priorities, Leavelle said efforts are under way to reshape the core curriculum, including history, to focus more on strategic learning outcomes than pure content. By focusing on “discovery” rather than mere “exposure,” he said, “we demonstrate to students the value of history as a practice.”

Such aims address doubts that history degrees can prepare students for a variety of jobs requiring critical thinking skills, said Matthew Loayza, a panelist from Minnesota State University at Mankato. He called defining the discipline for “different publics” a central role for department chairs, noting that one such “public” is students who increasingly view college as a “transactional” experience where basic output or memorization of facts should mean a good grade. Consequently, Loayza spends more time at the beginning of each semester talking about expectations for critical thought. Opening seminar-style courses to freshmen and sophomores is another way to convince students earlier in their careers of history’s value, he added.

Another group in need of convincing is administrators, who can focus more on empty seats in courses than their breadth and depth, said Suzanne Pasztor, a panelist from Humboldt State University, in California. It must be department chairs’ “full-time job” to advocate for robust and varied course offerings while demonstrating that all history courses teach students critical thinking skills. Chairs have to be prepared for the question, "Why do you need students to take more than one history class if all are good at teaching critical thought?" she added.

Audience members, mainly other history department chairs, also pointed to a kind of conflict between a skills-based approach to history and the value of content for content’s sake in advocating its enduring value.

One panelist, Christy Jo Snider of Berry College, in Georgia, agreed. When students are publicly criticized for a lack of grounding in history, it’s not often for a lack of understanding big concepts, but rather not knowing basic facts, such as who fought whom in World War II. In short, there’s inherent value in history for the public that can’t be forgotten as departments advocate for it. Additionally, she said, skills-based history courses can translate to administrators as courses that can be taught by a variety of academics, not necessarily historians.

“If we really value studying the past, shouldn’t that be taught be someone trained in the discipline of history?” she asked.

In their advocacy efforts, departments also must not be afraid to work with colleagues in other fields, said audience member Kevin R. Marsh, history chair at Idaho State University. Funding tends to follow interdisciplinary efforts, and Idaho State is no exception; an historical geographical information systems program has attracted external funding for several years and brought universitywide attention to the history department without diminishing it.

“It’s a spot that’s worked out really well for us,” Marsh said of history’s niche between the social sciences and the humanities.

 

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