Like every other historian in higher education, I followed with rapt attention the reactions to a recent study about the declining number of history majors. The study had a particular urgency, as its dissemination followed on the heels of the announcement of a proposed plan at the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point to abolish the history major there.
Not surprisingly, people have made a host of assessments about these sobering developments. Are parental and societal demands that majors be vocationally productive discouraging students from pursuing a history degree? (Probably.) Is the proliferation of the number of students taking AP history courses cutting into enrollment in history courses? (Perhaps.) Could we be doing a better job of equipping our students to discuss the skills and habits of mind that being a history major encourages, thereby helping to launch them into meaningful careers? (Absolutely.)
And we have constructive ways of addressing all these diagnoses of the problem, or what it is that keeps students from taking history courses and becoming history majors. Just this part weekend, historians from across the country gathered for their annual meeting of the American Historical Association. At various workshops and panels, they discussed the future of the discipline and how best to convince skeptics and others to embrace the merits of studying history. These discussions revealed that reversing this trend will require a multipronged approach.
Here I want to focus on a prong that has gotten less attention in these discussions, and ask the following: What story does our pedagogy tell about the significance of history and why students should care? A way of reverse engineering an answer to this question is to look at what history majors themselves have said about why they chose history and how it has served them in their lives and careers (an effort that has already received attention in the AHA's Tuning project and other initiatives). It turns out the answers map neatly and revealingly on to what we know about the science of learning.
Part One: Narrative and the Emotions of Learning
Ask someone why they majored in history, and many of the answers will circle back to a strong emotional connection to the subject. It might have been a professor who told captivating stories about the past. Or an instructor with so much enthusiasm for the subject that they couldn’t help but get pulled in. In short, behind every history major is invariably a great teacher who connected them in some way or another to the power of narratives about the past.
As Sarah Cavanaugh, an associate professor of psychology at Assumption College, demonstrates so cogently in The Spark of Learning: Energizing the College Classroom With the Science of Emotion, harnessing these emotions is a powerful tool in motivating students and nourishing their academic potential. And it’s not just that enthusiasm is contagious. It turns out that we learn better and more effectively when such emotions are stirred and encouraged. Leveraging such positive emotions is good pedagogy. As historians, we have a distinct opportunity: ours is a storytelling discipline, and we should use that to our pedagogical advantage whenever possible to spark our students’ enthusiasm and curiosity.
Part Two: Analysis and Assignments With a Purpose
History is also an analytical discipline, and this, too, seems to resonate with students who get excited about the study of history. Students are drawn to fitting together pieces of evidence in order to puzzle out why historical events unfolded the way they have.
But we can carry this one step further, because here, too, our pedagogical strategies and choices can contribute to student learning in our courses. Historical events are not abstractions, and students drawn to history often note that it excited them precisely because they could take what they were learning and use it to change something beyond the walls of the classroom.
In this instance, as well, the science of learning suggests some revealing connections to good pedagogy. Various studies have demonstrated that this sense of purpose beyond oneself is also a powerful motivating force that inspires students to stick with an assignment or a task, even if the work is hard. So as James M. Lang suggests in Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons From the Science of Learning, “Students need regular invocations of the larger purpose of individual exercises, class periods and course units.” When we can help students see a bigger goal that is connected to the smaller things they are doing in our courses, they are more likely to want to do them and do them well.
In recent years, we have seen powerful examples of that phenomenon in practice. We need only think of the archival work that students at various colleges and universities have done to help document the ties that their respective institutions had to slavery. The research that those students have conducted has prompted profound reckonings.
We will not always be able to provide such dramatic examples of self-transcendent purpose, but even small opportunities to link the work of the classroom to a broader goal, like this transcription project or this food timeline (and please note: both of these initiatives were directed at introductory-level courses and students), creates meaning and purpose. Pedagogically, the research suggests that such an educational approach will contribute to student success. More selfishly, from a disciplinary perspective, we may win some converts.
In short, as many of us who teach history already know and practice, creating enthusiasm for our field through our storytelling and the meaning and purpose that we build into our assignments will undoubtedly attract some students. But what if our pedagogy also told our students a bigger story: that these same things would contribute to their success in our courses? That they could be good at history? And that their success in history would be the result of cultivating skills and habits of mind that would serve them well in other courses and in their eventual career? That might be the best story of all.