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From the From the President column of the April 2011 issue of Perspectives on History

Historians at Work 1: Rutgers-Camden

Anthony Grafton, April 2011

It’s a rainy Thursday afternoon in early March, and I am sitting in a small, cinder-block classroom in Camden, watching sophomores learn to do history. Around 20 of them are taking a “Perspectives” course, required for everyone who wants to major in history. It centers on the 1954 coup that overthrew the president of Guatemala, Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán. The students have already gone through a fair number of primary and secondary sources about the events.

The real point of the course, as the syllabus emphasizes, is to train “history majors in the craft of reading and writing history.” Assignments are varied: students have to read and weigh contrasting historical presentations, find and analyze news articles concerning Guatemala, and learn about and evaluate primary sources. A series of short papers leads up to a “12–15 page final paper on the origins of, responses to, and historical significance of the coup.”

The students don’t leap to talk. But as the professor starts asking questions, most of them join in, and they make clear that they have grasped the point of the exercise. Historiography, one says, is about “Not so much finding the answer as finding how the guy before you found the answer”—as good a working definition as you could really hope for. One after another, they show that they have learned to read their sources in a new way: not just to mine them for names and dates, but to ask what their biases are and what they leave out as well as what they include. Quoting an English professor, a student makes a useful distinction: “In history courses I usually take notes. In this course I make notes.”

Much of the time goes on basic questions of interpretation and writing. The professor hands back an annotated copy of a short paper. She quotes Philip Roth on the need to edit, to return to what seems like a finished text and be sure that everything necessary is said, and nothing superfluous (along the way she tells these young New Jerseyans to read American Pastoral).

One point of the course is that events live on—or, as in the case of the 1954 coup, fail to do so, at least in American public memory—and that their afterlife matters. For the last 40 minutes or so the class takes apart a New York Times article on violence in Guatemala, written by Raymond Bonner in the early 1980s. Engaged and observant, the students note what look like contradictions between an optimistic main headline about the decline of violence and the body of the text, which dwells on mass killings of peasants outside the cities. It’s a good session, led by a professor who manages to be warmly interested, stern, and demanding all at once.

A small campus with 6,300 students at all levels, mostly in arts and sciences, Rutgers-Camden offers undergraduate instruction and well-established masters’ programs in law and business as well as in arts and sciences, and has begun to create doctoral programs. Founded in 1920, the school became the Camden campus of Rutgers-The State University of New Jersey, in 1950. Nowadays it occupies a pretty 40-acre campus on the Camden waterfront, with a handsome regional theater and museum and a glistening law school.

Teaching history at a school like this—a “second-tier state university”—is challenging in multiple ways. Students arrive with very uneven levels of preparation. Some have transferred from the main campus at New Brunswick—where they have already taken challenging courses—to shorten a commute or find smaller classes. Some have gained admission to the competitive Honors College, which now enrolls a hundred or more new students each year. But some have never had to write a paper of any length. Almost all of them work, usually at real world jobs for many hours a week (“Since I manage a retail store,” one tells me, “I’m only taking four courses a term”), and many have children.

Like similar campuses across the country, Rutgers-Camden has never been supported as generously as the Rutgers flagship campus in New Brunswick. The system as a whole, moreover, has suffered three budget cuts in four years. Facilities at Camden are inadequate: rooms are often too small for the classes that meet in them, windows are too few and too small, and just to make them fit the room, chairs have to be lined up in ways that don’t promote discussion.

Financial problems—the students’ and the university’s—are serious. As textbook prices rise to staggering levels—even rental of a required book can cost $30 to $50 for a semester—students can find themselves hard pressed to do required reading, much less research: the most bitter comments I heard were directed at publishers. JSTOR and other digital providers matter even more to students who work and commute than to those who live on a campus and can easily use books and journals on reserve. Yet the Rutgers library can afford access to fewer than 60 of the 247 history titles in JSTOR. Faculty lines are few. Fourteen full-time tenured and tenure-track professors serve some 250 history majors, in addition to the many others who take history courses.

Despite these limitations, spirits seem surprisingly high. At a second class, which I take over, students join in and work eagerly with new materials on the impact of printing in early modern Europe. When the professor leaves me alone with the students, they don’t mince words about the city (“Four blocks away in one direction there’s crime and drugs, two blocks in the other direction there’s crime and drugs, and then you’re in Delaware”). As at any state university, some experience the institution less as a place of education than as “a system to churn people through.” Working, they agree, takes a toll on the time they can put in on their academic work, and on its quality. Worst of all, some of the most ambitious students worry that they will not be able to pursue their interests as far as they want to.

But they also speak with warmth, and in detail, about their professors. Students appreciate Camden’s relatively small classes (most undergraduate courses are capped at 35, graduate ones at 15). Even more, they appreciate the time that faculty put in, reading and commenting on their written work. “I thought I was a good writer,” says one, explaining how much he had learned from the teacher of his Perspectives class, who scourged his writing and made him rethink and compress: “Nothing could be scary after that.” More than one professor is praised as “brilliant.” Meeting these engaged and spirited students, you see that like previous Camden alumni, they will end up doing very interesting things (history department products have entered the Peace Corps, become lawyers, librarians and teachers, and maintained great family businesses).

Faculty, for their part, speak with zest of their multiple roles: teaching two courses a semester, running programs (the historians at Camden direct the honors college, the regional humanities center, and more), offering a rigorous MA program in history with a well-established public history track—and doing outreach in the community and beyond. In recent years, they have made new efforts to open up wider worlds of experience for their students, in ways that range from inducing them to cross the bridge and experience Philadelphia’s rich museum life to taking them on short expeditions around the world, from Europe to South Africa to Vietnam.

There are plenty of problems. Students remark that some courses are taught by adjuncts, whose quality is variable (though they emphasize that many are excellent, dedicated scholars and teachers). More serious is the difficulty of pursuing a specific interest. Rutgers-Camden manages to cover a wide range of areas: Russian, Latin American and East Asian history as well as American and Western European. But in a small department in which most fields are covered by a single person who maintains a cycle of courses, it can be almost impossible, after a survey evokes interest in a given period, to take the one monographic course that treats part of it in more detail. Some wish they could take more courses like the required Perspectives seminars.

Faculty members at Camden are expected to be active in research, and most of them are. They have doctorates from top programs, they publish books and articles with the most selective university presses and journals, and a number of them have won prizes for their work. But they have to follow new scholarship and visit their archives with relatively little direct help from Rutgers-Camden, which is only now trying to build up an endowment to support research. Professors use other area libraries to obtain the materials they need and often spend their own funds to undertake research travel.

The American university has many critics, and they often denounce its emphasis on research, which they describe as sterile and irrelevant to teaching. But as you listen to the Rutgers-Camden faculty talk about what they do, you see at once that their experience as scholars is central to their teaching. It’s what inspires them to lead their students into new times and places and inform them about primary and secondary sources, analysis and narrative. It’s also what inspires some of their students to go on to doctoral study and to careers in teaching, public history, journalism, and other fields in which they continue to make direct use of what they learned at Camden. This small, underfunded history department exemplifies some of the core strengths of our discipline.

Anthony Grafton (Princeton Univ.) is president of the AHA.