National History Center

Paths of Progress for the History Major

Marian J. Barber, March 2012

Study Abroad, Curricular Reform among Ways Tested in Project Supported by the Teagle Foundation

Making the most of study abroad programs, overcoming archive anxiety, and finding ways to survive and thrive through college-wide curricular reform are among the ways to enhance the role of the history major in undergraduate liberal education, according to the three departments chosen to implement the recommendations of the American Historical Association's 2008 white paper on the subject. The white paper, The History Major and Undergraduate Liberal Education, was the product of an 18-month-long study sponsored by the National History Center and funded by the Teagle Foundation. The experiences and ideas of the three departments were presented and discussed in a session at the 126th annual meeting of the AHA.

Miami University of Ohio, Beloit College, and St. John's University were selected in 2010 to spend two years developing projects that would build upon specific suggestions arising from the report. Authored by Stanley N. Katz of Princeton University and James R. Grossman, then vice president for research at the Newberry Library and now executive director of the AHA, the white paper was based in part upon a survey of history departments and called for the history major to contribute to "liberal learning," defined as "a broad and interactive approach to undergraduate education that prepares students for a future of active and responsible democratic citizenship, and for fulfilling lives, including an appetite for lifelong learning." Each selected institution received $10,000 to carry out its efforts. The presentations at the annual meeting were the culmination of the project.

Katz, who chaired the session, said "I found it tremendously exciting.... It's one thing to hear dedicated history scholars talk about teaching, but it's quite another to hear how they are actually implementing some of the notions the NHC group came up with."

Miami University of Ohio chose to explore linkages between the history major and increasingly popular study abroad programs. Mary Kupiec Cayton and Stephen Norris discussed ways to make study abroad more than "an English pint and home again." Study abroad, they argued, should produce individuals whose pre-travel coursework as history majors produces synergies with their experiences in their host cultures. They recommend that history departments create a study abroad adviser position, tasked with assisting students by (1) configuring required courses to prepare for encountering an unfamiliar culture; (2) producing a list of approved study abroad programs that include relevant history courses; and (3) helping returning students to evaluate their experiences.

Elaine Carey of St. John's University reported on a collaboration between her department and the New York Public Library, based on the white paper's recommendation that students be offered opportunities to "do history." She learned from one of her students, Raymond Pun, that a major obstacle to this was the forbidding character of some archives, even those that assist scholars in using their collections. Negotiating the protocols of archives can be particularly daunting to undergraduates, including history majors. Carey and Pun, whose experiences led him to a career as a librarian* at the NYPL, developed an orientation program to archives for students at a relatively early stage of the major. The program begins with exploration of the resources available on the St. John's University campus, then moves to a tour of a principal archive at the NYPL that includes a workshop on online resources led by Pun. "Within two hours," Carey reported, "their fear of entering research libraries diminished while their interests in pursuing scholarly research increased."

Ellen Joyce discussed Beloit College's efforts to increase the effectiveness of the history major as part of a reconfiguration of the college's graduation requirements. The fluid atmosphere allowed the history faculty to reconsider the sequencing of the courses that make up the history major, while rethinking where the discipline fits into a new system of domains and skills. Particularly challenging was deciding whether history courses belonged in the "Social Analysis of Human Behavior" domain or in "Textual Cultures and Analysis" or both—then convincing colleagues from other departments of the wisdom of such placement. They also explored the possibility of adding to the history curriculum "lab" courses that allow experience outside the classroom and might satisfy a new "Liberal Arts in Practice" requirement.

Commenter Constance H. Berman of the University of Iowa praised all three approaches, but cautioned the presenters about using the number of students planning to go on to graduate school in history as a measure of success of an endeavor. "The jobs that most of us in that room had and have will not be there for the next generation—with more adjunct, off-line, temporary, and community college teaching than ever before," she concluded.

Excerpts from the presentations will be available on the National History Center web site. The white paper is available online on the AHA's web site at historians.org/pubs/Free/TheHistoryMajorandUndergraduateEducation.pdf. Founded in 1944, the New York-based Teagle Foundation supports efforts to improve higher education, particularly of undergraduates in the arts and sciences.

Marian Barber is the associate director of the National History Center.

* Corrected April 16, 2012. The print version of the article contained an error in the description of Raymond Pun's profession.