National organization suggests changes to history programs nationwide

When history professor Jodi Campbell first read a National History Center report calling for the revamping of undergraduate and graduate history curricula in schools nationwide, she thought the history department would have to play catchup. But after reading it, she found that the department was ahead of the game.

Campbell, who is also on the department’s undergraduate committee, said the changes the report is pushing, such as focusing on broader ideas instead of names and dates, are exactly the things the department has been stressing.

Changes in undergraduate and graduate history programs such as sequencing courses and embracing interdisciplinary work among departments, are necessary to improve the quality of a student’s history education, according to the 2008 Role of the History Major in Liberal Education report issued by the National History Center, an organization that focuses on the study and teaching of history.

Reforms suggested in the report include examining the feasibility of concentration requirements within history majors to allow students to study one subject in depth. According to the report, one-third of institutions surveyed require a specialization or concentration within the major.

Campbell said the department has not discussed that option, and said she is not certain that specializing would benefit most students, unless they plan to pursue graduate school.

“History is so big that in the handful of hours they can take at the undergraduate level, I think it serves people better to get a variety of classes,” Campbell said. “You’ve got the graduate level if you want to specialize more.”

Campbell said graduate schools would look at a student’s transcript and see whether the courses a student took showed an interest in a particular area.

The report was conducted by the National History Center in response to a request by the Teagle Foundation, an organization that raises money to help improve the quality of higher education.

Researchers looked at history major requirements at 55 schools, including state universities, private research universities, comprehensive public institutions, liberal arts colleges and religious colleges and universities.

Sequencing similar courses throughout the major is another necessary change, according to the report.

Stanley Katz, co-chair for the committee that issued the report and director of the Princeton University Center for Arts and Cultural Policy Studies, said in a telephone interview that the committee was concerned about students possibly taking advanced courses without any background.

“We think that students are better served by getting a broad view of what the field is all about, and then moving on to more specialized work,” Katz said.

Some history departments offer several courses that do not establish prerequisites, Katz said.

Campbell said even though she can see the value of sequencing, she said it can be restrictive.

“Our students have a wide variety of backgrounds and there are student who have enough background, such as AP History or reading done on their own, that we don’t want to exclude them,” Campbell said.

Peter Worthing, director of graduate studies for the history department, said even though he is glad the department has already addressed some reforms listed in the report, some areas, such as interdisciplinary work between college departments, could be improved on the graduate level.

Faculty and graduate school resources, and the way history faculty view their role are two areas that need to be addressed in order for interdisciplinary to be successful, Worthing said.

English and history are the only two doctorate programs in the AddRan College of Liberal Arts, Worthing said. If a history student wants to take a graduate course in another department that does not have a graduate program, the history department must ask a faculty member in that department to come up with special arrangements for the students, he said. This means asking a professor to do more work without any compensation, he added.

“If there were more graduate programs, then we could have this free exchange,” Worthing said.

Even though some faculty members have embraced interdisciplinary roles, Worthing said more could be done.

“Some of these students have an inclination to do this, but I’m not sure that we encourage them that much, or that we provide role models for that kind of approach,” Worthing said.

According to the report, the Teagle Foundation plans to conduct a follow-up grant program for five to 10 history departments that commit to implementing and discussing the reforms outlined in the report.

Even though the foundation does not have the money to finance that program, the National History Center is hopeful it will be able to raise enough money to implement the program, Katz said.

The money raised would allow a department to finance small operations such as holding meetings and paying for a faculty member to create new introductory courses, Katz said.

Katz said that while the decision would be up to the people who funded the program, he expects schools would basically select themselves by applying to the program.

Campbell said she didn’t think the department would need to apply for the grant program because of the university’s high level of internal support for things such as creating new courses.