The Undergraduate Curriculum

A recent post by PhDinHistory about the history undergraduate curriculum (“Improving our Undergraduate Programs for History Majors”) got me thinking about our own curriculum here at George Mason because we’re about to embark on our decennial acceditation process and I will be leading the part of that process that deals with the undergraduate major.

Sterling raises a number of interesting points in the post, but there is an assumption in his analysis of some AHA data that I think bears taking some time to think about. That assumption is that the measure of success of an undergraduate history curriculum is the degree to which it prepares majors for graduate school and ultimately for PhDs in history. For the past eight years I’ve spent a lot of time talking to colleagues around the country about what a history curriculum ought to look like and even though we know (and as Sterling points out at the end of his post) that we are only preparing a tiny fraction of our majors to become academic historians, we still approach the major as though that was its highest purpose.

It’s time to set these assumptions aside once and for all and do something radical–view the major through the eyes of our students.

Here’s a case in point. Not long ago I was in a meeting with a diverse group of history professors and our purpose was to discuss what an undergraduate history curriculum ought to look like. We examined several models of possible requirements and all of them would look fairly familiar to anyone teaching at an American college or university: a methods course, a capstone course, and a set of distribution requirements that forced students to spread out their upper division courses over different world regions and time periods. The discussion turned to how these distribution requirements might be tweaked to make the undergraduate experience better, but it was all about adding in another required course here, or possibly dropping one required course there.

I asked the show-stopper. “Why not just eliminate all the distribution requirements, leaving only the methods and capstone courses?”

Would it surprise you if I told you that the response to my suggestion was less than positive?

The most common response was that if we dropped all the distribution requirements, then our students would over-concentrate in one aspect of history. My response was, “And what would be the harm in that?” I think you can imagine the answer: “But then they would know a lot about one aspect of history, but virtually nothing about any other.” To which I responded, “And what would be the harm in that?”

Of course, if our students are planning a career in history, then they do need to sample other world regions and time periods. But, let’s be honest now. Just how many of our students really are planning a career in history? Aren’t the majority of them planning to do just about anything but be historians? And so if their goal is law school, who cares if the majority of their upper division courses were in American military history? Or if they are planning to become an elementary school teacher, who cares if the majority of their courses are in world history or gender history or the history of photography or (I might hope) East European history?

I’m willing to bet that law school admissions officers never say to themselves, “Oh, we can’t admit her. Sure, she has a 3.92 GPA and high LSAT scores and worked in a community legal clinic, but look at this, she never took a course in African (or East European, or colonial American, or whatever) history.” And I work with a lot of K-12 educators, and I know that elementary school principals never say such things to themselves when they are trying to hire fourth grade teachers. So, I think we can say that, except for those of our majors who plan to enroll in a history graduate program, over concentration in whatever part of history they love isn’t going to hurt them professionally.

“But if we don’t force them to try courses in other regions/eras, they might never realize that African/East European/colonial American history is what they really love.” And if I don’t force my children to eat their cauliflower, they might never know that they prefer cauliflower to cheeseburgers. As a parent, I feel this sort of obligation (although I don’t like cauliflower either, so that’s not one I force on them). But we aren’t our students’ parents and they certainly aren’t children any more.

Given that they are, in fact, adults and that they are now making career and educational choices that effect their lives not ours, it seems to me that it’s time for us to let them make those choices for themselves.

And it’s time for us to come up with a new measure of the success of our undergraduate major. Before we start asking ourselves what that measure ought to be, I suggest that we try something radical–ask our students what they think that measure ought to be. After all, we’re offering the history major for them, aren’t we?

I’m not suggesting that curriculum ought to be entirely consumer driven. But what I am suggesting is that our students have all sorts of different reasons for why they want to be history majors and for what they want to get out of the experience. And those reasons and desires ought to play a role in our decision-making about the curriculum.

3 thoughts on “The Undergraduate Curriculum

  1. MHooper

    Good questions all. When I came to this university, the only requirements were Senior Capstone & Research. What I discovered was that none of the majors (there were 4.5) knew how to research anything. Their senior papers were appallingly bad, but what could we honestly expect, since for them it was their first research assignment?

    We’re now requiring both US Surveys, both World Civ surveys and a historiography class (linked here) as well as the Capstone/Research project. The distribution of anything over 1000 level classes is not a concern; more, we are concerned that they experience a variety of teaching styles, learning methods and content exposures.

    I do ask my students for input as to what they think of the existing curriculum and what they’d like to see. Mostly, I get vague looks and requests for Ancient Rome (about 2 requests a year and which I would teach and resist mightily) and shrugs. Pressed, they note that they don’t really know enough to ask for specifics. I’m now putting more emphasis on skills and methods, as those are very important for historians AND translate readily into other concerns.

    Another consideration (on the faculty end) is developing and articulating clear learning objectives for the majors which are both meaningful and assessable. I agree: I think students need to be an integral part of the process in determinng what ‘success’ is for the major. If their answer is that they don’t ‘intend’ to do history and are just taking it because they love it, how do we incorporate that into a program?

  2. tkelly7 Post author

    I couldn’t agree more about the need to develop clear learning objectives that are assessable. And such objectives have to be more than just “The ability to work with primary sources” or “Understanding the main points of the historiography of a subject.”

    I used to get some of the same vague looks from my students when I asked them what they thought might be different about the major. Recently I’ve begun asking them what they plan to do when they graduate. I get lots of different answers–teach, law school, politics, get a job in a museum, and the ever popular, “I’m not sure.” (My own answer to that question when I was a senior in college was “law school” because the grown-ups asking me would nod appreciatively and say “Good plan.” I had no intention of going to law school, but learned that it was a great answer. I was a history major just because I loved it.)

    Once I find out what they plan to do, I then ask them how they think being a history major might help them with that plan. I get lots of different and useful input then–the need to develop useful tech skills, the need to learn how to teach effectively, the need to know a lot of stuff about the past (usually from future teachers who are worried about their content knowledge), the need to write better, and so on. These, I think, are much more useful answers.

  3. Mark Stoneman

    Your suggestion makes sense, Mills. Dare I say it? Even people planning to study history further could benefit from more choice and the ability to concentrate in a specific area if they so choose.

    That doesn’t mean that advisors shouldn’t help them see other possibilities. And historians who worry about students not getting enough breadth could try to be more global in their own approach to whatever history they are teaching. But mandating such courses is probably not necessary.

    I did a B.A. in the U.S. and an M.A. in Germany. If memory serves, there I had to do a certain number of courses at certain levels, but what I chose to study was up to me. I was also required to do two minors, so I got exposure to other methods, sources, and topics that way. (My major was Modern History, the minors were Early Modern History and Political Science).

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