Tag Archives: enrollments

A Looming Disaster for History (II)

As a follow up to my previous post about history’s gender problem, I now want to offer some possible solutions for our discipline. Before I do, however, a bit more context on the gender problem History has here at George Mason seems warranted. Of the undergraduate programs in our college with more than 100 declared majors, only three have enrollments where fewer than two-thirds of those declared majors are female — History (40%), Government (41%), and Economics (34%). Every other substantially enrolled major in our college is more female than the university average of 62%.

Further, our MA enrollments are similarly skewed. Overall MA enrollments in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences are 60% female, but in History, MA enrollments are only 42% female. Thus, the problem I identified in my previous post extends beyond the undergraduate years into the MA. Given what Rob Townsend has written for the American Historical Association, I suspect we are very typical of history departments nationwide.

What then can be done to deal with history’s gender problem (and not just at George Mason)?

Too often, the standard answers to this sort of gender problem in an academic discipline are to increase the number of female faculty and/or to teach more courses that will appeal to female students. To my mind, the first of these is pretty obvious and needs constant attention. Even in a department that is changing rapidly, only 40% of the tenure track faculty in History here at Mason are female, so further attention to finding a full gender balance is something we’ll need to continue to work on. But it’s the second of those proposed solutions that I think is off the mark.

First of all, such phrasing assumes that male and female students can’t or won’t be interested in the same things about history, and second, it tends to turn on simplistic notions about preferences, such as male students want military history (and women don’t) and/or female students want women’s history (and men don’t). While I think information about student preferences for course content is important, the problem is more complex than simply offering a few more of this or a few less of that type of course.

Instead, I think the problem seems to lie in the way history is taught and in the ways we conceive of and describe to students what they might do with their degrees in history. One of the most important reasons I say “seems to” here is that there is very little in the way of solid data on the role that gender plays in the choice of major in college, and what little data exist tend to be focused on the much greater gender gap in the STEM fields.

Nevertheless, it is possible to glean some useful information from some of the STEM-focused studies. For instance, in a 2009 report by Basit Zafar, an economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York (“College Major Choice and the Gender Gap“), offers some very interesting data on the role gender plays in the choice of major. Zafar’s study was limited to students at Northwestern University and so does not pretend to be broadly predictive. However, it does offer a very rigorous analysis of data. Zafar concludes that gender differences in major choice between men and women are not based on expectations of future income, nor are they explained by differential levels of confidence in one’s academic abilities, nor (for those with US born parents) do beliefs about the status of a future job resulting from a major play an important role in the choice of major.

Instead, Zafar concludes that for those with US born parents the most important factor in the choice of major is the degree to which one expects to enjoy the coursework and the degree to which one expects to enjoy a future career tied to that major, with female students having a much greater concern for these two factors than male students (pages 25-28). For those with foreign born parents, whether male or female, perceptions of the status of the major and the status of jobs that might result from that major play a more important role for both male and female students, but especially for male students (20).

Assuming for a minute that Zafar’s data could be replicated across a much broader sample of students, then we need to think very carefully about the ways we teach about the past. Ask a group of graduating history majors how much diversity there was in the teaching methodologies they experienced in their history courses and I think it’s a safe bet that they will say, “not much.” The vast majority of history classes follow a general lecture-plus model in which professors mostly lecture with some discussion time thrown in daily or weekly. At some point this style of teaching has to become boring, no matter how good the professor is at delivering it.

We also need to think very carefully about the ways we talk about careers our students might pursue after graduation. As the digital economy rolls over us, the work our students will be doing after graduation is increasingly very different from the work they might have done five or ten years ago, but by and large our descriptions of that work remain the same, rooted in a series of generalized notions about what one might do with a liberal arts degree. It’s time for us to get much more specific about the jobs our students are getting/will get in the new economic reality they’ll be living in.

Which brings me to my final point — these two considerations do not exist in isolation from one another. Instead, they are inextricably linked. One way to increase the levels of enjoyment our students experience (or expect to experience) is to begin creating courses that break the lecture-plus model and begin to incorporate project work, service learning, and other forms of “doing history.” Rather than continuing to talk to them or with them about the past, it’s time to develop courses that get them into the field, into the archives, into employment sites, at museums or historic sites, in short, give them a chance to exercise their creative energies. One more great lecture or one more well thought out five page essay assignment just isn’t going to do that.

Examples of what I’m talking about exist all over the country, but they are the exceptional courses in history curricula. If we are going to take seriously the notion that our gender problem — which is very real — needs to be addressed, then it’s time for a national conversation about how changing our curriculum is the way to address that problem.

A Looming Disaster for History

In the April issue of Perspectives, Rob Townsend offers what is perhaps his last analytical article for the American Historical Association’s monthly newsletter (Rob has moved on from the AHA to a new job): “Data Show a Decline in History Majors.”

From the title of this post, you might be inclined to think that I’m worried that a decline in history majors is the looming disaster for history departments around the country. If only it were that simple. You see, undergraduate history programs don’t have an enrollment problem. We have a gender problem.

According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, in 2010 just under 57% of all undergraduate students at 4-year non-profit institutions of higher education were female and the data for degrees conferred are similar. According to Rob’s article, fewer than 41% of the BA degree recipients in history departments were female in 2011. Our data here at George Mason are even worse. Female history majors represent only 40% of our total at an institution where 62% of our undergraduate students are female.

That yawning gap between overall undergraduate enrollments and history enrollments is the size of our gender problem.

The problem is bad enough on its own to require us to take action as a profession. In addition to the obvious need to do something about the relatively low popularity of history as a discipline among undergraduate women, we also need to fix this problem for pragmatic reasons. As has been reported widely over the past several years, institutions of higher education are increasingly enrollment driven. This isn’t news to private institutions who have been living and dying by their enrollment numbers for years. But it is a new experience for many public institutions, who only in the past decade or so have been learning what it’s like to live or die by the same data. In this fiscal environment, if we don’t fix our gender problem soon, history departments all across the country should expect to see tenure lines and other important resources shifting to departments with more robust enrollments — enrollments that will only be robust with large numbers of female students.

What is to be done? None of the answers are simple or obvious and there is certainly no silver bullet that could solve our gender problem in undergraduate history education. Instead, I think it is high time we embark on a sustained conversation about change in undergraduate history education — including changes that will make our discipline just as appealing as other majors are to the largest segment of the undergraduate enrollment on our campuses.

The alternative is to decide that history is doomed to be an ever smaller part of the undergraduate enterprise. I believe that if we really commit ourselves to doing something about our gender problem, we can and will find ways to change for the better. But we need to commit. And soon.

History on Thin Ice?

In his Opinionator blog at the New York Times yesterday, Timothy Egan argues that “history, the formal teaching and telling of it, has never been more troubled.” According to Egan, the twin forces of educators caving in to corporate demands to phase out the liberal arts and what he calls the “circular firing squad of academics who loathe popular histories,” have teamed up to push history to the edge of irrelevance.

My own view is that, while Egan’s essay is heavy on hyperbole, he’s more than a little correct–just not for the reasons he cites.

I share Egan’s view that the teaching and learning of history is in trouble, but not because, as he writes, “Too many history books are boring, badly written and jargon-weighted with politically correct nonsense.” To be sure, much of academic history writing these days is all of these things and many of my colleagues share a strong prejudice against anything written for a broader market. As a for instance, a number of my colleagues here at George Mason recently criticized my forthcoming book Teaching History in the Digital Age (Michigan, March 2013) as being “under theorized.” I certainly could have written a more heavily “theorized” book, but to do so would have limited its market appeal to the small number of academic historians who see theory as the marker of excellence. For good or ill, I chose instead to write to a much larger audience. This is not a new debate. See, for instance, my coverage of Barbara Weinstein’s commentary on this same topic more than five years ago.

But, as impenetrable as it can sometimes be, I don’t think over specialized academic writing is the real problem. In fact, I think it is an overly convenient straw man. Instead, I think history is in trouble for two reasons: bad teaching and flawed curricular design.

First the teaching. It’s not news that the vast majority of history classes in high school and at the post-secondary level are taught primarily through lecture with a smattering of discussion thrown in just to keep it lively (or sort of lively). It’s also not news, or at least it shouldn’t be, that research in cognitive science demonstrates quite conclusively that lecturing is the worst form of teaching, that is if learning is the goal of teaching. And, for what it’s worth, historians have been writing about how ineffective lecturing is as a mode of instruction in the history classroom since 1897. Yes, 1897.

While students in other disciplines are engaging in more and more active learning in their courses, solving problems, moving around, making things in the analog and online worlds, and negotiating their way through group projects, the vast majority of history students sit still, listen, and take notes. If history teachers, at whatever level, continue to cling to the lecture as the primary mode of instruction, our field will become more irrelevant with each passing year.

And then there is the curriculum. Around the United States history curricula are depressingly similar. Almost anywhere a student might choose to enroll, he or she will almost certainly find requirements that include the following: a few introductory surveys, upper level distribution requirements almost always dividing the past into some version of American, European, and non-Western history, a methods course, and a capstone research seminar. To give some credence to my contention here, I selected four history departments at random (plus George Mason) and here are links to their requirements: Boston College, University of Missouri, Denison University, UC Irvine. There is almost no variation in the requirements from department to department and I am quite certain that any random sample you would generate would have the same results.

In a recent paper (Trends Toward Global Excellence in Undergraduate Education), Marijk van der Wende of Amsterdam University College argues that “leaders of the future will have to work together across the boundaries of nationalities, cultures, and disciplines, in order to be successful in the globally engaged and culturally diverse society of the 21st century.” Take a look through the degree requirements I linked to above and you’ll find not one hint of interdisciplinarity, or of providing history majors with the knowledge and skills they will need to succeed in the globalized and increasingly digitalized knowledge economy they will enter after graduation. Given the very parochial, very siloed approach to education that typifies the university history degree, it’s no wonder that students are bored.

And they aren’t just bored. They’re voting with their feet. According to the recently published Digest of Education Statistics, enrollments in bachelor’s programs in history have grown by 5.6% since 2001, that is compared to growth of almost 10% in all other social science bachelor’s programs during the same period. A growth rate half of that in other social science disciplines should be cause for significant concern.

The way out of the box we’ve put ourselves in is actually pretty simple. First, dump the lecture as the primary mode of instruction. So many other disciplines have managed this trick that for historians to say that we just can’t is disingenuous at best, ridiculous at worst. It’s just not that hard to teach without lecturing. Second, take seriously the notion that our curricula are ideally positioned for 1973, not 2013. Rewriting curricula is much more difficult than dumping the lecture model of teaching because there is a lot of administrative overhead (curriculum committees, catalog copy, etc.) that have to be dealt with, not to mention good old fashioned inertia. But rewrite the curriculum we must if we are going to do right by our students.

If we don’t make these changes, then Timothy Egan will be right about our field being in a world of trouble.

Shifting Patterns in AP/IB Credits

I received a report from the Dean’s office today about the number of AP/IB credits we have awarded in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences over the past three years (2010-2012). The numbers are interesting, I think, only because they show where we are headed in the coming decade, namely, toward a place where more and more of our general education curriculum is being delivered by high schools rather than by us.

In 2012 our college handed out 6% more AP/IB credits than we did in 2010 and in history that increase was just under 12%, with the largest amount of both the credits awarded and the increase being in U.S. history.

The 424 credits we gave out in 2012 works out to 141 seats unfilled in our general education courses, which equates to around 7% of our enrollment target for courses at the 100 (introductory) level. [enrollment targets here] While those 424 credits work out to well under 1% of our overall enrollment target for history enrollments, if all of those students were paying in-state tuition (which they aren’t, obviously), they represent just a whisker over $166,000 in tuition revenue. Were they all paying out of state tuition (which they aren’t), the lost revenue would be $487,000. So that’s the range of tuition lost: $166,000 – $487,000.

Given that all the economic trends seem to be against us these days — decreasing state investment in higher education (everywhere, not just in Virginia), pressure both from legislatures and from the market to hold the line on tuition, demands that more and more students graduate from college every year, and so on — we cannot afford to give away somewhere between $166,000 and almost $500,000 and expect the university to continue to fund us at the level we are currently funded at.

But we don’t have any choice.

Each year, more and more students are enrolling in AP or IB programs at America’s high schools and so with each passing year we can expect to give away more and more credits to those students who score well on their tests, because refusing to give them credit is not one of our options any more. I have already written about this problem and its associated issues (more and more students going to community colleges, rapid growth in the market for online education), so in some ways, this AP/IB report was just another confirmation of what’s been worrying me about our future.