Tag Archives: undergraduate

History’s Smaller and Smaller Pond

Last spring I wrote a post called “History’s Future” in which I pointed out the unsettling trends in history enrollments from the 2011-12 IPEDS data. Today, I was reminded of that post, and an earlier on on the gender (enrollment) problem in our field, because the most recent projections from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) called “Projection of Education Statistics to 2021” further reinforce why we should be worried about enrollment data in post-secondary history education.

Just a reminder — history at the undergraduate level in the United States is an overwhelmingly white and male discipline at a time when college and university enrollments, with the exception of a few disciplines like engineering, are overwhelmingly female and increasingly non-white. If historians can’t find a way to expand the appeal of our discipline among females and the non-white population on our campuses, the pond we’ll be swimming in is just going to get smaller and smaller.

The NCES is projecting a 15% increase in post-secondary enrollments in the United States between 2010 and 2021, with a 12% growth in full time students and an 18% growth in part time students. Here’s where the problems arise for history — unless we find a way to change, that is. The NCES is projecting an 18% increase in female enrollments, but only a 10% increase in male enrollments. Among racial and ethnic groups, the NCES projects only a 4% increase among white students, but a 25% increase in African-American enrollments, a 42% increase in Hispanic enrollments, and a 20% increase in Asian enrollments. In other words, almost all the enrollment growth projected for American higher education is going to be among student groups who seem to find our discipline less appealing.

And, by the way, on the racial and ethnic front, the news just gets worse, because between 2009-2021 the NCES is projecting a 9% decline in white high school graduates, as compared to a 6% increase in African-American graduates, a 63% increase in Hispanic graduates, and a 35% increase in Asian graduates.

In short, there is nothing in the data, either from IPEDS or from the NCES, that should give us hope for the future of our discipline. Are we going to go out of business? Hardly. Will history departments begin to get smaller and smaller as enrollment pressures combined with constrained budgets begin to force deans and provosts to make difficult decisions about where to allocate scarce faculty lines? You bet.

Fortunately, the solution lies with us. As a radical first step, I’d suggest going to the source and asking the students themselves why they didn’t major in history, as compared to something else? The results of such a survey, probably best conducted or funded by the AHA, could then provide the basis for a productive conversation among historians from all institutional types — community colleges (where more and more of our majors begin their post-secondary careers every year), liberal arts colleges, and universities of all types, shapes, and sizes. And that conversation could result in productive changes in how our discipline is delivered at the undergraduate level.

There is no quick and easy solution to this problem — if there were, magic wands would have been waved some time ago. But there is a solution. If we decide we’re interested.

Getting History in Tune

Over the past year or so the American Historical Association has been working on what they call the “Tuning Project“. For those who are not members of the Association, the April 2013 edition of Perspectives included an entire forum on the project. Now the AHA has issued a new (pdf) document detailing the current state of the Tuning Project’s work on what they are calling the Discipline Core: “a statement of the central habits of mind, skills, and understanding that students achieve when they major in history.”

There is much to like in this document, which as Julia Brookins of the AHA writes, is intended to foster dialogue among history educators, students, the general public, and others interested in how history is (and isn’t) taught. If I were starting a history major from scratch, this document would be one of the source documents I would use with my colleagues as a basis for our conversation about what we ought to be teaching (competencies and skills, not content) to and with our students. And because I’m teaching historical methods this coming semester, I plan to revisit my syllabus to see what sort of alignment my assignments have with the core competencies laid out in the Tuning document.

In the spirit of Brookins’ call for conversation, I would also say that I found the document surprisingly disappointing in a couple of important ways. The first of those is that the document seems to be focused primarily on undergraduate education. As someone who teaches both graduate and undergraduate students, and who also spends a lot of time working with K-12 history educators, I was hoping to see a bit more conversation on the trajectory of history education from the earliest grades through the terminal degree. Because the authors of the document speak to a desire for a broader conversation, I think that more of that conversation would be likely if all phases of history education a part of the report.

A second critique I would offer is that the document just doesn’t seem very forward-looking. While the authors have done a very nice job of capturing what is common to historical study as it is right now at most colleges and universities, there is no sense of future possibility here. A reader coming to this document for the first time will have to be excused for concluding that what history students do is read, research, and write. What about the making of historical things — websites, digital archives, digital stories, re-created artifacts, museum exhibits (virtual/analog), and all the other ways that history students are beginning to use new media and other tools to make history in new and different ways?

The report does mention the creation of a website/blog/e-portfolio toward the end, but that is really the only mention of the digital world history students live in, other than saying that students should be able to locate appropriate materials online as well as in libraries. Those two statements about the digital world our students inhabit just strikes me as not nearly enough. For instance, shouldn’t history majors learn to apply their critical thinking skills to databases — not as tools for locating sources, but as resources that have historical arguments all their own? Shouldn’t history majors learn how to source digital sources (digital forensics)? Shouldn’t they learn to think critically about how the maker movement might have something to say to historical scholarship? Or what does it mean to have historical information be open source? At what point in the trajectory of historical study should students begin learning to work with big data? These are altogether different and yet very pressing issues in history education and they are largely missing from the Tuning document.

I would also like to see a much richer conversation about the ethics of historical research and production. Too often our conversations with our students about ethics come down to a series of admonitions about plagiarism in the first week of the semester and that’s that. Before the Library of Congress went offline last week, I did a search for books on the ethics of the historical profession and found exactly three. Three. I think we need to find new ways to spread the conversation about ethics across our curricula and so if I were editing this document, I’d include more on ethics.


The History Curriculum in 2023 (Conclusion)

At a conference on the future of higher education at George Mason this past fall, one of my colleagues in the sciences pointed out that his department offered very rich and immersive learning experiences for their seniors in capstone seminars. I asked him why they made their students wait four years for such experiences?

In this series I have tried to suggest a number of ways we can transform the history curriculum to take advantage of the potential of digital media technology and offer rich and immersive learning experiences for our students throughout their four years in the history major. I’ve just finished reading the December 2012 edition of Perspectives and I have to admit that I’m amazed at how little attention was paid to undergraduate education in an issue devoted to “the future of the profession.”

It’s worth remembering that without undergraduates, our profession has no future.

The tuition paid by our undergraduate students sustains our graduate programs, making it possible for us to offer those small and not cost effective seminars. It also at least partly sustains the faculty labor force. How many departments that you know of would have the same budget if their undergraduate enrollment declined by more than one-third over a short time span? A few of the best endowed institutions can sustain departments through their endowments. But only a few. The rest of us depend heavily on undergraduate tuition for our survival.

I’m confident that history will never be dropped from the national undergraduate curriculum, but it’s very possible to imagine a future where individual institutions drop the liberal arts (including history) altogether to become niche players in an increasingly globalized education economy. In a world where big accounting firms are arguing that universities must radically transform their business models if they are going to survive at all, we need to take seriously the notion that at no institution is history indispensable.

That being the reality of the future of our profession, we need to think hard about how we can make our undergraduate major relevant in the digital economy, relevant to the lives our students are living and the ways they use technology, and, just as importantly teach our students the procedural knowledge — both digital and analog — that they need to be the best historians they can be.

The changes I’ve proposed here to the history curriculum are obviously not the only possible options for reform of what we do. I hope they generate some conversation about our future — conversation not only in the blogosphere and Twitterverse, but also in our top journals and newsletters.

If we don’t take seriously the notion that change is necessary, our future looks increasingly like an underfunded archive: stale, musty, and increasingly forgotten.

A Broken Promise?

The September 2008 issue of the Journal of American History contains the transcript of an interchange between eight leaders in the field of digital history. The transcript, which is finally available online (why it wasn’t make open access from the start I can’t imagine), should be required reading, not only for those working in or interested in digital humanities (not just history), but also deans, provosts, and others responsible for institutional investment in digital infrastructure.

The participants’ conversation ranges widely over the most important issues facing digital historians and the communities they serve — everything from definitions of digital scholarship, to teaching graduate students, to research methods, to the infrastructure needed to realize the potential of digital humanities. A careful reading of this piece indicates just how robust this nascent field has become in such a short period of time. There is real diversity of opinion here and some very critical thinking about just what we can expect from digital history and what we ought to demand of ourselves as we practice it.

But as I got closer and closer to the end of the piece I began to wonder what the participants might have to say about the aspect of our work as faculty members that requires well more than 50% of the average professor’s time each week — undergraduate education. Survey after survey bears out the fact that as a group, we spend more of our time teaching undergraduates than we do on anything else. And just as many surveys, if not more, focus on these “digital natives” as a core challenge for higher education as we attempt to create digital resources that will appeal to their sensibilities, their intermediated lifestyles, and their need to be prepared to use digital resources in whatever their chosen careers might be.

I have to admit that I was more than a little surprised that in the 21,000-plus words of the transcript, “undergraduate” appeared only twice…once when Will Thomas mentioned an undergraduate seminar he used to teach and once when Steven Mintz said, “Already, our undergraduate students expect a much higher level of classroom engagement than in the past. Our students take it for granted that our lectures will include multimedia and that our upper division courses will incorporate hands-on, problem- or inquiry-based projects that allow them to do history. We need to ensure that instructors will be prepared to meet these expectations.”

Frankly, I am getting tired of undergraduate students being ignored when it comes to digital history, or, if they come up at all, it is to trot out a version of the canard Mintz offers. If we don’t stop treating our undergraduate students like objects of our work and begin to include them as partners in that work, we can expect them to see us as irrelevant (if they don’t already).

Be honest now. How many undergraduate courses in digital history does your department offer? Not courses with lots of digital resources, but courses that actual interrogate digital history?

Here at George Mason we’re just as guilty as the rest. Despite the presence of the Center for History and New Media in our department, this semester marks only the second time we’ve offered such an undergraduate course. My colleague Paula Petrik taught a course on the history of animation last year and I’m teaching a course on historical hoaxes this year that is, by stealth, actually a digital history course. We have a proposal in front of our general education committee for a more generalized course called “The Digital Past” that we hope will make it into the catalog, and if it does that will be only our first undergraduate digital history course with its own course number.

I hope in future that fruitful discussions like the one hosted by the JAH will include undergraduate education in a much more detailed way. Otherwise, I think the promise of digital history has to be called a broken promise.