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.

4 replies on “A Looming Disaster for History (II)”

  1. As I was saying to one of your peers last week, I would have given a lot more consideration to the History MA if the requirements were more flexible. Instead, I’m in the English MA program specializing in medieval/Renaissance, so I can kind of pretend to be a(n) historian. 😉

  2. Thanks for writing about this issue. I’ve been thinking about it quite a bit, too, since one of my colleagues just last week remarked that our majors are majority male. We have a good balance at Boise State between male and female faculty, but the offering of “gender” courses falls largely to two of us, and because of my other commitments, I don’t offer U.S. gender courses as often as I feel I should. That said, I hope (naïvely, I suspect) that gender is at the very least a category of analysis in all our history courses.

    Military history remains popular here among male students, and a good deal of that popularity comes from the large veteran population at the university. Still, veterans aren’t attracted only to military history courses. I will admit I was surprised that of the ten men in my 40-student U.S. women’s history course last spring, at least half, and maybe three-quarters, were veterans. (There were female veterans in the course, too.)

    I wonder how the growth of digital humanities practice in history departments will affect this gender balance, if at all. I hear calls from digital humanists for more “less yack, more hack”–an exhortation designed to encourage wider engagement with programming–and then I look at the numbers of women majoring in computer science and affiliated fields, and I worry.

  3. Hi Leslie: I too worry about the “less yack, more hack” theme in digital humanities, both because I think it raises the bar to entry into DH work for everyone — a bar that is already perceived by many to be pretty darned high — and because there is certainly the chance that an increased focus on the tech side of DH work may make it into a more male zone of endeavor. Thus far that doesn’t seem to be the case, as some of the best programming historians I know are women. But if general trends about the hack side of the tech industry apply to our discipline, then the “more hack” approach is potentially problematic. Potentially.

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