In my two earlier posts about the history undergraduate curriculum, I’ve taken up the issue of what is or should be required of history students, and how digital media might more usefully be incorporated into their educational experience. Today I want to look at a third issue in the teaching of history to undergraduates–the general lack of what we might call “real world” experiences for history majors that are intrinsic to the curriculum.
The most obvious way that history majors can gain this sort of “real world” experience is through internships, and hundreds of history departments around the country (and the world I suspect) offer their students the opportunity to earn credits through internships. A much smaller number of departments actually require their students (who aren’t enrolled in a public history track–which often requires and internship) to participate in some sort of internship in order to graduate (see, for example, the catalogs of California State–Sacramento and Longwood College). Internships are a wonderful way to help students gain real world experience and in particular to investigate possible career paths beyond graduation. They also help students to see the connections (not always so obvious to them) between what they are learning in our classes and what they will do once they graduate.
Having an internship requirement, however, is expensive. In a department such as ours, with more than 400 majors, we would have to hire an internship coordinator whose sole job (or at least most of that job) was devoted to helping students locate appropriate internships and then supervising their experiences–possibly as many as 50 students in any given semester. Would our administration pay for such a position? Not if we just said it would be great if we had one.
Instead, we would have to make a clear and convincing case why we believed a required internship in the major was intrinsic to the educational mission of our department. And for any history department to make that case, the faculty would have to show how multiple courses in the curriculum led up to some sort of culminating internship activity–in much the same way we do for our capstone seminar at the moment.
The other way that history departments help their students gain “real world” experience is through service learning opportunities. Over the years historians I’ve spoken with on this subject have said to me that service learning was largely the domain of the small liberal arts college. I suppose that Stanford and Berkeley will be glad to know that they qualify in this cohort. Stanford offers its History Interdisciplinary Program with service learning built in and by following this link you can read a story in which a Berkeley history major describes his service learning experience as the highlight of his educational career.
The other objection I’ve heard to implementing a service learning option in the history curriculum is that opportunities are largely confined to American history, because the opportunities in the local community are all “American.” This, I would submit, is a pretty limited vision of the possible. Almost every history major has some sort of methods course in its curriculum and those methods are often taught in an almost content-free form. These courses, therefore, offer an excellent venue for service learning. As do public history courses. As do courses on the immigrant experience. As do courses on poverty (certainly not an issue confined to the United States. As do courses on race, and so on and so on.
If you need a little inspiration, take a look at the 13 history syllabi from 2005 offered by the Campus Compact. Or read Catherine Badura’s “Revisioning Women’s History through Service Learning” in the Journal of American History (84/2, 2002) and A. Glenn Crothers’ “Bringing History to Life” in the Journal of American History (also 2002). Or, last but not least, this example of a service learning option in a lower division history course.
Whether internships and service learning are required or optional (I lean to the optional for reasons that I made plain in my first post on this subject), it’s not enough to simply offer these options to our students. If we really believe that they are important, then as departments, we need to take a critical look at our curriculum to see how they might become intrinsic to the education we are offering, not merely useful add ons.