History’s decline

Why are so many history department’s struggling? Many people may have read the New York Times article by Mitch Smith: Students in Rural America Ask, ‘What Is a University Without a History Major?’ The article described how the The University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point is eliminating its history department. Although totally closing a department is extreme, other departments are losing funds for adjuncts and summer classes; in other cases faculty who retire are not being replaced.

Although I now mainly work in International and Global Studies, where I do research on global health, my doctorate is in history. I have kept in touch with a few friends who still teach in history departments. And I know many good people and dedicated teachers who have faced the long struggle that has been history’s decline. Department chairs try to hold onto positions when enrollments are low; faculty see fewer students in their classes, and worry that their own course might be cancelled for low enrollment. Graduate advisers see their students achieve their doctorates, and then fail to find a tenure-line job for year after year, because hirings are slow in the field. Thirty years ago, history departments would have been relatively large on many campuses. When I graduated the job market was challenging for new doctorates. Now bright, hard-working graduates face an environment that is much worse than I did.

Some of my colleagues blame the move to the business model in higher education; others say that it’s because students now take on more debt, and believe that a humanities degree won’t help them obtain a job that will help them to repay these debts. Others believe that a cultural shift away from the humanities -which denigrates the value of these degrees- ultimately is to blame. There may be truth in all of these arguments.

I also think, however, that part of the problem is the choices that historians and departments have made, which is never a popular argument. Hal Brands and Francis J. Gavin have a blog post, “The historical profession is committing slow-motion suicide.” I think that the title is exaggerated, but that there is also a hard truth to the central point: history as a field no longer embraces popular history, or the subfields that engage students’ interest, in the same way that they did thirty years ago. Even within departments that are struggling, there are often classes that always fill, and have a waitlist. In my experience, military history is always popular, even if it deals with the ancient Greeks or Romans. The history of Great Power relations also tends to draw. Yet now many departments now don’t even have a military historian, and are unlikely to hire someone to teach these classes, no matter how popular they might be. Hiring decisions sometimes are made -which won’t sound unusual to anyone in academia- not based on student demand, but rather departmental politics. Senior faculty wish to be replaced by someone in their own field, and are willing to battle hard to maintain the status quo.

I think that Brands and Gavin’s argument can be taken too far. It’s also just one part of a complex series of reasons that history has been in such a long and slow decline. As someone who loves teaching online, I always ask my colleagues who is teaching online classes in their departments. I’m often told by my historian friends that most of the online classes are taught by adjuncts. This is even true at institutions where access is a long-standing part of the universities’ mission.

It is certainly true that multiple factors are eroding the number of majors in history departments, most of which historians have no control over. In my personal opinion, being a department chair can sometimes be harder than being a Dean, in part because you have all of the responsibility, but none of the power. So what follows should not be read as a critique of department chairs in history departments. Still, most history departments have not made sufficient, fundamental changes in their programs so as to attract students in this new climate.

Most undergraduate history majors will not become historians. Do they really need that unpopular methodology course? Could we base new hires more on the classes that fill best, and less on the existing makeup of the faculty? Do we need to divide the world into regions, and then have to have one historian in each world area? Could departments find classes in other units that they will accept so that students can double dip between their major and their minor? And can we put that information on the website? Can the total number of credits for the major be decreased, so that students have room to do a business minor? Can we rethink the skills that are taught in classes, so that students do data visualization or analysis, which would allow them to show their technological abilities to potential employers? Do all M.A. students need to do a thesis? Can we state in all hire letters that new faculty will offer one or two classes a year fully online? Can we prioritize online teaching experience in job ads and hiring processes? Can we make summer stipends available to faculty who want to convert classes to an online format? Can we state that faculty willing to teach online class will be prioritized to teach summer classes? Can we make sure that all doctoral students graduate with some experience teaching in an online environment, so they are prepared for the current job environment? Can we prioritize putting some graduate courses online as well, so that students are comfortable with this format? Can we create more opportunities for internships? And most of all, can we prioritize areas most likely to draw students in both new hires and our curriculum. In International and Global Studies we conduct a survey of our students when making new hires, to see what topic areas would interest them. I think that this should be standard practice, especially in history departments that need to attract majors.

As one colleague told me years back, what is strange is that the profession is declining at the same time that entire shelves at the book store are filled by popular histories. Doesn’t that suggest that there are changes that could draw more people into the field? I have some colleagues who have become bitter and disillusioned.  Others continue to believe in the deep value of their field, and believe that it will see a rebirth. I agree with the latter, but believe that much work needs to be done first.

Shawn Smallman, 2019

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