History enrollments are on the decline nationwide. There are a number of possible explanations for this. At my institution, the popular explanations number two, one a broader assumption that’s difficult to document and the other the result of internal campus politics. The first is that the economic slump has made students increasingly hard-nosed and career-focused when they think about what they’re going to do with their education. The second is that another department began a program that has sucked away a number of students who once majored in history with an eye toward law school.
Either way, this conversation has renewed our focus on how we serve our students. Our university has a large number of 1) African American students and 2) first generation college students; indeed, most African American students also fall into that second camp. Over the past few days, as we have prepared to start classes again, I have had two conversations with fellow faculty members about J.D. Vance’s memoir, Hillbilly Elegy, a book that’s gotten a fair amount of attention this summer. It’s helped (along with our national consternation over the rise of He Who Shall Not Be Named) to revitalize the conversation around the reality of class in America – a conversation, Vance argues, has been neglected across the political spectrum for several decades. The book has resonated at my institution because here we grapple with issues of students who can’t afford textbooks, of students who work long hours in addition to taking classes, of students who sometimes bring their children to campus because a babysitter didn’t show up or they can’t afford child care, of students who have little tradition of higher education in their families and thus are sometimes overwhelmed with the demands of college. These issues intersect with issues of race and gender, clearly, and I am glad we as an institution are having this conversation in a way which gives attention to all its aspects: How to serve these students? More, how to make history as a discipline relevant to them? Which brings us back to the question of majors. Here’s a bit of what we are doing:
1) We are beginning to implement more public history into the curriculum, to demonstrate to students that history offers skills beyond simply “knowing stuff about the past.” This fall, for instance, I am teaching a course in African American history, and my students will be working on projects involving local African American history sites. We are also looking to hire a new faculty member with expertise in public history this fall.
2) We are rethinking the way we teach writing. We are blessed with small class sizes for the most part, and thus are able to pay attention to individual students at a fairly high level. Increasingly we are correlating our assignments with a broader program of writing across the curriculum, making clear that the skills of the history major have broader application that students aren’t always aware of.
3) Finally: and related to the both the former points: the great bane of the modern academy, often lamented, is its corporatization, its routinization, its growing tendency to view faculty as interchangable adjunctified cogs and students as hungry customers to be placated with game rooms. The thing that a liberal arts school like mine can offer is a sense of education as, to some degree, mentorship. History should be valuable to students not simply because it provides them with marketable skills, but because it explains to them who they are.
In my small upper division classes, we have time for tangents. My students have raised their hands to share their grandparents’ experiences in the NAACP; to ask if the assigned reading from Barry Goldwater’s Conscience of a Conservative explained why their parents stopped voting for Democrats after Bill Clinton; to explain the impact of the Vietnam War on their families. Speaking of academia as a ‘calling’ has often been a (gendered) way to neglect compensating faculty members, and this sentiment should not be taken as an endorsement of that: nonetheless, as we engage with students experiencing marginalization of whatever sort, to the extent we as historians might help them understand why they are where they are, we are hopefully giving them the tools that will help them alter those structures that have shackled them.