Publication Date

February 24, 2020

Perspectives Section

From the President

AHA Topic

Teaching & Learning, Undergraduate Education

Nearly 20 years ago, I somewhat unwillingly agreed to teach a course called How Historians Think. Quickly rebaptized by witty students Do Historians Think? it was defined as a methods course, but one built around particular historical issues that ranged over time and place. Students encountered central historical questions: how do we know what we know, how do we seek to understand it, and how do we employ documents (texts, archeological evidence, material objects, oral histories, and so on) in “doing” history. Somewhat to my surprise, I loved the course, and I loved the students. The experience reawakened when I was called upon to teach a graduate historiography course and was brought to mind once again as I considered the many institutions now repackaging their introductory courses as well as restructuring the major.

It will come as a surprise to no one that the number of history majors has declined precipitously, even catastrophically, over the last 20 years. Departments that once had hundreds of majors are lucky to have 50. In the face of STEM and “get a job” initiatives, history and the humanities more generally have lost out. And one answer to the question of how to get more students into history courses, especially at an early stage in their academic careers, is to offer more innovative introductory courses. Wherever we work, increasing the number of history majors matters to all of us as professional historians. It is also of concern to most educational administrations: salaries, positions, and perks are often allocated on the basis of how many majors a department attracts.

So for reasons practical, professional, and intellectual, we should all be involved in efforts to draw more students to the history major. Cognizant of this fact, and supported by a major grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the AHA is participating in the History Gateways initiative. While addressing introductory courses in ways that may well increase the number of history majors, what History Gateways particularly seeks to create is a series of courses and programs that will benefit all students from diverse backgrounds, even those who will never major in history.

In How Historians Think, students encountered central historical questions: how do we know what we know, how do we seek to understand it, and how do we employ documents (texts, archeological evidence, material objects, oral histories, and so on) in “doing” history.

My immodest proposal is this: perhaps we have it all wrong in precisely how we think about these introductory courses. The problem starts with the word “introductory.” For decades, even generations, introductory courses were year-long, content-rich surveys such as US History, the venerable Western Civilization, the more recent World History, or surveys of other large, geographically and chronologically defined areas—Latin America, Asia, Europe, and so on (by no means an exhaustive list). Now I am going to say something shocking: I loved these courses when I took them, and—even more shocking—I really liked teaching them. I am not convinced that the standard introductory courses, even in the bad old days, were deadly dull and did more to drive students away from history than draw them toward it. I learned a great deal from professors whose methods were traditional but whose lectures were nothing less than mesmerizing. But there is no reason not to rethink introductory courses; we have nothing to lose.

Immodest? Perhaps. But I am slowly developing a rather different perspective on all this, and beginning to wonder if the introductory survey should be a wide-ranging overview, one that draws out broader themes over time, place, and culture. That realization snuck up on me and lay dormant somewhere in the back of my brain for quite a while. It dates back nearly 20 years, to that How Historians Think course that I initially dreaded and eventually prized, and came to the fore again when thinking about History Gateways. The large-scale survey, however it’s taught, remains an important and valuable course, but not as the introductory course. Early college students should enroll in something resembling How Historians Think—not an old-fashioned methods course, but one specifically aimed at introducing students to what makes history so valuable: how historians construct interpretations and analyze historical events, movements, and circumstances. Methods should not be advanced material open only to (or imposed on!) students in the major; they are where the romance and importance of history lie, and students should learn them at the outset. To be effective, however, such a course must be content-based.

There is no reason not to rethink introductory courses; we have nothing to lose.

Perhaps two illustrations will suffice. I have often thought that Joan Scott’s essay “A Statistical Representation of Work: La statistique d’industrie à Paris, 1847–1848” is excellent in this respect: it discusses gender, of course, but it also shows how statistics and “irrefutable numbers” need to be examined in context, and how “objective” statistical compilations can write people in, or out, of history. Another example: one could use the material taken from the Cloaca Maxima in Rome to show how specialized forms of technical analysis can reveal the diets of ordinary ancient Romans, or how archaeologists “read” ruins to show early patterns of settlement in societies with no written records. Both of these studies draw back the curtain, so to speak, on the doing of history; they teach skills in thinking about historical issues that will be of value to students no matter if they never take another history course—to say nothing of being inherently fascinating, often multidisciplinary, and sometimes archival.

To those who argue that all this is too complicated for incoming students, I say: bah, humbug. Most institutions no longer have an old-fashioned liberal arts curriculum and the once-ubiquitous distribution requirements that funneled large numbers of students, willing or not, into introductory courses. Many universities, including mine, have no clear distribution requirements or prerequisites: students can easily graduate without ever taking a history course. And that’s a shame. Not only because history majors do quite well on the job market—outperforming, in terms of salaries, even business majors in entry-level positions. But also because our courses introduce students more effectively, I believe, to what is intellectually stimulating about history: interpretations, controversy, and analysis of issues that concerned their fellow human beings, if perhaps those in other times and places, and continue to concern them today.

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Mary Lindemann
Mary Lindemann

University of Miami