Publication Date

December 1, 1997

Contributing Editor's Note: The following essay and the one by Greg O’Brien on page 35 highlight the experiences of faculty and students in departments undergoing downsizing. These essays are based on presentations made at the 1997 annual meeting in a special panel organized by the AHA’s Professional Division to focus attention on this important issue. Because of the significance of the problem, and the enormous interest evinced by the large audience at the panel, we are publishing these essays to give them a wider circulation.

Downsizing in academia, and particularly in history programs, is a nationwide phenomenon reflecting a variety of significant social, political, and cultural trends in the 19908. Downsizing has been a major issue also for the history department at California State University (CSU) at Dominguez Hills for nearly as long as the university has been in existence. One may say that downsizing has been the most significant factor affecting our professional world in the past 20 years, primarily by compelling us to develop new teaching areas and to seek ways to link history to our student's needs. In the 1990s we face additional demands in areas of curriculum, student needs, and new educational technologies. In combination with the long-standing downsizing we have experienced, these new demands have forced us to reach out to other history faculty in CSU and community colleges in southern California and elsewhere, to rethink our long-range goals, to reconceptualize our program and our teaching methods, and to think in fresh terms about what kinds of future historians will best be able to meet these challenges.

Dominguez Hills is a smaller campus among the 22 in the California State University system and currently has about 10,000 students, largely minority, female, and "nontraditional." The university opened its doors in 1965, and during its early years, history became a major program and department. The department reached its full size of 15 faculty by 1972, making it one of the university's largest departments. In the early years, history majors constituted 25-30 percent of each graduating class.

This situation changed rapidly and dramatically in the mid-1970s, the result of three factors that developed almost simultaneously. In 1973 a liberal studies major that met the multiple subject credential requirements was created for the undergraduate training of elementary school teachers. This resulted in an immediate drop in the number of history majors and in our enrollments.

At the same time the university decided to eliminate the double major requirement (disciplinary and interdepartmental) to make the university more "competitive" to new students. Because history had provided many of the courses and much of the faculty expertise for the interdepartmental programs (such as 20th-century studies and American studies), this was a major blow. The third factor in the program's demise was the emergence of a whole host of new and more "practical" majors, many of which were housed in such new administrative units as the School of Management and, later, the School of Health. The creation of these majors and administrative units led to new pressure for a redistribution of resources within the university, and, consequently, additional pressure on history.

The confluence of these factors had a devastating effect on the history department. There have been no new full-time hires in history since 1974, and since the mid-1970s the department has been officially considered overstaffed. For the past few years, the department has had nine full-time tenured faculty members, but a Full Time Equivalent Faculty (FTEF) of 6.4, meaning that the equivalent of 2.6 faculty members must find other things to do or other classes to teach (to the equivalent of 13 course sections worth of faculty time) outside of the history department. (In fact, more than this number must be found each semester as we also need to hire part-time faculty to teach specialties that the full-time faculty are unqualified to teach.)

This situation was euphemistically called “faculty flow” and the university initially vowed to help the history faculty in their quest to teach in other programs to avoid layoff. Layoff was now separated from tenure. Each faculty member was given "seniority points" based on years of service and the number of courses taught or equivalents. In the event of layoff, those with the lowest number of seniority points were to be the first to go. This was never put to the test as the history faculty proved to be highly versatile, developing a variety of teaching specialties in such related fields as communications, sociology, interdisciplinary studies, law, humanities, and forth.

These efforts had mixed results for the faculty involved, depending on the individual. On the positive side, the need to develop new teaching areas was intellectually stimulating for many, but the downside was that an enormous amount of creative and intellectual energy went into the task of "faculty flow," which was largely unappreciated in the university community. We sometimes felt like poor relations. And for many of us, the constant need to develop and maintain varied teaching fields proved devastating for our own research and scholarly interests.

Lack of space precludes the presentation of several "case studies" illustrating these points, but my own situation is an instructive example. I was trained as a historian of modern China, but I have ended up teaching a great variety of courses, including family and community history to future elementary school teachers, a freshman orientation course, and a course on writing across the disciplines. This was in addition to developing a set of seven or eight interdisciplinary courses linked to Chinese history, society, and culture. All of this has been stimulating, but has not (yet) led to new areas of scholarship for me, only to new areas of quasi-administrative responsibility as I have become more versatile.

Moreover, since the early 1990s, new elements of change have brought additional demands. First, in the past six years our enrollments have steadily increased as a result of the increased demand for teachers in the California schools and as a result of the California History-Social Science Framework, which places history at the center of the K-12 social studies curriculum. As the following data show, the number of history majors doubled in the decade 1986-96, and our departmental Full Time Equivalent Students (FTES) rose by 70 percent (from 139.9 FTES in 1986 to 200.6 in 1996). Yet while our FTES has risen, our FIEF has in fact declined from 7.7 in 1986 to 6.6 (actually 6.4) in 1996, while our Student Faculty Ratio (SFR) has increased by 65 percent, from 18.3 in 1986 to 27.8 in 1995 (see Table 1).

Compounding this situation is the growing trend for our students to work days and attend school at night. The percentage of the student body that now attends the university for evening classes has risen to nearly 50 percent. We now find it increasingly difficult to offer the full range of our upper-division curriculum, especially to both day and evening students.

In the past few years we have been forced to eliminate or "freeze" upper-division courses that we have not had the workload to offer. Reluctant to reexamine the structure of the major and to reduce the level of specialization in the regional/national period courses, we have engaged in a juggling act and reduced many of the topical offerings, such as family in history, law and society, or religion in history, even though it is often in these areas that we stay alive intellectually and follow many of the trends in our own fields of specialization.

Thus, as our SFR has increased, we are teaching more students in fewer and less varied history classes. This in turn raises a new set of issues for us as teachers: How can we accomplish our pedagogical goals, which include intensive work with students on research projects and a variety of written assignments? Given the universal observation that our students are poorly prepared for university-level work in their basic skills, have little or no general knowledge base and orientation to college life, and are often poorly motivated and reluctant to engage in intellectual discourse (particularly in lower-division general education courses), good teaching is demanding and often exhausting. Also, we have no graduate students to assist us in teaching the surveys (because we are precluded from offering an MA in history by the California Master Plan for Higher Education).

Most of our students are "nontraditional," meaning that they are from working-class and minority backgrounds (approximately 55 percent are female, and 30 percent each white, African American, and Latino, with about 10 percent Asian American and 2 percent American Indian), and we feel a special obligation to train them well and to make their education in our courses the kind of foundation that will stand them well in the future.

A second development of the 1990s has been the stimulus from the K-12 educational community in California to align our curriculum and our teaching methods to better address the needs of future teachers. We have participated in the California History-Social Science Project for the past four years and have a solid base of collaboration with social science specialists in our School of Education. Our last student survey indicated that two-thirds of our history majors planned teaching careers, and more than 75 percent of the students in our upper-division courses will end up in the classroom. We are now shifting our lower division survey courses from Western civilization to world civilization in view of the new K-12 curriculum in California, have developed upper-division courses focused on subject matter needs of future teachers and, more recently, developed a variation of the senior seminar specifically for future teachers. These developments have enriched our curriculum and led some of us to an active interest in history education as an area of study in its own right. This in turn has focused our attention on the need to do a better job explaining the role of historical studies in a liberal arts curriculum and in society at large.

These developments occur along with yet another element of the 1990s: our aging as a faculty. The fact is that all nine of us constitute a cohort who will all probably leave teaching within the next decade and within a few years of each other. The question of what happens when we leave has barely been addressed by ourselves, the university community, or our administrators, but the signs are not encouraging. It is unlikely that another generation of academics will enjoy the same advantages as ours did through the expansion of higher education from the 1950s to the 1970s. It is unlikely that a history department such as mine will ever again hire 15 tenure-track faculty in the expectation of a bountiful future.

Moreover, during the coming two decades, it is expected that higher education in California will experience a large increase in student demand, and university authorities are scrambling to figure out how to accommodate it with static or declining fiscal resources. One "solution" that all administrators have experienced is pressure to seek private funding and grants to supplement the state's allocations. This pressure is felt from university presidents down to deans and department chairs, but realistically in a university such as mine, this will not address the problem adequately.

The other "solution" increasingly being touted is that of "the virtual university," which is being widely publicized in California. I believe that new technologies hold some promise in meeting the needs of students who live in geographically dispersed service areas, and that it is possible to use the new electronic technologies to incorporate group learning strategies and basic skill development in a pedagogically sound way.

Having said that, however, I must add that the rise of "the virtual university" raises a host of questions for such traditional programs as history, which when viewed in conjunction with the passing of our generation of history educators from the scene, need to be addressed. We need to confront the fundamental issue of what we want to teach, and whether we can do it with the new teaching technologies being developed. Yet to be decided is: Who will do the thinking about curriculum in "the virtual university" and what role will traditional liberal arts learning have in it? How will we accomplish our broader social and educational goals?

These concerns led us to organize a history faculty retreat in April 1996 for CSU and community college history faculty. A second retreat was conducted in September 1997 that also included high school history teachers. These activities have given us an opportunity to collectively inform ourselves about long-range trends in the profession and to begin to form better communication and organizational links with history educators in our area along issues of shared interest. These faculty retreats have been actively encouraged and assisted by the American Historical Association. Sandria B. Freitag, executive director of the AHA, was the featured speaker at our April 1996 retreat, and Peter N. Stearns, vice president of the AHA Teaching Division, was the keynote speaker for our 1997 retreat, which was devoted to issues in the teaching of undergraduate survey courses.

As we begin to organize, communicate, and articulate our situation, we have been able to examine some of the factors that will shape our future program. These factors, in turn, condition the attributes in the historians we will be looking for when we are able to hire again. The qualities we will need are the following:

Alignment with K-12 teaching community and its needs. Our new faculty should be familiar (or willing to be familiar) with issues in K-12 education in the state and willing to teach future teachers in meaningful, engaging, and relevant ways.

Respect for diversity and pluralism. We will need to find people who not only can teach to a diverse student body, but who genuinely relish the prospect. We have a deep commitment to the community we serve to honor diverse learning” styles and cultural traditions.

Ability to articulate the role of history education. We will need to intensify and deepen our thinking about the distinctiveness and importance of history education at the university level, the K-12 level, and to the public at large.

Ability to manipulate new technology for humanistic goals. We will want people who are adept with computer and electric technologies and able to manipulate these technologies to enhance the humanistic and pluralistic core of our curriculum.

Intellectually alive, creative, and resourceful scholar/teachers. We will want people who not only are up-to-date and familiar with recent developments in historical thinking, research methodologies, and new research and teaching fields, but who are also adaptable and flexible as they face the great challenge of keeping themselves intellectually alive and professionally creative while teaching four courses a semester and teaching them well.

For those of you soon to enter the professional work force and those of you who train the new PhDs, I ask you to look at my list above and to think about the fit between what you have learned as graduate students (or what you teach your graduate students) and what kinds of talents and training a program like mine will need.

Downsizing represents but one element interacting with the other demands and challenges of the 1990s, We must take a hand in shaping the university of the future, making it a place where, although we may shed some of our excesses and indulgences (pedantic and over-specialized monographs may be one such), we still function as a repository of humanistic values. We must learn to articulate our value to our colleagues, administrators, and to the public. In the end, our challenge is to adapt our curriculum and teaching methods to meet the demands of the 1990s while holding firm to our core values and loudly affirming the validity of historical learning.

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