From the Teaching Division

Declining Enrollments in History Courses: A Follow-Up Report

Elizabeth A. Lehfeldt, October 2017

History departments across the country are experiencing declining enrollments. The AHA is taking action. kasto/depositphotos Last year, in “Addressing the Issue of Declining Enrollments” (October 2016), I announced a new initiative from the AHA Teaching Division. Conversations with members and department chairs uncovered concerns about enrollments—concerns soon amplified by the results of an annual survey administered and analyzed by AHA special projects coordinator Julia Brookins.

The data confirmed what we suspected. It was not simply that the number of majors was falling; many departments were struggling to enroll students in any history course, including surveys, often due to changes in general education requirements. With some exceptions, the challenges seemed to be systemic and worthy of the division’s concerted focus. It’s not only a matter of preservation for individual departments. Teaching history and engaging students stand at the core of our professional and disciplinary mission.

We’ve initiated a series of ongoing conversations with department chairs about how to address enrollment declines. The first took place in January 2017, at the AHA annual meeting in Denver, at the Department Chairs’ Lunch. In small-group conversations and a general discussion, chairs shared their strategies to draw students into courses and encourage them to become majors.

We will expand the conversation at the 2018 annual meeting, which will include three roundtables on enrollments (all titled Tackling the Issue of Enrollments in History Courses: Strategies and Ideas from the Frontlines). Organized roughly by institution type (selective liberal arts colleges, large public universities, and so on), these sessions will showcase presentations from chairs about how their departments are proactively and constructively addressing the challenge.

Not surprisingly, our effort to address the question of enrollments dovetails neatly with other AHA-led initiatives, most notably the Tuning project. Tuning began as an effort to highlight the value of studying history. As a corollary to this endeavor, we hoped to attract more students to major in history, which would, of course, help boost enrollments. Recently, we have begun to expand the conversation to include a discussion of how Tuning might have bearing on our work in survey courses, which is the way that most students encounter history (if they encounter it at all) in college. Rather than a course that they must take to jump through a general education hoop, we might attract more students to the study of history if we took the lessons of Tuning and applied them to the survey, engaging students with the vitality and relevancy of historical study.

In my meetings on two campuses this spring—at very different sorts of institutions (one a small liberal arts college, the other a large regional urban university)—I was pleasantly reminded of what a great gateway Tuning is for all sorts of conversations about our work as historians. While designed to highlight the value of studying history and thus attract students to major in history, Tuning, I would argue, has become a way of opening up conversations within departments about what we teach, how we teach it, and why we teach it in the first place. Tuning operates as a remedy against the academy’s tendency toward curricular and pedagogical autonomy. We often fall into patterns where we talk about “my class” and “my classroom.” Tuning and the questions it asks force us to think beyond such narrow parameters and to imagine our collective work in departments.

In talking about the goals of the BA in history, we can’t help talking about a common enterprise.

When we talk about the larger goals of the BA in history and the skills and knowledge we want our students to acquire, even in our survey courses, we can’t help but talk about a common enterprise. Suddenly, faculty colleagues are swapping ideas about assignments and debating the merits of particular pedagogical strategies. “My course” has been subsumed by “our students” and “our majors.” These conversations invigorate our teaching and hone our ability to talk about the value of studying history and thus draw students into our classes.

Department chairs often lead these discussions and are at the forefront of the enrollment question. The Teaching Division’s focus on this issue has spurred greater collaboration and conversation among them. These conversations have revealed that departments are employing exciting and innovative strategies to engage students and demonstrate the value of history. In some instances, in fact, enrollments in history courses are on the rise. What we lack, however, is a better forum for showcasing the important work that departments are doing to boost enrollments. Some of this will be remedied by the previously mentioned roundtables at the 2018 annual meeting. We need, however, to reach a broader audience. The Teaching Division is going to work on highlighting the creative and innovative work that departments are doing to boost enrollments and recruit majors, perhaps through blog posts (on blog.historians.org) or a resources page (on historians.org). Our goal is to help departments seeking guidance on increasing enrollments.

As ever, we have much to learn from each other. The robust social media platform and web resources that the AHA staff have created provide excellent forums for these exchanges. I welcome your input and suggestions as well. Please e-mail me at llehfeldt@gmail.com.

Elizabeth A. Lehfeldt is vice president, Teaching Division, at the AHA.


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