Major Renovations

Reviving Undergraduate History at Sam Houston State

Brian Domitrovic | Nov 1, 2017

History majors in front of the department at “Sam.” Brian Blalock/SHSUAt a department meeting in the fall of 2014, our dean gave us a tongue-lashing. Since the academic year 2012–13, the number of history majors at “Sam” (as we affectionately call our institution, Sam Houston State University) had plummeted at a rate approaching 20 percent per year. In the fall of 2012, there were close to 375 history majors at Sam, but by fall 2014, this had dropped 36 percent, to 240. As a percentage of our institution’s undergraduates, we went from consistently over 2 percent to under 1.5 percent. We were fiddling while Rome burned, said our dean. We didn’t like the way we were talked to, we had arguments readied about how our experience was in line with the national averages, and we were justly proud of our success with our graduate program. All this was waved away. And that meeting was the turning point.

In the years following the Great Recession, the number of history majors fell across the country. But our fall 2014 number proved to be the bottom of a V-shaped curve. In response to the challenge from our dean, we took decisive steps to reverse the decline. History majors at Sam surged right back over the next two years, cresting over the original high to nearly 400—a level sustained now in 2017. If history departments are struggling to recoup lost majors, our experience at Sam outlines a model that could prove useful elsewhere. Our department, collectively, committed to solving the problem and set near deadlines for success. We pushed on a door we saw as partly open, and it swung.

We had come to accept the proposition that graduate education was a proxy for the major, as many other institutions seem to do.

Before the dean’s challenge, we history faculty at Sam, which I led as department chair from 2011 to 2017, were complacent about our drop in majors. For one thing, our graduate program was cruising, particularly its online component, which attracted dozens of high-quality students every year. We had come to accept the proposition that graduate education was a proxy for the major, as many other institutions seem to do. As undergraduate standards declined nationally in various ways, the real credential, the real “college degree,” was coming to be the MA, as opposed to the BA. And our MA program was top-notch. We were also lulled by statistics that showed Sam tracking national data. Whereas history had regularly accounted for about 2.2 percent of college majors before 2008, the figure was now 1.7 percent. So for two years we watched rather passively as the number of our undergraduates fell and that of our graduate students bumped up.

After we faculty finished fuming in the hall after the dean’s lecture, one of our former chairs, Ken Hendrickson, weighed in with the key foundational advice. We should have plenty of history majors for sociological reasons. Students come to our semi-rural, semi-suburban campus in Huntsville, Texas (we are in hailing distance of the vast metropolis of Houston), half of them first-generation college students, with a natural interest in history. They have stoked it in homely fashion, through their curiosity, reading habits, and hobbies. If we avoided the pitfall of seeking to “enlighten” these students and instead engaged their sheer fascination with history, we could pursue with them our scholarly imperatives in interaction with their cultural and personal interest in the discipline. This could lead to new heights of comprehension, camaraderie between students and faculty, and intellectual satisfaction, and we would have many coming to our door.

Aside from its incisiveness, Ken’s insight also showed us that we should be confident. We should play offense and assume that reverting to the trend of many history majors would be natural. History is one of the fundamental cultural activities of the species, dating back tens of thousands of years. The idea that it is now irrelevant or of marginal usefulness is absurd when considered in this long view.

If we avoided trying to “enlighten” our students, we could explore combining our scholarly perspective with their personal interest in history.

So our department drew up a 15-point plan and gave ourselves six months to see notable results. We placed a specialist in the university advising center who would gauge latent underclass interest in history. During the enrollment period, we advertised the next semester’s upper-level courses with a glossy digital magazine. At the same time, the chair and other departmental officials visited the US history service courses and made a plug for our upper-­level courses and the major. Organizing monthly excursions to local historical sites and to historically relevant movies in the theater (such as Selma) reignited our moribund history club.

We also took advantage of trends in the academic job market, making hires in military, religious, and Middle Eastern history, and regularly offered courses in the histories of Christianity, warfare, the LGBTQ experience, and Islam. To integrate faculty into every point of contact for Sam history students, we arranged for each professor to teach at the service, major, and graduate levels. And we toned down the message that history is a path to teaching. Teaching truly is a noble profession, but we found that this association sapped us of the glamor quotient we needed to get the major back where it needed to be. There were other efforts, such as bucking university protocol and having a non-standard, non-corporate-looking sign announcing history on our building.

But the most important thing we did was placing the adviser within the university advising center. Immediately, in the spring of 2015, I started to see three to five undergraduates a week in my office who said they had had a chat about their priorities and had decided to give history a try, as opposed to the typical choices of criminal justice (CJ), psychology, or international business.

We were clearheaded about one thing: somebody at our university had to “lose” if we were going to return our major to its former proportional level. At convocation, I meet any number of incoming students who say they are coming to Sam—world renowned for its CJ—because they watched CSI on television. That’s a fine enough reason to go to college, but it’s a starting point; real intellectual growth comes with time. New students were easy to engage in conversation: at convocation, in advising, at junior colleges, and in other places we sought out. Talking and listening to them enabled us to find students who were looking for us, even though they hadn’t realized it.

We made hires in military, religious, and Middle Eastern history, and offered courses about Christianity, warfare, the LGBTQ experience, and Islam.

I was never above mildly knocking the other guy’s product. In my visits to our vast US history service courses, I would point out that in choosing a major, you could go with studying a textbook that showed you how to be a bureaucrat—or you could read primary sources about the Nazi invasion of Poland with Jadwiga Biskupska, a protégée of Timothy Snyder (and one of our coup hires in this time of transition). Pinar Emiralioglu, my successor as chair (and the Middle Eastern specialist we badly needed), observes that students emerge from our classes clear that they learned historically significant content. Say what you will about practicality and job prospects—our history classes are inescapably substantial. And along Ken’s lines, we commit to meeting our students at their level of interest and melding it with ours.

The idea that history is not practical does not stand the scrutiny of the many employers I have talked to over the years. Employers are looking for people who know things and who can communicate, no less than graduates who have made progress in exploring their real interests and developing their “passions”: exactly what we deliver. This fall, we are organizing a symposium of 20-something Sam history recent grads who hail from all across the private sector—from manager of an Apple store to oil-industry journalist to airline consultant.

It’s a great time to be involved in a history department, because there is a beautiful problem to solve: how to restore history to its rightful, sturdy position among majors at our many institutions of higher learning.

Brian Domitrovic is associate professor of history at Sam Houston State University. He is co-author (with Lawrence Kudlow) of JFK and the Reagan Revolution (2016) and was visiting scholar of conservative thought and policy at the University of Colorado, Boulder in 2015–16.

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