A Vision for Undergraduate History Departments

This past weekend’s AHA conference has confirmed much of what I had already been thinking about regarding how an undergraduate history major should function in light of the changes taking place in the historical profession.

Earlier today I linked to an article on how graduate programs in history should respond to these changes. But what are the implications for undergraduate programs?  How should we be retooling the way we deliver a history major in light of changing times? 

First, history departments need to be self-conscious about integrating career planning and exploration into their majors.  At Messiah College we have worked closely with our Career Center to create a well-designed pamphlet detailing a four-year plan for thinking about how to use a history major in the marketplace.  We distribute this pamphlet to all incoming first-year students and all prospective students.

We are making serious efforts to embed career counseling into the advising process.  This requires advisers to challenge students to think about crafting their undergraduate experience with future vocations in mind.  This might require doing an internship or two in a non-history related field.

We want students to be more aware of the skills they have acquired as history majors so when they sit across the desk from potential employers during an interview they will be able to articulate clearly what they have to offer.  We want our undergraduates to land jobs because they are history majors and not in spite of the fact that they chose to major in history in college.

Such career planning requires a change of culture.  Too often we, as history professors, gravitate toward students who want to pursue Ph.Ds and become history professors.  We feel most comfortable working closely with students who want to be just like us.  These are the students who win departmental awards and receive the most praise.  But instead of touting all the places where our students have attended graduate school, we should be featuring students who used their history degrees in a variety of professions and vocations.  (See, for example, my “So What CAN You Do With a History Major” series that we have been publishing here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home).

We in the History Department at Messiah are also planning a 1-credit course that will introduce students to the study of history as a liberal arts discipline.  The course will be required of all first-year students and will focus on the transferable skills that the discipline of history has to offer.  A goal of this course will be to get students to see what they can do with an undergraduate history major and help them to develop confidence in the skills they will learn through their study of the past.

Second, we are committed to strengthening our public history concentration.  At the moment, we have a public history concentration that requires students to take an Introduction to Public History course, do a history-related internship, and take three upper-division courses in American history. This year we added a “Teaching History” course to the curriculum.  It is open to both secondary school certification students (future history teachers) and public history students who want to learn how to effectively communicate the past to a public audience.

We are also looking to tap into the coursework being offered by our colleagues in other disciplines. Many of us are convinced that public history students need to know something about web design, GIS technology, new media, film, computer programming, museum studies, graphic design, and digital humanities. 

Third, we want to introduce our students to the possibilities of digital history.  We are thinking about a way to offer an introductory course in digital history and we already have a faculty member interested in educating himself in this area.  We are also working with a newly formed digital humanities group on campus to create a cross-disciplinary digital project. Our hope is to apply for a start-up grant sometime next year.

Career exploration.  Public engagement.  Digital history.  The goal is to develop these areas of our history major without sacrificing the kind of thinking and practical skills that the study of history has traditionally offered to its students.  There is much work to do.

4 thoughts on “A Vision for Undergraduate History Departments

  1. This has been a major weakness of the social sciences in general, in promoting their applicability to the wider marketplace. I have a B.A. in History (minor in Cultural Anthropology) and when I first got out of college and started interviewing for jobs, I was frequently confronted with statements like, “A History major? I suppose you just want to teach then, right?”

    I was forced to assess the skill set I'd developed through my major and emphasize those in interviews in the corporate world: writing and presentation, project management, critical thinking and analysis, research, organizational, and inter-disciplinary skills. I wanted to be a historian when I started university but like most History majors, reality pushed me into other career paths. Still, my history degree has served me well and colleges should emphasize this other side of a history major, for it is the path most history majors will find themselves on.

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  2. I'm a student of Dr. Fea and I will say that I am commended by the progress and the commitment he along with the department at Messiah College has for aiding History Majors that may not want to be in the field of history. There are many things about the discipline of history that works not only for the field of history but also for any other career. Thank goodness for Messiah College's History Department's goal to reach out to students that may not want to become full pledged “historians”

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