Have You Seen Claire Potter’s Advice for History Job-Seekers?

Job Center

Several years ago Inside Higher Ed published a few of my pieces on interviewing for jobs at various kinds of history departments.

Here is my piece on interviewing at church-related colleges.

Here is my piece on interviewing at teaching colleges.

I also took a stab at a post on interviewing at research universities, but it did not appear in Inside Higher Ed.  You can read it here.

We have also spent a lot of time posting about job interviewing at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.   Find those posts here.

It is now time to add Claire Potter‘s recent twitter thread on conference interviewing to my lists of posts on the job market.  It is excellent:

Great stuff! Thanks, Claire.

Don’t Nod Off While Listening To A Job Talk


Over at The Chronicle of Higher Education, Princeton University historian Jeremy Adelman discusses some of the bad behavior he has witnessed as a former chair of the department.

Here is a taste:

First a confession of my own misdemeanor. One of the worst things a colleague — and especially a department chair — can do to other colleagues, higher or lower in the food chain, is to fall asleep in front of them. There’s no quicker way to convey boredom, disdain, indifference. Those droopy eyelids do more to ruin a relationship than all the raises or promotions in the world. (Well, maybe not all of them.) Undisguised languor is a killer, and I do it all the time; I can’t fake being awake if my pineal gland is at work. It’s worst in late afternoons, when history departments love to have their public seminars and job talks. Almost no matter how exciting the speaker is, I nod off. By now, I suspect I have a reputation as my university’s version of Sleepy. The only upside is that I am such a serial slumberer than most colleagues know not to take it personally.

For better or worse, academics rely on relationships, and sleeping is a relationship-buster. The problem is mine, but my trait makes it everyone else’s. And that is what I want to talk about: personal behaviors that impose a toll on our collective efforts.

Read the entire piece here.

The History Majors We Celebrate


I am convinced that the culture of college history departments need to change.  History majors have a lot to offer society and the marketplace in a variety of fields, yet the faculty in history departments honor and celebrate those students who go to graduate school in history, largely because these students aspire to be just like us.  Imitation is the highest form of flattery.  So faculty think of these students as feathers in their caps–evidence that we are educating them in the right way.

I am not so sure that this approach is healthy.  It is time that history faculty develop a different kind of culture in their departments–a culture in which the model students are the ones who go into nonhistory or nonacademic fields where they can find meaningful and fulfilling work.

What would happen if we celebrated our graduates who get jobs in the corporate or nonprofit world in the same way we celebrate those who have been accepted to graduate schools at Ivy League universities?

(This post is adapted from Chapter 8 of my book Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past).

Fewer Students are Enrolling in College History Courses

Figure1 Brookins.jpgHere is a taste of the latest report from the American Historical Association.

Undergraduate teaching offers many historians their widest audiences, as well as some of the most direct opportunities to maintain the discipline’s presence in the public consciousness. In light of the recent downward trend in the number of history majors (see the March and May 2016 issues of Perspectives on History), and anecdotal reports from some department chairs that overall undergraduate enrollment in history courses has been falling, the AHA conducted an online survey to gauge trends in student enrollment in college history courses.

Conducted this past spring and summer, and targeted at chairs and program administrators from colleges and universities in the United States and Canada, the survey aimed to measure the changing popularity of history courses. Responses show that the total number of college students taking history courses—a broad measure of our discipline’s reach in higher education—has fallen over the past few years. The direction and degree of enrollment changes vary significantly from institution to institution, with public institutions more consistently affected by declines. Initial analysis does suggest, however, that historians at many institutions might be able to support higher levels of student interest in undergraduate history courses with greater outreach and broader faculty participation in recruiting students.

E-mails and postings to the AHA’s Department Chairs community invited more than 800 academic units at a variety of institutions to participate in the online survey. Based on the composition of academic units that elect to be listed in the AHA’s Directory of History Departments, Historical Organizations, and Historians, the survey invitations went disproportionately to administrators in departments at four-year institutions, although the AHA made a parallel effort to recruit responses from units at two-year institutions. Of those who submitted at least some enrollment information, 113 were at four-year institutions in the United States, five were at two-year institutions in the United States, and five were at four-year institutions in Canada. Another 30 respondents began the survey but stopped before submitting any quantitative information. Institutions represented within the category of four-year institutions varied greatly by retention and graduation rates, size, public or private control, types of undergraduate programs offered, location, selectivity, Carnegie classification, and institution level (from baccalaureate-only to PhD-granting). The aggregate number of undergraduate history students represented in responses to this survey was approximately 390,000 in 2012–13 and approximately 360,000 in 2014–15.

From the 2012–13 academic year through the 2014–15 academic year, overall student enrollment in undergraduate-level history courses declined at 96 of the 123 academic units for which we now have data. Total undergraduate student enrollment in history courses rose at only 27 of these institutions. Worryingly, large net declines of 10 percent or more affected 55 of the responding institutions. The median drop in enrollment at public institutions was somewhat higher (9.2 percent) than the median change at private institutions (7.9 percent; see fig. 1). The experience of individual departments in each category, however, varied widely. One private institution saw a 29.8 percent increase in history enrollments, while another saw a 42.1 percent decline. One large public institution’s history enrollment dropped 26.4 percent, while another smaller public institution’s rose by 23.8 percent.

Read Julia Brookins’s entire article here.

What explains this decline.  I have a few hunches:

  1.  Students are taking history requirements in high school through the AP program
  2.  Colleges, in the quest to attract students, are giving college credit for weak scores on the AP exam.  I consider a “3” on the AP U.S. history exam to be weak.  That assessment comes from 7 years of grading AP exams in the late 1990s and early 2o0os.
  3. Institutions often do not have their best instructors teaching the history survey.

I addressed other issues related to this crisis in a 5-part series at this blog entitled “What Should Historians Be Thinking About?

Historically Black University Ends Its History Program

Lincoln U

Lincoln University, a historically-black university in Jefferson City, Missouri, has decided to temporarily end its history program due to low enrollments.

You can read all the details in this piece at Inside Higher Ed, but a couple of paragraphs in caught my eye:

Kevin D. Rome, university president, said in a statement, “Our students deserve academic offerings that allow them to be competitive with their peers as they move from our campus into a career.”

Although eliminating or restructuring programs is a “difficult decision,” he continued, “we can better use the resources from those programs to strengthen those degrees with a higher demand from the student and global standpoint. … We must make decisions like these as we look toward the future and the needs of the changing workforce.”

I could respond to this, but James Grossman, Executive Director of the American Historical Society, beat me to the punch:

James Grossman, executive director of the organization, on Tuesday said he agreed with Rome, Lincoln’s president, that a college education should prepare students for a career. AHA has worked with employers through its Tuning Program and learned that they value skillslearned by history majors, he said.

“A history major prepares some students for a specific job,” Grossman said, and “prepares all students for a career.”

Like other critics of Lincoln’s plan, Grossman said that an HBCU “ought to be especially aware of the centrality of history to the intellectual vitality of any institution.” Quoting the provost’s statement, he asked how “‘students, the taxpayers and the university as a whole’ understand the role and identity of an institution that defines itself in part by its history if the institution doesn’t think history is important?”


This is sad news indeed.  Some historians on the faculty will be retained to teach general education courses in history.


A Busy Week in the Messiah College History Department

Philip Deloria will deliver the 2014 American Democracy Lecture

We in the Messiah College History Department try to give our students an array of opportunities to learn outside of the classroom.  Last Spring our students studying digital history and Pennsylvania history spent a lot of time doing archival research.  This semester the students in our public archaeology course are hard at work studying a farm connected with a nineteenth-century Anabaptist group known as the “Bermudian Brethren” and uncovering an eighteenth-century Lutheran church building that has been buried for 250 years in the congregation’s graveyard.  Several students continue to work on our Digital Harrisburg Project while others provide research support for an array of faculty research projects.  We have put a new Public History concentration in place and have been working as well on a new concentration in “Administrative Studies.”  In the past few years our students have interned at historical sites all over the mid-Atlantic.  It has been a fun ride.  I like to think that we are hard at work in creating a new kind of undergraduate history department.

In addition to all of our regular extra-curricular activity, the next few weeks will be particularly busy in the Messiah College History Department.  We are very excited to announce (or re-announce) the following events:
On Thursday, October 23, 2014, Philip Deloria will be on campus to deliver the American Democracy Lecture, the most important lecture in the life of the department.  I am sure many of you know Deloria’s work. He is a professor of history and administrator at the University of Michigan and a scholar of native American history.  His talk “American Indians in the American Cultural Imagination” promises to be an excellent talk. Learn more about it here.  Also check out the Facebook “event” page.
Tibebe Eshete

On Thursday, October 30, we will hold our annual “Faith and History” lecture.  This year’s lecturer is Tibebe Eshete, our new visiting lecturer in African history and the author of the definitive work on the evangelical movement in Ethiopia.  In the 1970s Tibebe was a young Ethiopian Marxist who was active in the overthrow of Emperor Haile Selassie.  His talk will describe his journey from Marxism to Christian faith and his understanding of the historian’s vocation. The lecture will be held in Boyer Hall room 335 at 4pm. If you are in the area feel free to stop by.  It should be a good one.

Finally, on November 4 the History Department will sponsor its annual “Career and Graduate School” event.  This year we will focus on careers. Our speakers will be two Messiah College history alums who have gone on to do amazing things with their degrees.  Beth Baggett was a Messiah College history major who currently works as an executive in the New York City fashion industry.  Caitlin Babcock, another Messiah history alum, works for a non-profit organization focused on the assimilation of new immigrants.  It should be a great afternoon.  Stay tuned for more information.  If you ever wondered what you can do with a history major you need to be at this event.
We continue to try to make the Messiah College History Department an intellectually vibrant place that merges a classic liberal arts history education with the kind of experiential learning that allows our students to build their resumes and develop transferable skills that will be useful in the marketplace.

Introduction to History Course

If you have been reading The Way of Improvement Leads Home over the past few days, you are familiar with my recent post about the developing an “Intro to History” course for first year history majors.  At Messiah College we already have a required sophomore seminar called “Historical Methods” in which we teach students how to conduct historical research and write a research paper.  We also have a senior capstone course in historiography.  What I hope to do with this first-year course is to introduce students to the discipline and create a common experience for all of our new majors.

Here is where you come in.  What kind of topics might be useful in a course like this?  What kind of things should the “wet-behind-the-ears” freshman glean about the study of history in the first several weeks of his or her college career?  In order to give you a sense of what I hope to accomplish with this course, here are a few things I have in mind:

  • Defining history and thinking about how we study it in an academic context
  • What do historians do?  The practice of history
  • Useable past vs. past is a “foreign country.”
  • So What CAN You Do With a History Major?
  • Career and vocational planning.  (Discussion of our History Department advising and career pamphlet).
  • History at Messiah College (focus on the distinctives of our program).

What else belongs in this class?

Remembering the Messiah College History Class of 2011

Messiah History Class of 2011 at Senior History Dinner

Last Saturday I had the privilege of watching our senior history majors receive their diplomas.  One of the great rewards of teaching in a small history department like Messiah’s (7 full-time faculty and close to 100 majors and minors) is the opportunity I have to work closely with so many students. (My longtime readers will remember that I have offered similar reflections at this time of year. See here and here.)

As a department chair I get the honor of marching with the students (rather than my fellow faculty members).  As I mingled with them in the sports complex before the processional began, I realized that I had taught most of these students in multiple classes.  I knew all their names.  The evening before I had met their parents.  And I was confident that these students had received a first-rate history education. I wish I could somehow capture the experience of graduation weekend for the high school juniors and seniors (and their parents) who I meet at college “Open House” days.

This was a rather accomplished group.  Many of them I will never forget.  One of my research assistants, Valerie, was one of the best student teachers we have graduated in the last decade.  She has also proven to be a dogged and energetic researcher.  I am glad that she will continue to work for me this summer and perhaps beyond. 

And then there is Tara, the history department work-study student and the behind-the-scenes organizer of my book tour for Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?  (Some of you have been in contact with her).  I am eager to see how she will use her history degree in what I imagine will be a non-history related field.  I am sure I will be interviewing her someday for our ongoing series “So What Can You Do With a History Major.”

Janelle is one of the best students I have ever taught.  She wants to be an American religious historian someday and I have no doubt she will be a major contributor to this field.  She is starting at Yale Divinity School on a full-ride in the fall, after turning down offers from Duke, Chicago, Virginia, and Columbia.

Early in his college career Jason switched his major from religion to history and never looked back. I will always remember some of the conversations we had about how he might use his history major in the world.  A serious Mennonite, I fully expect him to devote his life to some kind of service to others.

Christine is a brilliant student with an incredibly bright future.  She is heading off to George Washington University in the fall to study American diplomatic history.  Christine was the first Messiah student to land a spot in the prestigious Gilder-Lehrman Institute Scholars program.  She also interned at History News Network (among other places) and studied at Oxford. And perhaps more than any other student I have ever taught, she imbibed the virtues associated with the historical profession.  A political liberal, Christine wrote her senior honors thesis on Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority.  In the process she learned that history was a discipline of empathy and understanding, not moral judgment or condemnation.

I am truly proud of these students and what they have been able to accomplish in their Messiah College history careers.  I will miss them.  I am a better person for having known them.  Yes, this might sound a bit nostalgic and sentimental, but I am convinced that it is these kinds of human encounters, in the context of a community of people pursuing common interests and goals, that bring fulfillment and meaning to a life.  (Despite my academic-sounding title, I believe I argued something similar in The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in America).

I am eager to see this class head off on their “way of improvement.”  I hope, in some small way, it leads them home. 

Breaking News: Robert Tracy McKenzie is New Chair of History Department at Wheaton College

As long as we are talking today about Christian colleges, Wheaton College has recently announced that R. Tracy McKenzie has been hired as the new chair of the Department of History. Tracy leaves his post as a full professor in the history department at the University of Washington to take this new position.

Tracy is the author of One South or Many? Plantation Belt and Upcountry in Civil-War Era Tennessee (Cambridge, 1994) and Lincolnites and Rebels: A Divided Town in the American Civil War (Oxford, 2009).

So why are we covering this story here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home? First, it is good to see historians from major research universities making choices in their careers that lead them to Christian liberal arts colleges. Second, Tracy is one of the contributors to Confessing History: Explorations in Christian Faith and the Historian’s Vocation. In October or November you can read his essay, “Don’t Forget the Church: Reflections on the Forgotten Dimension of our Dual Calling.”

Congratulations Tracy.