Thursday, June 3, 2010

Dispatches from the Historical Society Conference, Day 1: History for the Non-major

Randall Stephens

It is hot in Washington, DC. I flew into our nation's capitol on Wednesday and wilted immediately. The heat and humidity, the residue of a former swamp, didn't keep away historians who came to explore the present and future of historical inquiry. On Thursday I attended a few wonderful sessions that explored some of the basic themes of the 2010 Historical Society conference, held at George Washington University, and organized by Eric Arnesen.

The panel on "Historical Inquiry Outside the Traditional Undergraduate History Classroom" considered "past inquiry" outside of the typical history classroom. The question of: Who are we teaching, how are we teaching them, and why? animated the session.

John Thomas Scott (Mercer University) used the term "past" rather than "historical" to indicate the interdisciplinary nature of honors courses and general classes populated by non-history majors. Scott and other panelists looked into the possibilities and perils--perils for historians at least--of working more broadly and reaching out to a larger audience.

How does one get students to think historically about any number of subjects? In what ways do courses primarily taught for non-majors differ from typical history classes?

Sarah E. Gardner (Mercer University) spoke about some of the classes that make up Mercer's honors program. Baseball and American culture, a real draw, includes a class trip to a Florida spring training camp. Gardner teaches a course on Gangster Films in the 1930s. These classes tend to use primary sources. Student engagement with documents, she noted, has been key. Gardner pointed out that these classes typically leave out historiography and the widely differing views of historians. She ended by considering some of the downsides of this omission: There will be some lack of contextualization and argument, among other things.

Doug Thompson (Mercer University) related the institutional dynamics of Mercer and talked about how various disciplines engage a critical question or problem. Mercer's Great Books program, Thompson said, is a major recruitment tool. Great Books curricula ranges over historical material but is not bound by the rigors of the historical profession.

John Thomas Scott rounded out the panel by speaking about the research projects honors students and non-majors complete as part of Mercer's program. He highlighted the proliferation of on-line resources in the last 15 years. That has made it possible for undergrads, even at a smaller liberal arts university like Mercer, to do quality research. (Undergrads have countless journals, newspapers, and original sources at their fingertips.) Scott also focused on how Mercer faculty encourage undergraduate publication and paper presentations. Mercer publishes a couple of excellent in-house undergrad research publications that showcase student work.

There were several intriguing threads that came out during the Q and A. One that struck me was a conversation about what a non-history major really should or shouldn't know. Katrin Schultheiss (George Washington University) asked what an engineering major really needed to know about in depth historiographic debate. In this case, are basic skills history teaches more important? How does history content fit in with that, too? It left us with much, much to consider.

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