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Demonstrating the Value of History


Marshall students and faculty during a recent excursion to historic sites along the Ohio River.

David Trowbridge (Ph.D. Kansas, 2008) is an associate professor in the Department of History at Marshall University and the recipient of the 2016 Whiting Foundation Public Engagement Fellowship.

As James Grossman’s thoughtful article for the Los Angeles Times reminds us, the number of history majors has declined annually dating back to at least 2007. This disturbing trend may accelerating, as demonstrated by a nine percent decline in 2014. Challenges like these demonstrate the value and relevance of organizations like the American Historical Association and the Organization of American Historians, as both organizations are working to examine the causes of the decline and recommend practical strategies for members.

As these organizations have demonstrated, our concern transcends self-interest. The capacity to form arguments based on evidence and the willingness to adjust one’s thesis in the face of new information are essential to the well-being of our republic. Our present needs the skills that come from studying the past.

For generations, survey courses introduced students to our faculty and discipline in their first year—a time when many students selected majors based on subjects that interested them and skills they recognized would prepare them for meaningful lives and successful careers. Today’s students—especially first generation students—are instructed to choose a career field first, a major second, and a university third. This approach leads students to believe that coursework should align explicitly with a career field that may or may not be right for them. Is it any wonder so many students are leaving college before graduation? Who could endure four years of training for an entry-level job?

Courses that teach students transferable skills like analysis and communication appear as obstacles when college itself is viewed as a barrier between one’s present and future. We must do more to demonstrate that universities are places to acquire skills that prepare one for success in a variety of careers. These skills are best acquired by rigorous coursework in master disciplines like philosophy, language, mathematics, science, art, and history.

Because I believe in the value of our discipline, I am happy to report that the number of history majors at Marshall University has increased in recent years. The increase is small, but stands in contrast to national enrollment trends and our state’s declining population. Pair this with changes in general education requirements that have led to reduced enrollment in our introductory survey courses, and it is clear that my colleagues are doing something unique and worth sharing.

Part of our department’s success may be related to our new relationship with neighboring high schools. The freedom to teach a dual credit course does more than restore the possibility of early morning courses, it provides an opportunity to better understand the world of our students and those who prepare and advise them prior to college. With declining survey enrollment, these courses provide an opportunity to introduce future university students to our discipline.

Our faculty also serve as directors for nearly every interdisciplinary minor on campus. In fact, the link for “Interdisciplinary Minors” on the College of Liberal Arts home page takes users to the History Department homepage. Creating courses that fulfill the requirements for interdisciplinary minors and certificate programs does more than increase our enrollment numbers; it allows us to engage some of the best students on campus. We also work to create courses that meet university requirements for multicultural and writing-intensive electives. This does more than simply fill the seats—these courses help students develop writing skills that are prerequisites for career success. For example, a recent study found that employers are spending $3 billion each year teaching basic writing skills to current employees. Students in these courses and programs learn important skills and are introduced to our discipline at the same time.

Of all interdisciplinary minors and graduate certificates housed in our department, the Women’s Studies program has done the most to attract students to our courses and discipline. This organization has been led by historians since its inception. This program organizes over a dozen academic and community service events each year that include students from across campus and introduce them to our faculty and discipline. According to a 2016 article by Julia Brookins of the American Historical Association, male history majors outnumber their female counterparts by a 3-2 ratio. Compare this statistic with the fact that women enroll in much larger numbers and outperform their male counterparts in terms of GPA and graduation rates. If we want to maintain our reputation as a rigorous discipline that turns our successful graduates, we must become a major that appeals to the best and brightest students. If grades and graduation rates are indicators of talent and success, the majority of those students are women.

Students in our interdisciplinary programs are invited to attend field trips, film screenings, and other events throughout the year thanks to Dr. Montserrat Miller’s dedication to Phi Alpha Theta. While our department continues to offer traditional lectures by visiting scholars and members of our department, our best-attended events are those where students present their work. Prior to presenting papers at regional and national conferences this year, each of our students presented their papers in front of a friendly and nearly standing-room-only audience. Students in other programs attend to support their friends, providing another opportunity to demonstrate the way our courses and faculty prepare students for success.

Our department’s growing emphasis on preparing students for careers in public history, and new opportunities to participate in digital humanities projects, has also helped us attract students from other disciplines. Like many other universities, Marshall graduates are able to include a portfolio of published work on their resumes thanks to their participation in digital/public history projects like Clio. Students in history and other disciplines have also worked with our department to complete internships with the Appalachian Studies Association and Clio Foundation that have led to full-time jobs with both organizations.

[pullquote align=”center” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]When asked to identify the qualities and characteristics of their most successful employees, a room of seasoned executives agreed upon a single trait: “curiosity.”[/pullquote]

Similar to many public universities, the history department at Marshall University is located on the ground floor of a building designed for heavy traffic rather than aesthetic value. The many students who walk through Harris Hall often notice our bulletin boards, which thanks to Amanda Day-Brown, offer a pleasing juxtaposition to the walls of our beloved building. Much to our surprise, these students spend little time reading about our books and other faculty accomplishments, choosing instead to read about the success of our current students and graduates. A second board announcing job opportunities and internships is even more popular and further demonstrate the opportunities that await our graduates.

It is important for us to demonstrate opportunities for history majors in traditional fields like education, public history, and government service, but we need to show that employers in business and technology also value the skills of the historian. Our faculty met with area employers in these fields to hear their perspectives and discover ways that our students might better communicate the relevance of their skills. These employers indicated a growing need for people who can work independently, seek out and analyze information, and communicate effectively. When asked to identify the qualities and characteristics of their most successful employees, a room of seasoned executives agreed upon a single trait: “curiosity.” In follow-up meetings and conversations with some of the largest employers in our area, we have been gratified to find understanding and support for traditional liberal arts education. We are not alone, but it is still up to us to explain the value of our discipline as a training ground for meaningful careers that require the capacity to seek information from multiple sources and communicate complex ideas in clear and concise ways.

As universities create new programs that only prepare students for a finite range of careers, master disciplines such as history must do more to communicate the difference between education and training. Our courses must retain their vigor and hold students accountable to established standards of research, composition, and revision, even as we seek new ways to communicate our research and the value of our skills. Historians must understand change over time, but we are not required to surrender to changes that leave our students unprepared. When we claim that our courses offer the skills required for successful careers and active citizenship, history is on our side.