What History Majors Want: Analyzing Post-Graduation Expectations in a Professionalizing History Majors Course
What do students majoring in history at colleges and universities expect to learn in their programs of study? Rarely do teachers, administrators, politicians, or others consider this question from the student perspective. Instead, members of these groups devote their time to debating what they believe students should be learning as history majors, and increasingly, to how what these students learn will translate into post-graduation careers. Those concerned with history as a discipline and profession rightly ask these questions, and numerous authors with various perspectives have devoted ample words and space to contemplating the answers. But students seldom engage in these conversations in the same forums. To be clear, no institution of higher education should tailor its course offerings based solely on the preferences of students who may be more concerned with the easiest path, rather than the best path, to obtaining disciplinary mastery or what they consider to be the grade equivalent. Yet just like other concerned individuals or groups whose motives can also be questioned, students majoring in history should be consulted in terms of what content they are taught and for what reasons they are learning it.
In Spring semester 2016, the University of Central Florida (UCF) History Department began offering a course titled “History Majors in Society and Careers,” in part to better determine how students understand the discipline and what they intend to do with the knowledge and skills they obtain while history majors. Designed for students taking upper level courses in pursuit of a BA degree, the syllabus course description states:
"The goal of this course is to enhance History majors' understanding of the opportunities they will encounter in both modern society and their post-graduation careers. Primary emphasis will be placed on the role of History professionals in civic life and workplace endeavors by familiarizing students with the transferable skills they will learn as History majors. In addition, students in this course will learn how to better articulate for different post-graduation audiences the abilities and knowledge they have obtained as History majors. Overall, this course is designed to help History Majors better understand their chosen discipline and how it will prepare them for life after UCF."
Ideally, by the conclusion of the course, enrolled students will have a greater understanding of what the history major offers them and how they may translate what they have learned into becoming effective history professionals upon graduation, regardless of the career or civic engagement path they follow.
As course instructor, I crafted pre and post-tests/surveys for enrolled students to complete as a means of assessing what they understood about the history profession and career preparation before and after taking the course. Except for three additional free-response questions included on the post-test/survey, both versions contained identical questions and answer options. The data addressed below is the result of pre and post-tests/surveys taken by approximately 42 students who enrolled in and completed a “History Majors in Society and Careers/Professionalizing History Majors” section during the Spring 2016, Fall 2017 or Spring 2017 semesters. All students completing the tests/surveys were officially designated history majors who represented most undergraduate levels (Sophomore, Junior, Senior), women and men, and various ethnicities. (The specific questions and a statistical breakdown of student answers are available at the end of this essay.) While this survey applies only to students at one university, their collective answers should provide insights for those involved in developing history major curricular at institutions of higher education across the United States.
What History Majors Expect—Careers and Additional Education
The tests/survey responses disclose much about what history majors at UCF expect to do upon receiving their undergraduate degrees. Collective responses show a variety of perspectives but also some notable patterns. Chief among them:
-A majority of history majors surveyed plan to seek some type of employment upon graduation.
-In terms of going to graduate school, most history majors surveyed responded that upon graduation they would be “Considering [their] options and plan to apply to institutions in the near future.”
-About half of history majors surveyed planned to get a Master’s degree but less than a third planned to get a Ph.D. (no specific field noted).
-Only a third of history majors surveyed planned to pursue graduate education in history.
-Students as a whole remained largely consistent over the semester in their understandings of which occupation their major was preparing them to pursue, with no single answer garnering more than 19% (archivist in government or private industry) of the responses, and the number of students choosing this response declining in the post-tests/survey.
-A little more than a third of respondents believed they would have a career in education.
The snapshot that emerges from these results reveals a population of history majors that expects to get a job with their undergraduate degree but are unsure in which field they will work. Most plan to consider graduate school, but predominantly at the Master’s level only, and expect their studies and eventual careers will center on the field of education. According to survey answers, history majors also appear to have little interest in military service, volunteering, family raising or taking time off from school or work. Only a small percentage expressed interest in any type of professional license or degree, including a J.D., a traditionally popular choice for history majors, and fewer than 20% of those surveyed intend to get another B.A. degree in a different field. Perhaps most noteworthy, however, is that about two thirds of the students did not anticipate pursuing a Ph.D. in history, a number that should lead those involved in disciplinary undergraduate and graduate programs to reassess related objectives and curricula. In sum, while the history majors surveyed follow a path similar to their predecessors in relation to graduate school and career field expectations, they deviate in their preference for not pursuing terminal degrees in history, or any field, and are ready upon graduation to enter the workforce.
What History Majors Expect—Civic Engagement and Society
In addition to questions related to job/career expectations, the survey also included prompts that allowed students to comment on how their preparation as history majors would affect their post-graduation civic engagement activities. The first question in this regard asked, “In terms of civic engagement and your non-career life, what do you believe your History major will enable you to pursue?” Student answers covered the spectrum in thoughtfulness and creativity, but certain themes appeared, despite answers being provided by history majors enrolled in three different sections covering three semesters. A sampling of the answers provided below has not been edited so as not to distort the voices of the authors.
Some student answers to this question dealt with how they believed their history education would allow them to influence people in their society. One student wanted to “Help people realize the importance of empathy.” Another student intended to “Raise awareness of various societal issues with an accurate historical contexts [sic].” Others surveyed had more specific forms of history major-inspired civic engagement activities in mind. “I believe it will enable me to participate in historical podcasts and television programming,” announced one student. Another wanted to “Become involved in Literacy Programs.” History-specific civic engagement, however, proved to be the dominant theme. One student planned on “Volunteering at small community history centers,” whereas another wanted to participate in “Oral Histories with U.S. Military veterans and family members.” One student surveyed hoped to inspire the study of history in relation to other disciplines, writing “My history major will allow me to pursue my project dedicated to connecting with public audiences and creating stronger communities by using history and the arts.” Other survey respondents were inspired by the idea of using twenty-first century technology to broaden understandings of history. One such student stated, “My History degree will enable me to pursue interaction with the public on a deeper intellectual level. In terms of civic engagement, I plan to use new technology to make history more accessible and entertaining.”
The survey also included a question designed to elicit student understandings of their post-graduation civic-engagement and community roles but from a course-specific context: “Did anything in this course make you rethink your role in society as a History Major?” As with the above question/answers, student responses encapsulated many ideas and perspectives. And while the answers may have been geared toward what was covered in the course specifically, they also shed light on general perspectives of the history major, regardless of the content-related courses they are taking at any institution of higher education.
Some student responses centered on civic engagement specifically. One wrote, “This course made me rethink my own civic engagement and the importance of being engaged with those beyond the discipline itself.” Another echoed these remarks, stating “It’s made civic duty as an informant and educator seem all the more necessary and relevant to the training I’ve received and makes me want to be active in the public sphere.” At least one student emphasized that historians needed to better interact with non-historians. In her/his opinion, “It made me realize that my role in society as a history major goes beyond the history community. Historians have often been very closed off when, in reality, we should be sharing our knowledge & skills w/all of society. Historians play an important role.” Other answers to this question focused on career opportunities. One student concluded in relation to job options, “This course helped reaffirm that I can choose a non-history related field, provided that I acquire and adequately explain the transferable skills from a history major.” Another also emphasized career possibilities, explaining, “Yes, I have a better understanding now of the opportunities available to the History major in a wide range of areas, such as Financial Services, STEM Fields, and online opportunities/platforms such as Twitter.” One student relayed their new perspective on post-graduation life: “Before this course,” she or he wrote, “I wanted to pursue law after graduation, but I realized that there is a great need for historians & that I need to give back to the community I grew up in. I feel that through education I can fulfill this goal.”
Some student responses to this question engaged non-civic engagement or career issues that arose while they were taking the course. For example, a student wrote “I think that the explanation of what public history is made [me] rethink my role in society as a history major. I always thought I’d be some kind of academic historian but now I know that public history suits me more. I want to have direct contact and impact on the people around me. I want to help people love history as much as I do and I want to help them appreciate history better.” Others synthesized their views on their course experience and the skills they had obtained as a history major: “This course has definitely made me rethink my role in society as a History major. I have realized that I can benefit from my wide assortment of interests in ways that can also benefit the public, all thanks to my training as a Historian. Instead of narrowing my interests down, I can use them all to collaborate in my career decisions. During this class, I have finally found something I feel driven and excited to do – modernize my degree with new technology in order to make history more accessible and entertaining and interactive to the public. By using video games as a medium, I can reach out to the younger generation, making learning about History fun!”
Student commentary on their expectations of what they are learning and able to do as a result of majoring in history provide an alternate window into broader debates about the utility of the major for undergraduates and society. While more research is required to obtain a definitive understanding of student expectations for a history major, the above evidence indicates that undergraduate viewpoints don’t always match up with customary assumptions or the perspectives of others debating the topic. Based on the findings of this survey, history majors don’t always see their futures in standard history-related jobs, but they do believe that the knowledge and skills they learned in the major will help them in varied occupations and in their engagement with different communities.
Consequently, while surveyed students recognized the important knowledge and skills they obtain as history majors, how they expect to utilize these attributes indicates the need for additional re-conceptualization of the discipline and its training programs to maintain relevance as the twenty-first century continues. In this regard, those involved in history curricula development at institutions of higher education should consider invigorating undergraduate degree programs with an emphasis on discipline-related skills and how these skills may lead to varied careers and civic engagement opportunities immediately upon graduation. Additionally, faculty should advocate curricula that fosters technological expertise (GPS and coding, for example) and interdisciplinary skill sets (non-profit management, video game design, public administration, for example). Equally important, history programs need to provide opportunities for majors to intentionally explore these issues on a routine basis with faculty, external history professionals, and alumni history majors whose post-undergraduate experiences demonstrate the multiple paths History majors may follow. The history major will not and should not mimic other majors such as accounting and nursing in terms of skills taught or research expectations. However, the history major should adapt to the needs and objectives of those pursuing it in order to remain viable in modern society and to continue broadening the intellectual contexts of its members.
Daniel S. Murphree is an Associate Professor at the University of Central Florida where he specializes in American borderlands history and the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL). He is author of numerous works including the monograph Constructing Floridians: Natives and Europeans in the Colonial Floridas, 1513-1783 (2006/2017). His current research focuses on the role of native women in sixteenth century Atlantic borderlands.
Varied manifestations of these debates are available in Sadie Bergen and Emily Swafford, “Why Study History? Survey of History BAs Provides Some Real Answers,”Perspective on History (Jan. 2017) (accessed June 23, 2017); James Grossman, “History isn't a 'useless' major. It teaches critical thinking, something America needs plenty more of,” Los Angeles Times, May 30, 2016 (accessed June 23, 2017); Fred Johnson, “So What Are You Doing With That History Major?” History News Network, Jan. 1, 2017 (accessed June 23, 2017); Paul B. Sturtevant, “History Is Not a Useless Major: Fighting Myths with Data,” Perspectives on History, (April 2007) (accessed June 23, 2017); Joshua Kam, “Finding Myself Through My College Major,” New York Times, Jan. 16, 2017 (accessed June 23, 2017)
After the third offering of the course, the Department of History changed the title to “Professionalizing History Majors.”
Daniel Murphree (instructor), “HIS 3930 – History Majors in Society and Careers” Syllabus, 1.
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