History plans ‘pathways’

Photo by Antonia Woodford.

After experiencing a decline in the number of undergraduate majors in recent years, the History Department is changing the program to increase its appeal to students.

In response to students’ concerns about their ability to form a cohesive course of study in the major, the department will, beginning next semester, feature “thematic pathways” on its website that list history courses in areas ranging from environmental history to international affairs, said Steven Pincus, director of undergraduate studies for the department. Professors are also designing a yearlong survey course to introduce freshman and sophomores to historical methodologies and the discipline as a whole, and they intend to continue expanding seminar opportunities for underclassmen.

“We’re all trying to energize students to get involved in history, and we’re thinking big about how to make this an approachable and exciting major,” history professor Alejandra Dubcovsky said.

Beginning last fall, professors and students in the department discussed the strengths and weaknesses of Yale’s history program in preparation for a periodic review by a visiting committee earlier this month. Faculty members interviewed last fall said the decline in the number of history majors — from 217 seniors in 2002 to 131 seniors in 2011 — helped focus their attention on ways to improve the major, and Pincus created an undergraduate advisory council of history majors to consult about possible changes.

The history major will keep its current requirements, which include a yearlong senior essay and courses spread across geographic areas and time periods, but new thematic pathways will help students organize their studies, Pincus said. Students who are interested in areas such as intellectual history, the history of gender and sexuality, or social movements will be able to see the history courses offered on these topics and how they can apply them to the major’s various requirements, he said, adding that the total number of thematic pathways has not yet been finalized.

The department decided against instituting mandatory tracks in the major since professors and students felt this would “make things harder” for students with multiple interests, Pincus added.

History professor Keith Wrightson said he has been in favor of providing guidance about how to pursue specific themes within the history major since serving as DUS for the department a few years ago.

“We don’t usually have requirements of particular history courses, and that is a good thing in many ways, but it can also be a disadvantage if students feel that they’ve done a bit of this, and a bit of that,” Wrightson said. “It’s like being in a candy store filling different bags.”

Pincus said he is also working with faculty members in the department to create a new yearlong survey course, “The Making of the Modern World,” targeted to first- and second-year students. While other departments have “gateway” courses that serve as broad introductions to a discipline, history does not offer an equivalent, he said. The course would be structured like Directed Studies: students would attend one lecture per week and then work with primary materials in seminars led by professors twice per week, he said.

History professor Beverly Gage ’94 said the idea for the survey course was generated by students, who felt that they did not have much contact with professors in the department until taking seminars their junior years. She added that the course is a “work in progress” but will potentially be offered in 2013-’14 if enough faculty members agree to participate. The course, which would not be required for the major, would likely accommodate between 60 and 80 students, Pincus said.

Along with the survey course, the department is making efforts to expand seminar opportunities for freshmen and sophomores, Pincus said. The department already renamed its junior history seminars “undergraduate seminars” to reflect that they are open to underclassmen, and starting this semester two spaces in each seminar were reserved for sophomores. Next fall, the department will increase the number of freshman seminars it offers from three to six, Pincus said.

Also in response to student suggestions, the department intends to create a curriculum committee to approve non-history courses for credit towards the major. Pincus said the department has traditionally refrained from awarding credit for courses outside the department, but that this committee will standardize a process for receiving credit for courses with significant historical content.

Annie Yi ’13, a member of the undergraduate advisory council that has met with Pincus since the fall, said in a Sunday email that history students currently learn about specific topics but not very much about history as a discipline, adding that the yearlong survey course may help fill the need for a course that teaches students how to engage with historiographical debates and developments in the discipline of history.

Katherine Fein ’14, another student on the council, said the creation of pathways addresses student concerns both about the coherence of the major and about senior essay advising. The website will also list faculty members involved in certain disciplines, which will help seniors choose advisers, she said.

History is currently the third-largest major at Yale, after political science and economics.


  • CharlieWalls

    Seems like a major effort to make the major more attractive to student athletes. A large survey course to start things off, with attention to methodology — really! I would have thought content might have been the better emphasis.

    • Jess

      Content is useless without understanding methodology. History majors need to know how to do history, and the department presently has no real way of teaching them that. I think it’s an excellent idea.

      • grumpyalum

        I mean, that’s partially true, but the seminars do teach you methodology by using content as a method. I think the idea of teaching one class on methodology is a big lame. I know they do it at Harvard, but, meh, I’ve never been impressed that they do it well.

  • 0y8

    One of the things that was such a positive about History at Yale (compared to Poli Sci for example) was the breadth of courses offered. I loved the fact that in one year I could take a Kagan seminar on Greek history, Spence’s Modern China, and Blight’s Civil War. When job interviewers asked me what I focused on, there was an easy answer: “While I wrote my senior essay on Latin America, Yale doesn’t have specific tracks within the department.” Its really too bad they would try to pigeon hole people (and for those who are about to claim I didn’t read the article, I know you aren’t forced into a track, but once it is accepted that you need a track on your resume, everyone will have to do it for fear of seeming a slacker).

  • River_Tam

    Yeah, because what we need is to encourage even narrower areas of study in the History department.

    • ldffly

      Years ago, Jaroslav Pelikan said the history department is the most professionally oriented of all the Yale College academic departments. Their goal is to make little historians. Maybe that was an exaggeration when he said it, but if this proposal goes through, his statement will have more credibility.

      • y07hls10

        That’s so weird. All the history majors I knew (myself among them) ended up in law school.

  • silliwin01

    Too bad it’ll still be a joke of a major.

  • jorge_julio

    I’ll never understand the obsession with seminars. The chances are so slim of finding a professor skilled enough to lead good discussion and a group of peers worth hearing from – I’ve just had much better experiences in history lectures.

    If the department must insist on these seminars, however, I hope they’ll at least steer clear of those niche subjects which seem to constitute the most popular type of junior seminar. No undergrad needs to study nor is qualified to study the historiography of “Visions of the Indian City.”