Eased restrictions in history major signal reform

For the class of 2015 and beyond, Yale’s history department will ease its major requirements in a move that many faculty members in the department see as part of an ongoing process of renewal and reform.

The revised major, which was voted on by the department last spring and approved at last Thursday’s Yale College faculty meeting, minimizes the major’s current emphasis on geographic distribution. Starting with the class of 2015, history majors will be required to enroll in two instead of three courses in Latin American, Asian or African history, and students will no longer be asked to divide their two preindustrial courses and seminars across different geographic regions. History Director of Undergraduate Studies Beverly Gage said the changes were motivated by student complaints about the former requirements being difficult to fulfill. But History Department Chair Naomi Lamoreaux said these changes mark only the beginning of a series of reforms that the department hopes to implement, in an effort to make the major more accessible to undergraduates.

“We are still working on the major,” she said. “That’s going to preoccupy us a good part of this year — rethinking the major.”

Some members of the department added that the move is part of an effort to keep pace with trends in the historical discipline. History professor Abbas Amanat said that transnational themes are becoming more and more prevalent in today’s history scholarship.

“Obviously from a history department that has considered itself cutting edge, it is important to adjust to those realities,” he said.

Lamoreaux pointed to the department’s introduction of thematic pathways last year as a similar step away from geographical divisions and said the new major requirements were developed in concert with the pathways. She said those pathways — which offer recommended courses of study in topics like “Environmental History” and “War and Society” — were just the “first stab” at providing students with a sense of the flexibility the history major offers.

In the past decade, enrollment in the history major has steadily declined, with 136 seniors majoring in the department in 2012 compared to 217 in 2002. Though Gage said the new tweaks to the major were not made primarily with the intention of attracting more history majors, the changes could allow more students to double-major in history.

Nicole CuUnjieng GRD ’18 recalled when a history professor last year asked why her alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania, was seeing an increase in the number of history majors despite a decreasing national trend. One possible answer could be the flexibility of the history major’s requirements at the school, she said, which allows students to pair history with a second major if they wish.

Last week’s decision to reduce the requirements in Latin American, Asian or African history — areas that the department officially referred to as “Rest of the World” up until last year — struck some students as a sleight against non-Western histories. History major Emma Janger ’15 said that the decision to reduce Latin American, Asian or African history requirements made sense given the limited range of classes in those areas. But, she said, she believes the proper response to the limited range of course options should be to improve the classes, not to lessen the requirements.

Richard Anderson GRD ’15, who studies African history, said his initial reaction to the changes was negative.

“When you look at the division of these courses relative to the world population, number of countries, landmass — by any of these criteria it seems incredibly skewed,” he said.

On the other hand, Anderson said he thinks the decision is understandable, as the department lost some faculty members in non-Western specialties before the fiscal crisis and budgetary constraints have made these spots difficult to fill.

Dean of Yale College Mary Miller said the administration is fully supportive of the department’s efforts to recruit a diverse swathe of faculty.

Despite a tightened budget and thus fewer searches for new faculty members, Miller said, the University has authorized a search for a modern Middle East specialist, and two new South Asian historians will also arrive next year.

Lamoreaux said the department is fully committed to expanding its emphasis on non-Western history and dispelling the misperception that it is divided into the three camps of American, European and non-Western history.

The history major for undergraduates currently requires 12 term courses.

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