History Department considers further changes

Nearly two weeks after the faculty approved looser requirements for the history major, the History Department has voted to move forward with a proposal to further overhaul the major.

In a Tuesday meeting, the History Department voted to split the history major into two separate tracks: a “global track,” which would closely mirror the breadth of the existing major, and a “specialist track” that would allow students to focus their studies on a specific region, theme or time period, according to department chair Naomi Lamoreaux. The next step will be to formalize the proposal, present it to the Course of Study Committee and put the plan to a vote of the Yale College faculty, Lamoreaux said. If passed, the reforms would eliminate the major’s current geographic distribution requirements, which were reformed two weeks ago.

Lamoreaux said that while both tracks would retain some degree of geographical diversity, the department would no longer require students to study particular regions. Rather than requiring students to compare Western cultures with non-Western cultures, which Lamoreaux called an arbitrary policy, the department would provide history majors with the freedom to study any permutation of geographic areas. Students who wish to compare non-Western cultures with other non-Western cultures or to compare Western cultures with each other would be able to do so, she said.

“We’ve now put Asia on the same status as the United States [and] Africa on the same level as Europe,” Lamoreaux said. “We could have someone majoring in history who wouldn’t take a course in U.S. history.”

Director of Undergraduate Studies for the History Department Beverly Gage said the department also voted in favor of counting up to two courses from outside the History Department toward the major requirements. The new “specialist track” may lean on offerings from other departments, she said.

If passed, the new geographic distribution requirements will render the reforms made to the history major earlier this month obsolete. On Nov. 7, Yale College faculty voted to reduce the requirements for the history major to two courses each in North American history, European history and either Latin American, Asian or African history.

But Gage said the departmental vote on Tuesday did not necessarily contradict the recent reforms — rather, she said it builds on the History Department’s ongoing effort to give students more flexibility within the major.

“On the one hand it can seem like there are a lot of changes occurring,” Gage said. “But these were [the] next logical step of what we’d already started. It’s all part of the same intellectual process on our part.”

Lamoreaux said both the recent and proposed changes to the major are intended in part to encourage more students to major in history and to attract higher enrollments in history courses. To that end, she added, the department hopes to add new classes that could be “feeder courses” into the history major.

Both Lamoreaux and Gage emphasized that the department’s top priority is to make its offerings more transparent to students. The string of recent proposals for reform came largely out of student feedback, which was formalized this semester with the formation of an undergraduate advisory committee for the department, Gage said.

History professor Valerie Hansen, who sat on the committee that proposed these changes to the department, said the new changes would allow students more room for intellectual exploration.

“The History Department has always been a broad umbrella, but it hasn’t always presented itself as a broad umbrella,” she said.

Hansen cited the hiring of two new Latin America scholars this year, two new South Asia scholars next year and the active search for a modern Middle East scholar as evidence of the expansion of the department’s offerings.

Daniel Gordon ’14, a history major, said he doubts the proposed reform would make much difference to students. Even if the requirements for studying European and American history are eliminated, students will likely continue to study those areas, he said.

“It seems as if they’re trying to shift the focus away from Europe and America, and I don’t think it’ll materialize,” he said. “People’s interests at an American institution have a Western bias.”

Zoe Rubin ’16, who is also a history major, said the current major requirements make it difficult for students to specialize in a non-Western field. The proposed reforms, especially the ability to count credits from other departments toward the major, would allow students to specialize in Middle Eastern history or African history, she said.

Sam Cohen ’15, another history major, said he thinks students should generally be allowed to study the areas they find most interesting.

“Most people recognize that you can’t study the history of one area without understanding what was happening in the rest of the world at the time,” he said. “I would bet that history majors still take courses from all around the world from that reason.”

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

 

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