Two alterations to the history major represent the most significant change to the History Department in a generation, according to History Director of Undergraduate Studies Beverly Gage.
The changes were approved at Thursday’s faculty meeting and will impact current freshmen and sophomores. Students are now required to pursue one of two tracks: either a “global” track, consisting of five courses spread across five different geographic regions, or a “specialist” track, which allows a five-course specialization in one geographic area or thematic “pathway.” Some examples of “pathways,” which are already offered as suggestions to students are “Religion in Context” and “War and Society.” Additionally, students will now be allowed to write a one-semester thesis instead of a year-long one.
History professor Julia Stephens said she is in favor of these changes because they allow for more flexibility within the major.
“What strikes me as really great about these changes is that the major will be more self-directed and give students the power to carve their own path,” she said. “Rather than one model fits all, students suddenly can put together a program more tailored to their individual interests.”
The new track options will replace the current geographic distribution requirement for history upperclassmen, but will not do away with the requirement of taking two courses from the pre-industrial era.
History professor Anne Eller said these changes are the brainchild of Gage, whose open-mindedness and innovative approach have been instrumental in developing the History Department.
Gage said she first began to investigate updating the major because of student input, declining departmental enrollment and a desire to adjust to the national standard.
“I think that some of these conversations were spurred by the fact that the number of majors was in decline,” she said. “We also were the only department at Yale and, with one exception, the only History Department in the country that required all of our students to write a two-semester essay.”
The History Undergraduate Advisory Council aided Gage in determining which alterations should be made, said council member Isabel Singer ’16.
Singer added that there are both positive and negative aspects to the changes.
“The possibility of having a one-semester thesis option would make it easier to double major with history and another discipline,” she said. “The only minus to the changes is that, just like with any new systems, there will be some kinks to work out. I worry there are too many options for pathways, which may make the system confusing to navigate.”
Of 13 students interviewed, 12 supported the addition of a specialized track, and nine said they were in favor of a one-semester thesis option.
Christopher Reese ’18 said the ability to avoid areas of history about which he is not fascinated through specialization has made him more seriously consider the major. He added that the shorter thesis requirement also has increased his interest in the major.
“The thesis change definitely makes the major more appealing to me, because I don’t want to sacrifice my entire senior year for a paper,” he said. “Now I could focus on the paper for one semester and enjoy my senior year and this University during the other.”
Zach Cohen ’18 said he supports the addition of a specialized route because it allows students to enroll in the courses they want to take most. However, he said he is not in favor of a shorter thesis because it undermines the depth of understanding he sees as integral to being a history major. Michael Carden ’18 said he too is in favor of specialization because it not only caters to student interest, but also has value in the real world.
“I think history is an important major because of its implications to modern day,” he said. “Rather than having to survey space and time, specializing in a particular region would allow me to investigate a region about which I’m truly passionate and really understand it.”
Russian and East European Studies major Joseph Haberman ’17 said the two-track option has not swayed him toward the history major, away from his more narrowly-focused field of study. But Haberman added that he expects the specialized route to increase the popularity of the department.
Changes to the humanities major also were implemented at the faculty meeting: The number of required courses will increase from 13 to 14 — though two prerequisites will be eliminated — and two core seminars will become a required part of the major. The seminars will be co-taught by two different instructors each year, with one focusing broadly on “modernities” and the other on “interpretations.”
Chair of the Humanities Program Bryan Garsten said that because the program can cover a variety of areas — from literature and music to art and history — these changes are meant to create a somewhat coherent program around these distinct parts.
“For a number of years we’ve wanted to add a spine of courses that all humanities majors took,” he said. “Now every humanities major will have these two experiences in addition to starting out with survey courses [on] works that have come to be seen as fundamental to a cultural tradition.”
Garsten said these changes were not motivated by a desire to increase the number of humanities majors, but simply to create more common ground among humanities majors.
Humanities major Carolyn Hansen ’16 said she understands the advantages of creating more ties between majors, but added that these changes worry her nonetheless.
“I’m nervous about the changes, but uniting the humanities majors would be a good thing,” she said. “Except one of the best things about the major is that you are expected to design a rigorous, cohesive curriculum for yourself — that’s part of what makes it so attractive.”