Learning in the History Department (Academic Learning Compact)
The history department tries to foster a learning experience that stands apart from many of the newer modes of instruction at large universities. Amid the shift to huge classes, televised lectures, and machine-gradable exams, history faculty have deliberately followed a more traditional path. The department’s emphasis on small courses, analytical reading, lively debate, and interpretative writing offers committed students unique rewards. It also comes with high expectations.
• Small(er) classes. History courses come in different sizes. 2000-level courses tend to be larger, ranging in size from 50 to 250 students, while the senior-year seminar, which every history major takes, is limited to twenty. The average number of students enrolled in an upper-division history course is in the thirties.
• Analytical reading. In the typical upper-division course, students will read an average of 50 to 100 pages each week. In some weeks, the reading may consist of a few essays; at other times, students will read entire books. In light of the demanding reading load, faculty assume that a good portion of a student’s education will take place outside of class.
• Lively debate. History faculty work hard to promote classroom discussion of ideas that emerge in reading and lectures. Rather than merely recounting historical facts, students are encouraged to develop and defend unique interpretations of historical events and ideas.
• Writing assignments. Writing assignments vary by course, though upper-division classes typically require students to complete essays and/or essay exams in which historical evidence supports a student’s own interpretive position.
• Attendance and participation. Students are expected to attend classes and participate in discussions. Many faculty take attendance, chart students’ willingness to participate, and factor both into final grades.
• Commitment to polished and persuasive writing. Students are expected to develop strong arguments in thoughtful and highly polished essays. Grammatical lapses and awkward phrasing will always undercut an essay’s persuasive power.
• Analysis and synthesis. Students are expected both to analyze historical information (parse it, make fine distinctions, break it down to component parts) and to synthesize it (combine pieces into a larger whole to reach broader conclusions).
Successful history students are those who excel at a range of skills. They read and write carefully, they push themselves to speak out in class, they grasp historical detail while keeping an eye on broader conclusions. Above all, they take responsibility for their own educations, knowing that no amount of skill on the part of an instructor can replace their own commitment to learning.