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Responding to a ‘Crisis in the Humanities,’ Harvard History Dept. Rebrands

Historians in the News
tags: teaching, Harvard, History Departments



Harvard’s History department has made a number of structural changes to its curriculum and outreach efforts this semester in an attempt to attract and retain concentrators and unaffiliated undergraduates.

Most notably, this fall the department rolled out a new series of “foundations” courses geared toward freshmen and students outside the concentration, including those attempting to fulfill the General Education program’s new Social Sciences distributional requirement. Sixteen of the courses — also known as “101s” — are being offered this semester, with topics ranging from Harvard history to using science as a historical source.

Professor Maya R. Jasanoff ’96 said the changes were driven by a need to repair history’s “image problem,” adding that freshmen often enter Harvard with the misconception that the discipline is merely “a bunch of names and dates to be memorized.”

“People think it's all about the past, but it's really about the present and the future,” she said.

Director of Undergraduate Studies Lisa M. McGirr, who spearheaded the overhaul, agreed. She said that the changes were in part borne out of a “crisis in the humanities” that followed the 2008 recession, when she says more and more undergraduates began selecting their concentrations based on employability concerns. Nationally, the phenomenon is well-documented — a survey from the American Historical Association found that from 2014 to 2017, course enrollments dropped by 7.7 percent in history departments across the country.

In another attempt to combat the “crisis,” Harvard’s History department also debuted new “career course clusters” this fall. McGirr said the clusters are designed to guide students interested in business, journalism, and law career paths among others toward History courses that will be useful in their chosen fields.

Read entire article at The Crimson

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