Why Intro to History?

So why are we having you take HIS290 Introduction to History as part of your History major or minor at Bethel? Some history of History, if you will:

The AC 2nd hallway

For as long as I’ve been at Bethel, we’ve had a History major that emphasizes flexibility. We’ve kept it small while other majors have crept up past 40, 50, or even 60 credits. We’ve taken pains to make sure that most classes are either cross-listed in another field or tagged with gen ed credit. While we wanted to make sure our students had a broad background in human history — you can’t just major in 20th century US history, even if that’s your favorite topic — we accomplished that by creating multi-course, choose-from categories.

Indeed, until 2014-2015, only one course was required for all students: our capstone, HIS499 Senior Seminar. And even in that class, students get to choose almost any topic they want for their research paper. That’s still the case, by the way.

(The History minor was even more flexible: only eighteen credits, and nothing specified except that six of them be upper-division classes. By comparison, a Political Science minor has long required completion of the Political Quest course, just like the major. Many other minors are quite complicated.)

All this was especially helpful for two groups of students: those who wanted to double-major, in particular Social Studies Education students who faced scheduling challenges because of their field experiences and practicums; and those who transferred in one or two years worth of college credits.

Much of that flexibility remains in the latest revision of the major. (And the minor remains unusually open-ended — HIS290 is the only required course.) Indeed, we actually simplified the major by eliminating two categories.

But that does mean that majors now have a second required course. And minors, a first.

Now, that’s still more flexible than most other majors. BTS, English Literature, and Philosophy majors, for example, each require five courses. But I think it’s fair to ask why we think it important to add a required intro course— since that does make things a bit less flexible for students…

In the old regime, students picked one from a set of “Introductory” courses: 200-level surveys of American, Latin American, Asian, African, Islamic, or modern history. The idea was that students would get to meet a History professor early on and start learning the methodology and philosophy of history within the context of one particular field of study.

But two problems kept cropping up:

First, more and more of these courses were taught either by adjunct faculty (whom students would never again take a class from) or faculty from other departments. So the notion of getting to know a History professor early on had gone by the wayside. Second, because all these courses had or tags, the gen ed objectives for the courses left little space for introducing the discipline — not that all the non-majors and non-minors in the course were all that interested in thinking about historical methods.

So we started to notice that our majors (and minors) would arrive in 300-level courses without much idea of what history was or how historians do what they do.

So, if nothing else, you should expect to come out of Intro to History knowing what’s distinctive about history — what kinds of questions historians ask, what evidence they use to answer them, and how they communicate their findings — and what our Christian faith and practice have to do with all of that. And you should feel like you know one professor really well (time will tell if you think that’s a good thing!) and all of us at least a little bit, since the rest of our faculty (and some alumni and current students) will show up at various points in the semester.

But as importantly, you should come out of this course with a much clearer sense of what it means that you’ve self-identified as someone who is interested in studying history. Whether you’re a major or minor in History or still undecided, you’ll spend a lot of time this semester thinking about why you feel called to that field of study — and how that calling connects to other callings: within a certain career, as part of the Body of Christ, as a citizen of a nation and a local community, as a consumer, as a parent. Indeed, that will be the subject of your final essay.

In my next post, I’ll explain why we’re offering Intro to History as a hybrid course…

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