Following a noticeable decline in the number of students enrolled in history courses, the University’s Department of History has taken measures to boost its enrollment and attract students from a variety of disciplines.
This fall, the department added a history minor — one of 38 offered in the College of Arts and Sciences — and has recently added several new 1000- and 2000-level courses intended to appeal specifically to freshman and sophomores.
Though administrators said enrollment data was unavailable, many said they noticed a decline in the number of students enrolled in history classes.
The department has seen “its enrollment decline somewhat in the past few years,” said Barry Strauss ’74, chair of the history department.
Jon Parmenter, Director of Undergraduate Students for the history department, said the department is “certainly concerned about enrollments.”
According to Strauss and Parmenter, the new history minor — which can be fulfilled by taking five courses, including one seminar class — is aimed at increasing enrollment by targeting students who may be reluctant to take history classes without getting credit toward a degree.
“We’ve noticed a lot of undergraduates are interested in having as diverse an experience as possible to document on their diploma,” Parmenter said. “It seems as if minors are increasingly important in showing that students have a broad array of interests.”
Strauss added that the College of Arts and Sciences also encouraged all department chairs to consider adding minors to their departments as a way to reduce the pressure on undergraduates both inside and outside of the college.
“We wanted to make it possible for all undergraduates to explore this subject without wearing themselves out by trying to pursue a double major,” Strauss said. “It’s a different way of reaching out to students who are still interested in history.”
Susan Robertson, communications director for the College of Arts and Sciences, echoed these sentiments.
“If students can minor in a subject, they can show diversity in their portfolios without the often considerable demands of a second or third major,” Robertson said.
The history department has also recently added a number of 1000 and 2000-level classes — including “The History of Law: Great Trials” and “The History of Exploration.”
According to Mary Beth Norton, history, “the new 1000 and 2000 level courses have been very attractive to students.”
“History of Exploration has gone from 47 enrolled last year (its first) to 82 at last count this year,” Norton, who is one of the professors for the course, wrote in an email. “It’s proven to be very popular with students from across the campus and especially freshmen and sophomores who have not yet declared a major, which is the audience we especially wanted to reach with it.”
The “History of Law: Great Trials,” a 1000-level class, was even more popular last year, with more than 100 students enrolled, she added.
Prof. Richard Polenberg, history, said he brought back his course, “HIST 3180: American Constitutional Development,” last year in response to declining enrollment.
“I was on phase retirement but I knew enrollments were low, so I offered to go back and give my lecture course on constitutional history,” Polenberg said.
While many students have found these new courses appealing, it is too early to know how these changes are affecting the department, Parmenter said.
“We won’t know for a few years what the overall effects of these changes will be,” Parmenter said. “But if it means that more people are taking our classes, then I think that’s great.”
History students and professors speculated the causes of observed declines in enrollment.
“The class I’m in now, “American Constitutional Development” with Prof. Polenberg, was one my mom took when she was at Cornell … She told me when she took the class with him in the mid-70s, they filled Bailey Hall,” Nate Schorr ’12 said.
Polenberg said that in his 40 years at Cornell, he “did not think the decline in History course enrollment was any secret.”
“It’s my impression that many years ago when I came to Cornell, history and government had the same number of majors,” Polenberg said. “I don’t have the numbers in front of me, but I know the number of majors in government far exceeds in the number of students majoring in history.”
Elen Aghekyan ’13, a history major, said the decline in history course enrollment represented the decreasing popularity of degrees in the humanities.
“I think the decline in enrollment in the history department is representative of a decline in the popularity of the humanities in general as profitable majors,” Aghekyan said.
Prof. Claudia Verhoeven, history, also said she thought students may be moving away from history due to the poor state of the job market for humanities majors.
“There is a concern that the decline of students enrolled in history courses has to do with students perhaps moving towards majors that seem to be more practical,” she said. Verhoeven said, however, that she saw the history major as practical for learning “critical thinking skills.”
“I have so many really excellent students, and I’m sure they won't have a problem applying the skills and knowledge they've gained in history courses to whatever field they pursue,” she said.
Correction: Due to an editing error, a previous version of this article was mistakenly headlined. While enrollment numbers have been down in past years, the History department did not create the minor with the intention of boosting enrollment.