September 8, 2009

History Department Seeks Student Feedback on Major

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As Cornell attempts to “Reimagine” the future of many of its internal functions, the History department has began to re-examine itself. A panel of professors within the history department held an open meeting yesterday in McGraw Hall with students to discuss the future of the major and the department.
“Periodically, we like to revisit the major and take the time to touch base with the students,” Prof. Maria Cristina Garcia, history and American studies, said at the beginning of the discussion. “We like to make sure that the requirements aren’t too onerous or too easy and see what else the students hope to gain from the department.”
The informal conversation between four students and four faculty, provided students with the opportunity to describe what they saw as the benefits within the department and address concerns surrounding the requirements of their chosen major.
“In each of my classes, historiography and source analysis has really been handled by the professors on their own terms.” Andrew White ’12 said. “If there [was] a course that helped us craft a method for how to approach history, I think we would all benefit.”
In addition to calls for courses in historiography and other interdisciplinary subjects, attendees voiced a desire for greater specialization within the major, a more visible advisory process and a greater number of seminar courses. Students also expressed interest in revising some of the individual requirements for the major.
“I was surprised that my service learning class did not count toward my 400-level seminar requirements,” Liz Soltan ’12 said. “These courses offer a different perspective to the academic process that is, in many ways, better than a discussion-based course.”
There were also calls for improvements in administrative aspects within the department that would ease scheduling.
“When I was enrolling this past semester, I was surprised to find a number of courses that I had wanted to enroll in were not being offered,” White said. “If it is possible for the department to secure classes a semester or two in advance, it would allow students to better plan their schedules.”
The faculty also used the meeting to gauge student responses to some of their ideas to improve the quality and applicability of the history program.
“In many ways, the history major itself lacks a gateway course,” Prof. Holly Case, history said. “If there were to be a course that could introduce students to the department and emphasize the universal aspects of certain concepts, we could help generate greater interest in the major.”
Proposals, including a lecture course taught by revolving faculty members and a weekly symposium on a specific historical topic, focused on expanding the applicability of history courses.
“Most of the students who take our courses are not people who are taking the course out of interest or to fulfill a requirement, rather than to pursue a history major,” Garcia said. “We need to make sure that we offer a wide variety of courses that excite the students.”
At the same time, however, the faculty members expressed concern over the feasibility of many of these programs in the current fiscal environment.
“With all of these necessary cuts, we cannot drastically cut class sizes or create many new seminar courses without stretching our faculty too far,” Prof. Ray Craib, history, said.
In the face of a difficult fiduciary situation, this dialogue between faculty and students of the history department may serve as an model for future conversations about the direction for Cornell academics.