Changing times: the rise and decline of the UD history department

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Photo courtesy of the University of Dallas

Since 2009, history majors at the University of Dallas have declined to approximately 3% of the student body, according to data supplied by the assistant provost Vicky Morris-Dueer, M.Ed.

In 2009, out of 1,304 students, 75 students were history majors. According to the data collected in 2019, out of 1,475 students, only 36 students total are history majors. In 2009, there were 26 business majors, ten years later there are 270 business majors. This means only 2.44% of students are history majors whereas 18.31% of students are business majors. Although the overall enrollment at UD has increased, the history department’s enrollment has trended downward. 

Dr. Susan Hanssen, chair of the history department, suggested that the rise in business majors is due to economic fear. 

“I think there are a lot of students and parents concerned about job placement after graduation and people don’t realize how valuable the reading, writing, researching, and speaking abilities learned in the liberal arts will be in many careers,” Hanssen wrote in an email. 

The University News asked Hanssen if the ratio of students in core history classes constitutes a problem for learning opportunities.

“It is true that the core history classes tend to be capped at a higher number than English, Philosophy, Politics, and Theology courses,” Hanssen wrote. “This is undoubtedly a problem; History requires great emphasis on research and primary source study–essays and papers, and it is very difficult in a large course to assign and grade numerous essays. It also makes it harder to have a seminar-style discussion of the material, where students can pose their own questions about the material.” 

Hanssen suggested that hiring more history faculty could provide a solution. 

“If we were able to hire tenure-track faculty who could cover the core classes as well as diversify our upper-level offerings, the students would establish relationships with full-time faculty and would want to continue their historical studies.”

A historical education “gives you a global, universal vision–the background to so many issues — in international relations, politics, culture, economics,” Hanssen wrote. 

Ian Kuplack, 2019 alumnus and history major, who is obtaining his M.A. at the University of North Texas, entered his freshman year as a history major.

The University News asked Kuplack if he thought the department had the means necessary to support the pursuit of historical studies. 

“From my vantage point,” Kuplack wrote, “it was never apparent that the department was treading water or something, but you could always sense that the professors never quite had the time they needed to do everything they were tasked with. Frankly, though, that is symptomatic of Constantin in general.”

Kuplack commented on the lack of diversity in the history department.  

“Most teaching slots go to Am Civ and West Civ sections. After that you usually only get one, maybe two advanced classes per subfield each semester: a medieval class, a Latin American class, an Ancient or World history class. Only U.S. history usually gets more, since there are more US-focused historians, whereas the other fields only have one specialist each,” Kuplack wrote.

Similar to Hanssen, Kuplack advocates for hiring more professors who can focus on different areas of expertise. 

“So long as both semesters of Am Civ and West Civ are core courses, there will need to be capable professors ready to teach them. Making sure that’s the case is clearly the school and the department’s priority. However, if the department wants to offer more with subfields and advanced courses, it will need more people so professors can focus on their areas of expertise.”

Based on his own experience Kuplack wrote:  

“Students of history need resources for their research interests. If students considering history don’t get the impression that they’ll be able to study topics beyond the survey-scope of Am and West Civ, they won’t want to major. The faculty already do everything they can to accommodate the diverse interests of their students, and as a small school UD will obviously never have a person with expertise in every field; most schools don’t. But enabling faculty to regularly offer courses on the subjects they care most about is always a plus in my mind.” 

Providing additional funds for history scholarships might attract more majors, Kuplack suggested.

“For the most part, my history experience has been in conversation and classes with a handful of professors,” wrote senior history major David Morales in an email. “And I think this—this lack of a sense of a department—might be one of the issues reflected in low history numbers.” 

Morales offered methods to reinvigorate the history department, including showcasing professors’ and students’ research and history-oriented events on campus.

“[Further], the university should continue/increase the funding of faculty and students to do research—especially faculty,” Morales wrote. “A professor is working on a book? Financial assistance and promotion is always a big help. Moreover, funding deserving history majors to go to conferences or work as faculty research assistants I think makes the major more attractive to undergrads—especially the more ambitious ones.”

Additionally, Morales advocates for prospective UD history majors to let the Core build and complement their study of history. 

“Any prospective major should know that being a good historian requires, in my opinion, a solid and broad base in the liberal arts. Find connections between all your classes. Let your literature and philosophy and theology classes build on your history classes. As a result, I think the Core is a great foundation for a history major.” 

Morales’ concluded with a reminder of history’s important contribution to understanding humankind.

“Finally, on a general note, know that the craft of history is an exercise in humanity,” wrote Morales. “History—good history, that is—forces us to grapple with the decisions, failures, and successes of human beings that have come before us in order to understand ourselves and our world. I expect many come to UD in order to better know the human person. When done right, the discipline of history lays bare the human person in a very profound way.”

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