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Rewriting HISTORY

Harvard's history department has been criticized over the past decade as enrollment has dropped by more than half. But recent department-wide changes have revamped the program and should significantly improve the concentration.

By Douglas M. Pravda

The subject of history is one which remains generally stable from year to year. The facts rarely change, except to take new events and new historical perspectives into account.

But the same cannot be said of the history department, which is in the midst of such a significant change that even a history concentrator graduating last year would not recognize the new curriculum that will go into place next fall.

Three new tenured faculty members, a new sophomore tutorial system and a new track system are just the beginning of the effort to revamp the department's much-criticized undergraduate program.

The department has decided to phase in the changes over the next three years. These revisions may possibly lead to the abolition of general exams.

The changes in the undergraduate curriculum are complemented by the alterations which have taken place in the graduate program over the last four years.

It is an oft repeated cliche that history is cyclical. But if it is, the Department seems to be facing a giant upward surge in status and success.

Rewriting History

"We are always trying to make changes," said chair of the history department Thomas N. Bisson.

He characterized the changes as the sort that the department continually considers in trying to improve itself.

"These are normal changes, but it is true that many changes have been made over the past four years," Bisson said.

But the changes over the last year and over the next few years seem to be more substantial than the routine small improvements made from year to year.

In general, Bisson said, "We're trying to do better." The enrollment in the department has declined substantially from 488 in 1986 to 386 in 1989, further declining to 228 in 1994.

According to Professor of History James Hankins, the head tutor, new faculty appointments have provided the impetus for many of the changes.

"We have had a lot of new faculty come in from the outside and they have different ideas and fresh suggestions as how things are done elsewhere, so they have brought new energies," he said.

The College has also asked the department to review its program.

"We have had a new document that has been circulated by the educational policy committee which has asked us to review our requirements," Hankins said.

The committee, chaired by Dean of the Faculty Jeremy R. Knowles, recommended revisions in the curriculum and prompted a new look at the tutorial system, Hankins said.

And Dean for Undergraduate Education Lawrence Buell said that he had written a letter to Bisson discussing the problems in the history department.

The department spent considerable time discussing the changes, professors said.

"We consulted students widely, [both] undergraduate and graduate students, and the discussions in the faculty have been going on for many years," Bisson said.

Hankins agreed that student opinion was particularly important when considering the changes.

"We had a committee that met all year with the undergraduates and were interested in what the students thought because we want to try to stop the under-enrollment," Hankins said.

Is the Tide Turning?

With changes in the faculty and in the program, enrollment in the department may be back on the upswing.

Over the last three years, the number of first-years concentrating in history has increased by more than one-third, from 55 two years ago to 65 last year to 91 this year, Hankins said.

Bisson said he thought it was "hard to say" whether the changes in the curriculum were responsible for the increasing first-year enrollment in the department.

"The students know we are reforming the program and they've heard quite a bit about it," Bisson said.

But Hankins said he believed that the student enrollment was increasing specifically because students saw the changes in the department and decided they wanted to join the concentration.

"I think [the changes] had a lot to do with it," Hankins said. "The international relations track has brought in a lot of people."

Hankins said many first-years, attracted by the new program, have come to talk to him to decide their field of concentration.

A New History

Three new senior professors will be teaching at Harvard this fall.

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, a Pulitzer Prize-winning professor at the University of New Hampshire who specializes in American History before 1820 accepted a joint tenure in history and women's studies.

Andrew Gordon '75, a Duke University professor and 19th and 20th century labor historian specializing in Japanese history, will return to Harvard, where he graduated summa cum laude in East Asian Studies.

And Associate Professor of History Susan G. Pederson '82, a modern British historian, was promoted to a tenured position in April.

Bisson said that an appointment in the field of 20th century American history--one of great importance for undergraduates--will be made in the beginning of the fall.

Dean of the Faculty Jeremy R. Knowles said that it was unusual to tenure three professors in one year in a department.

But Bisson said it did not mean that the department's faculty weak.

"There have been other years where we've wanted to bring in three, but we couldn't," he said.

The most significant changes will come in the tutorial system.

The first semester sophomore tutorial will serve as an introduction to broad types of historical reading and writing, Hankins said in February, when the changes were approved for next year.

The tutorial will replace a current system that Hankins described as a "grab bag of topics [that] don't have a rational relationship with each other."

The first semester sophomore tutorial will be taught by Ulrich and Professor of History Mark A. Kishlansky.

Students will work in large sections with senior faculty, and then break into smaller sections of five people to work intensely with a tutor, Kishlansky said in February.

This program will get "the senior faculty more engaged in the undergraduate concentration," Bisson said.

During the second semester, students will have the option of working in a small study group or in an individual tutorial.

The students will select classes in a range of new `tracks,' which are focuses within the concentration.

"[The track] is basically an advising concept," Hankins said last month. "Students take tutorials in their track and have advisers within their track."

Hankins explained last week that the new track system was designed to break up the disparity between different parts of the current concentration.

"The department has eight undergraduate major areas in different parts of the world, such as American history, European history and African history," Hankins said. "We have in some areas 150 concentrators or some others zero or one so we want to break up the larger fields.

"We have zero East Asian [concentrators]," he said. "We have one or two only in Near Eastern, African and Latin American so we are going to try to combine all the people in a world history field to see if we can get Harvard students interested in something outside their own culture."

The world history field will be one of about 10 tracks which will be topical or national, Bisson said. But not all the tracks may be started by next year.

Other tracks will include international relations, intellectual history, women's studies and an ethnic studies/race relations track.

"The international relations track was an initiative that was taken by faculty members who wanted to have a special program in foreign relations," Hankins said. "We thought it would be a good idea because we thought it would help us break up the large concentration of students in American history and give at least those students more individual attention."

On the whole, the new track system will give students more flexibility and more choice within the department.

"The point of the track system is to allow concentrators to choose an area of history that interests them," Bisson said.

Students can continue to take courses within their track if they want, and Bisson said he expects that most students will continue within their tracks.

Upcoming Changes

The changes in the junior and senior tutorials will be phased in during the 1996-97 and '97-'98 school years.

Bisson said the changes have not actually been approved yet by department vote, but most of the details have been worked out.

"There are certain specifics in place, but not all of it," he said.

Hankins said in February that the junior tutorial, required for the honors program, will be led by Professor of History Michael McCormick and will emphasize research skills.

The first semester of junior tutorial will teach undergraduates how to organize, research and write research papers.

Students will put these skills to the test during the second semester, as they work in small study groups to prepare a junior paper on a topic of their choice.

The emphasis on research and writing will replace the current system of a year-long course on a specific field led by a graduate student.

The senior year tutorial will remain largely the same; students will use their newly acquired research skills to write their theses, Hankins said.

The department is also considering abolishing the general exam, Bisson said. The government department eliminated its own general exams last month.

Students have not yet experienced the new system, which will have no effect on current history concentrators, but one student said he thought the proposed program was a big improvement.

"The new tutorial is a vast improvement over the old," Christian S. Torres '95, a member of an undergraduate curriculum committee in the history department, said in February.

Torres said the committee did not help create the new tutorial program but did comment on the proposals coming out of department meetings.

"I think the administration in the history department honestly values students' input and...has developed an effective yet enjoyable tutorial program," he said.

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