My aim in this paper is to communicate the value of studying history as an addition to the student’s primary academic focus. This is important because the skills learned from studying history have broad applications in the academic and professional environment. I accomplished this by conducting an interview with a history professor, studying one of his research papers, reviewing the history department’s Student Learning Outcomes, a class syllabus as well as a writing prompt for an assignment, and also participating in a history class. I found that studying history as an ancillary to any major will prepare students to succeed in other academic environments such as medicine, political science, or engineering as well as providing the undergraduate with rhetorical skills that will have applications upon entering the professional world.
History Discourse Community and the Undergraduate
Craig D. Peach
As undergraduates, we are all required to take at least a few history courses even though our educational goals seem to have nothing related to the study of history. As most of us know, history courses require extensive reading and at least one substantial term paper. My goal by researching and writing this paper is to help undergraduates like myself to understand a little bit about the professors who teach history, and perhaps more importantly, why the study of history is considered so important to the university and by doing this, give my fellow students additional tools which will enable them to make the college experience more meaningful. In addition, I want other students to see how history classes can enhance their major or if they have not chosen a major, educate them on the career possibilities that a major in history will present to them. Pursuant to these goals, I also wanted to find out what professors are looking for when they evaluate a paper and more specifically, how studying history will benefit undergraduates who are majoring in disciplines such as microbiology, math, or law.
For this paper, I conducted a comprehensive interview with Dr. Michael Collins, who lectures at UC Davis and the American River College Extension in the Natomas area of Sacramento, California. He is a member of the American Historical Association and he teaches European History in the Twentieth Century here at UC Davis. I asked him nine in-depth questions about his background, current and previous research, what he is looking for when he evaluates a term paper, and also how studying history is valuable to any student, not just history or humanities majors. I also obtained and read the UC Davis History Department’s Student Learning Outcomes and also “A Fear of Flying: Diagnosing Traumatic neurosis among British aviators of the Great War” a published scholarly work by Dr. Michael Collins. Finally, I observed and participated in one of Dr. Collins’ courses, European History in the Twentieth Century, 1919-1939.
The first thing the average student will find out about history classes is that they are reading and essay writing heavy. It is not unrealistic to expect to read a thousand pages or more during the quarter and in addition to two essay driven exams, write a 2000 word term paper. According to Dr. Collins, “students are expected to write in two genres; one is the synthesis of evidence using primary and secondary sources and the other is a historagraphical essay which analyzes the differences and similarities between different historical debates.” The goal of having students write in these genres should reflect the ways of thinking that are valued in this field by being able to ‘reassess how history evolves and unfolds over time’. The student should also be able to get a sense of an individual and community identity in the time period studied. Further, by reading and rereading things like military documents in a cultural context, students ideally will be able to determine what are the cultural values of the time period and be able to reassess the explanations that have been given thus far.
To get a clearer understanding of the kind of thinking that is valued in the historical research field, I referred to the paper written by Dr. Collins “A Fear of Flying: Diagnosing Traumatic neurosis among British aviators of the Great War.” When asked why he wrote this paper, he informed me that “there is a disparity between what the evidence says and the spoken and written word and what the cross-referenced evidence tells us.” For example, Dr. Collins writes “British politicians, journalists, and military commanders praised wartime aviators who engaged in the spectacle of “single combat” as “fearless knights fighting duels” […] those who experienced air combat often either witnessed or personally suffered harm and psychological strains, resulting in disillusionment with wartime leadership and with media portrayals of ideal manhood.” (Collins, 2). Alternatively, the aviators express a very different experience. For example, Captain Harold Wylie’s diary vividly recorded the nervous collapse of a second lieutenant that witnessed his passenger-observer killed during a flight. According to Wylie, the officer had ‘completely lost his nerve [and] the machine gun was in dreadful state, covered with blood.” (Collins, 4). This disconnect between the official view of WWI aviators and their actual experience combined with of primary sources from history such as a diary reveals a different explanation of the past than the official records show thereby opening a new dialogue with history. As a result, by contrasting the official version and the diaries of the aviators, he provides a road map for students as an example of how different sources of evidence can develop an ongoing conversation with the past.
My first history class at UC Davis was History 146A, “European History in the Twentieth Century.” It was part one of a two-part series and it focused on the First World War and the subsequent inter-war period in Europe. This is an upper division class where students are expected to have a basic understanding of the time period. As outlined by the History department’s Student Learning Outcomes, students are expected to demonstrate factual knowledge of history, gain knowledge of cultural knowledge within a historical context, and be able to demonstrate an understanding of change over time. These outcomes should be demonstrated by writing proficiently using primary documents to interpret the past. The only texts used in this class are primary sources like “Defying Hitler” by Sebastian Haffner and “Voices of Revolution, 1917” by Mark D. Steinberg. There are other readings in addition to this but the purpose is the same; that is, using these primary source documents is to ignite the student’s imagination about history. For example, the term paper prompt should a student choose to write about “Factions of The Russian Revolution,” is “Based on your investigations, why would there be a lack of unified public opinion regarding the purpose of the revolution in Russia during that period of time?” By carefully reading primary sources, reading other secondary sources that are obtained as a part of the student’s own research, and participating in classroom discussions students are not only able demonstrate competency in meeting the primary goals of the history discourse community, but also begin their own conversation with the past.
According to Dr. Collins, the non-history major can benefit from learning history because “it develops the ability to evaluate and research arguments from evidence. Also, studying history develops more flexibility in thinking about different problems.” For example while discussing “Defying History” by Sebastian Haffner, the class came to the conclusion that while the author existed from day to day under the thumb of a totalitarian regime, he maintained his defiance by not allowing Hitler to take control of how he thought. Developing this kind of flexibility in thinking is useful in other majors such as political science because one has to learn how to view the world (and political events) from the point of view of people the student has never met and has no cultural or political common ground. Even more, a person who is studying in mechanical engineering will perhaps be enabled to gain a deeper grasp of how the end product will be used. This example of flexibility is reinforced by Dr. Collins (the student) “develops flexibility in thinking about different problems in history, the undergraduate develops the skills necessary to meet the requirements of standardized writing exams regardless of academic discipline” according to Dr. Collins.
Of course, there are many students who are interested in majoring in history and are thinking about life after college. Naturally, they want to know what career opportunities are available to them. Most students who get a bachelor’s degree in history will have to also have another major as well. According to Dr. Collins, “students with bachelor’s degrees in history (will) use them in social services, government planning, archive maintenance, etc. However, without a double major or taking advantage of internships, (the student’s) choices can be somewhat limited.” “By pairing a history degree with a degree in statistics or sociology, a student will be better prepared for the job market.”
Another option is pursuing a master’s in in history. “Typically, students in the field are either working on public historical projects like museums or building/site preservation. Also, says Dr. Collins, “An MA (Master of Arts) will qualify someone to teach history at the community college level.”
But the most rewarding opportunities in a stand-alone degree in history come with a doctorate. Dr. Collins further explained that with a doctorate, one can find employment in high level government advising, corporate counseling, editing in publishing houses, as well as teaching at the university level. Further, “full time research is also available through post doctoral grants, but that is usually temporary and often difficulty [sic] to acquire.
My interview with Dr. Collins provided significant insight regarding the values and goals of the History Discourse Community. He communicated the value of having an ongoing conversation with the past and developing the ability to evaluate and research arguments from historical evidence (This was succinctly demonstrated with the research he had previously done with World War One British aviators). Doing this will ignite the undergraduate’s imagination and empower them to become more flexible in their approach to a wide variety of problems in a multi-disciplinary academic and professional environment. Additionally, the voluminous writing assignments will further refine the undergraduate’s ability to convey their thoughts via the written word as well as enhance their ability to research both primary and secondary sources. Perhaps just as important, Dr. Collins gave a practical, sober understanding regarding the advantages as well as the limitations of pursuing a history degree.
- Collins, M. D. (2015). A fear of flying: diagnosing traumatic neurosis among British aviators of the Great War. First World War Studies,6(2), 187-202. doi:10.1080/19475020.2015.1098557
- UC Davis History Department. (n.d.) Student Learning Outcomes. Retrieved from: http://history.ucdavis.edu/images/History_learning_outcomes.pdf
- History146A: Europe in the Early Twentieth Century Term Paper Assignment FQ 2016 (n.d) Retrieved from: https://smartsite.ucdavis.edu/access/content/group/ad27add5-6790-4cf9-b97d-cce8f7cd215f/History%20146A%20F16%20Term%20Paper.pdf
- History 146A: Syllabus: (n.d.) Retrieved from: https://smartsite.ucdavis.edu/access/content/group/ad27add5-6790-4cf9-b97d-cce8f7cd215f/History%20146A%20F16%20Syllabus.pdf