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MC's changes to history major drawing national attention

Barry McNamara
Although keenly aware that history cannot be changed, a group of Monmouth College faculty members is determined to make history better.

The professors, who just happen to hail from the department of history, are using the college’s upcoming shift to a 4-4 academic calendar as an opportunity to essentially overhaul the way their subject is taught.

The history department’s revisions to the major are so innovative, in fact, that Monmouth is one of 60 select U.S. college’s participating in a new American Historical Association “Tuning Project.” It is designed “to articulate the core of historical study and to identify what a student should understand and be able to do at the completion of a history degree program.”

The project will get under way in June, when participants will meet to draft commentaries on the skills, methods and substantive range they believe best characterize the study of history. They will then build upon this collaborative work inside their own classrooms by aligning specific curriculum elements to the common competencies that were identified.”

“We have been invited to participate because of interest in the new curriculum from one of the co-chairs of the project, Patricia Limerick, from the University of Colorado,” reported professor Simon Cordery, who chairs Monmouth’s department.

“The selection of the department for the Tuning Project is a well-deserved opportunity for our department as they shift their curriculum to our new 4-4 model,” said dean of the faculty David Timmerman. “Their plan is innovative, and I am convinced our students will be the beneficiaries of their good work and recognized expertise.”

The courses in the new history curriculum are designed to build upon the skills learned at each level. The 100-level courses introduce the interpretation of primary sources as the basis for constructing history. Each class is centered on a fascinating historical period, set of events, or group of people. Examples include the Jonestown massacre, the Waco siege and the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848.

Students will learn how to ask questions of original documents, to seek corroboration of facts and their interpretations, and to understand the strengths and weaknesses of different document types.

Secondary sources will be the focus of 200-level courses, helping students understand how and why historians have a particular way of writing and thinking. They will see how some strive for objectivity while others follow specific theoretical or political agendas in their work, and why some even refuse to believe the past can be accurately understood.

At the 300-level, the skills of problem solving, fact-finding and historical interpretation will be put into practice. Students will research a narrowly defined topic within a specific theme, using the skills and deploying the knowledge they have previously learned. The outcome of the research courses will be a paper of substance based on their interpretation and narrativization of primary and secondary sources.

To reinforce their understanding of the past, the curriculum’s 400-level courses will offer wide perspectives on the history of a general geographical region or period in time. By concentrating on such subjects, the courses will provide a useful link to the college’s Citizenship courses. They will also be useful to students preparing to take the Graduate Record Examination, serving as both a review of basic knowledge and a means of developing a broad view of history.

“Our aim is to provide students with courses they will find exciting and interesting, and which inculcate specific skills useful as historians but, more importantly, for their lives and careers after graduation,” concluded Cordery.