Letter: Alumni Take Issue With History Department Changes

By Letter to the Editor

We have recently come to learn that the Department of History has decided to do away with the compulsory B.A. thesis requirement. Instead, the department will now be offering a “two-track system” which would require a B.A. thesis only from those who wish to earn departmental honors. As alumni who deeply cherish the academic experience we had at UChicago and in the History Department in particular, we are writing to express our fundamental disagreement with the recent changes. While we appreciate the department’s aspiration to attract more undergraduates, we firmly believe that the new changes are not conducive to that aspiration and, in our view, are inimical to the department’s reputation for rigorous intellectual inquiry.

The rationale given for these changes in this week’s Chicago Maroon article is the understandable urge to attract more undergraduates. But what exactly does it mean to bring more undergraduates into the department? Should we assume that the department adds more value to the University if it increases the number of enrolled history majors from 2.62 percent to 4–5 percent of the student body? We do not think that adding value is purely a matter of numbers. Moreover, this metric ignores the number of non-majors who take history classes, not to mention history minors. Therefore, we must not begin with the assumption that there is an urgent need to dramatically expand the department’s outreach efforts. Perhaps there already is sufficient interest in history courses, and we should not jump to the conclusion that enrolling more students is the right way to increase the accessibility of our discipline.

Department chair Emilio Kourí characterizes the elimination of the B.A. requirement as a way to attract students who do not wish to become professional historians. This argument is unconvincing for many reasons. First, it rests on the mistaken assumption that only those who already want to become professional historians wish to write a thesis. Second, it does not consider those (including two authors of this letter) who choose the path of historical scholarship only through the process of writing a B.A. thesis. A thesis provides the opportunity to explore one’s interests and limits. Students should not be deprived of this critical litmus test. It could be argued that the wish for departmental honors will still encourage a number of students to write a thesis. But since most employers and graduate schools do not consider it a critical factor, it is reasonable to assume that most students will not see it as a motivation to write a thesis.

Similarly, to speak of history as one of the last bastions of “deep knowledge” and at the same time eliminate the thesis requirement is contradictory. The discipline of history prides itself on getting under the surface of things and coming up with surprising explanations for the most obvious phenomena and ideas. A good historian resists the temptation to take a primary source at its face value and strives to look for contextual clues that provide a more nuanced picture. For undergraduates, writing a B.A. thesis is the only possible way to get a taste of these skills. All of us did extensive coursework in the Department, read great historians like Eric Hobsbawm, Quentin Skinner, and Lucien Febvre, and wrote papers critically examining their works. But it was only when we spent an entire year delving into the complexities of Japanese American internment camps during the Second World War, English apocalyptic thought in the 17th century, and postwar French Marxist thought that we really came to understand the complexity and difficulty of a historian’s task. In our view, a history major without a compulsory thesis requirement is simply not worthy of the name. A 20-page seminar paper written in one quarter can never approximate the challenge of conceiving a yearlong project.

This brings us to the point that writing a B.A. thesis has many benefits beyond learning how to conduct historical research. The most important of these is the strong and lasting relationship students develop with their advisers. In a book review for The New York Times, Professor Anthony Grafton, a triple alumnus of our department and one of the greatest historians of our time, fondly recalls his joy in seeing two of his former B.A. advisees, now in law and medicine, attend one of his public lectures years later. Like Grafton and his students, we and many other former history majors have similar stories to tell. Our respective advisers provided advice not only on historiography and primary sources but also on many other essential matters of life. The absence of a compulsory B.A. thesis will make it far more difficult for future students to develop similar relationships. Occasional office hours during regular classes simply cannot serve as an effective alternative.

Though self-evident, it is also worth emphasizing that a B.A. thesis teaches skills that are applicable to a number of other professions besides academic history. Conceiving and managing a long-term project, critical engagement with peers in seminar, rethinking one’s ideas upon encountering new information and—not least—writing well are skills essential to almost any job in the world. A compulsory B.A. thesis ensures that all of our majors leave the University prepared to face an increasingly demanding job market.

We would like to end by committing the historian’s cardinal sin: quoting without a citation. Someone once said that it is impossible to imagine how any historian who takes her job seriously can sleep at night. The essence of the quote is that writing history is a delicate, difficult and serious task. We only came to truly appreciate this through our B.A. theses. We were initially daunted by the idea of writing them, but vividly remember the sunny April afternoon when we handed in our theses and walked out of the Social Sciences building. That sensation of accomplishment will stay with us for life. Future history majors should experience the same.

When we were students, the department always lent our concerns sympathetic ears. Once more, we urge it to do the same. While we respect and appreciate some of the reasons behind the decision, we would very much like the department to reconsider it.

—Pranav Kumar Jain, Alan Hassler, and Rebecca Liu, A.B. ’15