History Drops BA Requirement

The department hopes to attract more majors.

By Isaac Stein

At present, history is one of a handful of academic departments that require undergraduates to write a B.A. thesis. In conjunction with an upcoming overhaul of the Department’s course offerings, history will soon be leaving the cadre.

According to Emilio Kourí, History Department Chair and Professor of History and Romance Languages and Literatures, and the College, faculty present at the history department’s annual year-end meeting on May 23 unanimously voted to end the thesis requirement for the 2017–18 academic year. It will be replaced by a “two-track system,” in which writing a thesis is optional but remains a criterion for departmental honors. He said that the policy shift is intended to increase the number of history majors. Currently, the 147 enrolled history majors represent 2.62 percent of undergraduates.

“What we decided to do was to try to interest other students, who, for various reasons, while they’re very interested in history and take many of our courses, do not major in history—in part, it seems at least, because the thesis requirement is beyond what they feel they can do, for reasons of time or other commitments,” Kourí said.

He added that the history department needs the upcoming academic year to figure out the logistics of the new graduation requirements—including when and how students in the major would be tracked into thesis writing, as well as the type of “culminating experience” that would likely serve as an alternate requirement for non-thesis students. In the meantime, he said, the major “remains completely unchanged.” Current third-years are required to finish their theses; the change will likely affect current second-years.

Kourí also characterized the shift in graduation requirements as a way to draw in students who are not interested in becoming professional historians, as a response to the needs of an undergraduate student body that continues to grow, and as part of a developing curricular overhaul in the undergraduate history program.

The broad change, he said, is “a series of new courses that also showcase [a diversity of faculty expertise] better as a way for students to engage their interests, and to engage in today’s world…and aims to recognize that more of our energies and more of our efforts ought to be going to the teaching of undergraduates.”

While the courses in question have not yet been developed, he added that he thinks doing so is particularly important, as history is one of the last bastions of “deep knowledge.”

“Historians are people who have made deep, lifelong commitments to a place, a topic, to ‘deep knowledge,’ I think is the old-fashioned way of calling it. I think that we represent a big space in the University where that is maintained, and that is cherished,” he said.

He added his belief that long-run changes in how other disciplines are taught means that it is particularly important for the history department to maximize its accessibility to undergraduates.

“Sociology has gone a certain direction, anthropology, in particular, has gone in a very particular direction, political science in several directions, [and] economics at the University of Chicago is very abstract. I’m not trying to devalue any of those things at all, I’m just trying to suggest that if you want to learn about place, if you want to learn about time…. Fifty years ago, you could have done that in a different way in some of these other departments. Now, not exclusively, but increasingly, history is the place where that happens. So in a way we feel more responsible than we did before for making sure that the value of that gets communicated more broadly.”