History contributions challenges

History contributions challenges

Department of History Today


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The Department of History has long prided itself on being pro-active in terms of assessing the quality of its work and contributions to teaching, research and service in the College of Arts and Sciences and Western Michigan University. As WMU moves toward a comprehensive Academic Program Review and Planning process, the department undertook its own review—one that looks at the department’s multiple missions and sets them, and some of their outcomes, in the broader context of the changing climate of higher education at WMU. Despite challenging times we are doing well and fulfilling our missions.

The department’s understanding of its missions derives from the strategic plans of the CAS and WMU, and is outlined in our Department Strategic Plan, approved in spring 2013. The strategic plan does this in general terms, then in more particular terms for each of our various missions and, finally, outlines our priorities for the next five years. For the purposes of this review, the general terms should suffice. The Department of History shares and advances WMU’s three strategic plan priorities of being learner-centered, discovery-driven, and globally engaged and the CAS mission to:

  • provide high quality liberal arts and professional education which bridges the
        humanities and social sciences
  • create, discover, and disseminate humanistic knowledge, methods, and expression
  • foster intellectual engagement and continuous discovery and learning

The Department of History does this by fulfilling its multiple missions to teach (undergraduate and graduate students), to research and advance knowledge and understanding, to foster interdisciplinary study, to promote diversity and inclusiveness, and to offer service to the institution, the profession, and the community. In short, we see ourselves contributing to the humanistic values of the university—in teaching, scholarship, and in service and action to uphold those values.

All of this, of course, takes place in a variety of different contexts and in the face of a myriad of pressures—the vast majority of which are beyond the department’s control. One obvious context is declining enrollment.

The trend is obvious—it is a decline. This is a trend that WMU as whole is enduring and one exacerbated by the massive decline in enrollment in the College of Education and Human Development which has traditionally provided so many of the department’s majors.

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Still, as this slide shows, enrollment in the department’s classes held steady while that of the CoEHD declined. Indeed, the department’s numbers declined, recovered, and the trend now is closer in line with that in the CoEHD. But, while the department’s enrollment (as determined by Student Credit Hours) has declined by 29%, that of the CoEHD has dropped by 48%. CoEHD students make up a large, if diminishing, number of students in history classes and at WMU, but Department of History instructors teach far more than just CoEHD students.

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Obviously not all CoEHD students enroll in department classes, and some students take more than one history course per semester/year. The point remains, however, that despite the drop in CoEHD enrollment, and that of WMU as a whole, the department’s numbers have held up well.

Nor has the department sat idly by watching the decline. We have been aware of the trend and taken a variety of measures to try to address it. In general terms we have:

  • restructured advising within the department—dedicating a faculty line to oversee advising for the sake of consistency and student retention
  • taken the assessment process seriously, assessed our offerings/curriculum and completely revamped both—several hundred changes completed in 2008. We are currently in the process of reviewing and assessing those changes to see what further improvements may be needed
  • instituted an enrollment management plan to track enrollment in our courses and, thus, better match offerings to what is needed—from 2004 to fall 2013, we have reduced the number of sections offered  by 30, from about 93 to about 63 per semester
  • have distributed classes across the spectrum of days and times—both for majors and in general education courses
  • we have a comprehensive retention and recruitment plan that extends beyond the efforts of the CAS and WMU
  • we have been at the forefront in offering an array of on-line courses—including the most recent trend toward hybrid courses
  • we have created an Advisory Council made up of alumni and emeriti to, among other things, help promote awareness of the department, its past successes, and future potential
  • and we have aggressively pursued development activities to raise funds to support and recognize student achievement, and provide entrance scholarships: we have created five new endowments (a sixth is over 70% to completion), and have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars since 2004—$317,704.87 cents to be exact

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All this has helped, we think, slow the rate of decline. That is, however, impossible to prove and does not change the decreased numbers.

These efforts, and successes, have come in the context of a significant decline in faculty in the department.

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As noted above, the department now offers fewer sections of some courses, and part of the reason for that is declining enrollment. The other reason is that there are far fewer faculty to teach classes—27.5% fewer, to be precise—and we have not increased the number of part-time instructors in the department. At the same time, we have decreased the number of graduate students in our program and, thus, the number of them who teach as Instructors of Record. Part of the decline in SCHs is, then, a function of fewer faculty to teach popular courses—especially general education courses.

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The faculty numbers on the slide are in proportion. Note that the SCH decline and that of the faculty numbers here. That is not a coincidence.

More to the point is the fact that even though the numbers of department majors and total SCHs have declined, the Department of History still produces among the most SCHs in CAS and the bulk of those SCHs are in general education courses. The department offers courses in six of eight General Education Areas, and most are taught by tenured or tenure-track faculty.

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The formula that WMU uses to generate data on SCHs per Full-Time Equivalent Faculty—that is faculty, term hires, part-time, and graduate IORs—is not clear. For the first set of numbers in the image above, SCH calculations are based upon the total SCHs divided by the number of T & TT. It is worth noting that over the period of this study, the number of sections taught by term hires, PT, and graduate IORs has decreased by 5.

In an effort to be more precise about the number of SCHs taught T & TT faculty, a survey of fall schedules of Department of History classes at the start, middle, and end of the period under review was undertaken. It reveals that, T & TT faculty teach—at least—two thirds of all regularly scheduled classes (and all of the independent studies sections), and such faculty account for about 50% of all SCHs generated. Based upon that average (the norm for departments of history with our sort of multiple missions), it is possible to refine the SCHs/T & TT as shown by the red line in the slide above. The department has, thus, despite its decreased numbers, not decreased SCHs per faculty member. That is because each faculty member teaches, per year, at least one large General Education course capped at 120 or more students. Some teach more than one such course. This reflects our policy of making sure that all students, even those in large classes, are taught by faculty with the appropriate degree and training.

There is one last point to be made about SCHs, and it is crude way to measure contributions in a higher education setting, but the department still makes a major contribution to WMU’s revenue stream and generates far more revenue that its uses to operate. We are good for WMU’s bottom line.

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But SCHs and revenue cannot be the only measures of a department and that is true of History. WMU prides itself on its being a research intensive university with strong graduate programs and the Department of History is a major contributor to both. Our graduate program is small by choice: this reflects what our faculty can responsibly do well and the reality of career opportunities for our graduates. Still, by any measure, the department’s graduate program is one of quality.

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Our MAs go on to good careers or to attend some of the best doctoral programs in the country, including, UCLA, USC, Syracuse, University of Minnesota, Tulane University, University of Illinois, Michigan State University, University of Michigan, Notre Dame, and Columbia. Our PhDs, from the start of the program’s existence, have been remarkably successful at finding positions for which the PhD was the primary condition of employment. Our placement rate is over 80%—including the most recently graduated doctoral students.
The above “quality” measures do not even begin to take into account the numerous CAS, WMU, and external grants and awards earned by our students. Those can be found, broken down by year, on our department website research pages under research activity. But a short summary includes, since 2004: two Frostic Awards, five Dissertation Completion Awards, six All-University Teaching Awards, and six highly competitive Fulbright Awards to study and research in Europe.

The department’s students are emulating its faculty which has a long tradition of excellence in research and teaching including, most recently, three Emerging Scholar Awards.eighteen 500

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The department is, by any measure, a productive one. For a full review of scholarly activity see our website research pages, but the next slides capture some of that activity in the form of graphs.

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Historical scholarship is cyclical—it takes time to do the sort of serious research that leads to book publication and acceptance of articles in leading journals. These numbers reflect that cyclical nature, but they also show consistent scholarly activity and success over the long term and remarkable stability given the losses in department faculty ranks. This rate of productivity matches up with those at the very best departments in the country.

Nor is this “busy” work for the sake of publication—it is work that is taken seriously. Faculty work is routinely reviewed in the leading journals of the discipline and cited by other scholars working in fields to which department members contribute. The measure of the work produced can also be evinced by the remarkable number of invited presentations—delivered around the world, and paid for by the host institutions—that department faculty members are asked to make, and by the numerous awards and grants faculty have garnered for their research efforts. The latter are listed on our department web research page but include: multiple Teaching American History grants worth some 5 million dollars as a whole, and hundreds of thousands to WMU alone; multiple National Endowment for the Humanities grants—the smallest being Summer Research Stipends worth $6,000 and the largest being interdisciplinary project grants worth $100,000 and $250,000 respectively. This is in addition to grants from other research universities and institutions ranging in value from $26,000 to as much as $100,000—with two or three valued at $40,000 and another at $72,000. (Again, for a full listing refer to our website research pages.

None of the above, of course, takes into account faculty’s myriad contributions in service to the profession, in the department and college, to faculty governance at the university level—via faculty senate and AAUP committee service—and to the myriad of inter-disciplinary initiatives at WMU. The latter include: Medieval Studies, Gender and Women Studies, Global and International Studies, Ethnohistory, University Center for the Humanities, Soga Japan Center, and the Timothy Light Center for Chinese Studies.

The Department of History, although diminished in numbers of faculty and SCHs, remains a vital contributor to the CAS, WMU, the many constituencies it serves locally, and to the wider profession of history. We understand past and present challenges (studying change over time is what we do), and are confident in our ability to address the myriad challenges WMU and higher education in Michigan.



Department of History
4301 Friedmann Hall
Western Michigan University
Kalamazoo MI 49008-5334 USA
(269) 387-4650 | (269) 387-4651 Fax