What’s New in 2014-2015? Curriculum and Courses

This year’s crop of History majors and minors at Bethel will be the first to experience a curriculum that’s been significantly revised. While our programs remain small (about 36 credits for the major, half that for the minor) and flexible (mostly giving students choices within categories), it’s been updated in several important ways:

  • Screenshot of the title sequence for "Past & Presence"
    Screenshot of the title sequence for our Past & Presence webisodes. (Click through to YouTube to see a rough cut of our “road trip” episode, culminating in a visit to Duluth, MN.)

    Probably the most notable change is that we’ve created a new course, HIS290 Introduction to History, as a requirement for both majors and minors. Blending face-to-face instruction (a two-hour Monday evening seminar) with online elements (weekly department webisodes and a course blog), HIS290 will introduce students to the theory and practice of history as a discipline, with particular emphasis on how Christians engage in study of the past and connections with vocation and career. You can read more about it at Prof. Chris Gehrz’s blog: first this introduction, then this update on what he and colleague Sam Mulberry did this summer to prepare for the webisode series, Past & Presence.

  • Students will continue to study history from multiple regions, taking two courses each from U.S., Global, and European (ancient, medieval, and modern) categories. The most important change here is in doubling the Global requirement from one course to two — at least one of which (as in the other two categories) needs to be 300-level.
  • With the new Intro course, the old Introductory category requirement goes away. (Though most of those courses still satisfy regional distribution requirements.) Likewise, with each category now requiring an upper-division course — all of which feature high expectations for writing and reading, plus elements of original research and/or historiography — the Foundation category has disappeared. (Though Modern Europe, Modern America, and Roman Civ still meet other requirements.)

One of the reasons we were able, at long last, to expand and deepen the Global requirement was the full-time addition of Amy Poppinga to our faculty. In addition to HIS328G Muslim Women in History (which debuted last year), Amy has created another new upper-division course, HIS/POS356 Modern Middle East, which premiered last week. She writes:

It has been interesting to develop my course curriculum this summer in the midst of the daily news, dominated by the struggles facing the region we will be studying. At the same time, I think students will be challenged by our need to stay on top of current events weekly, and will be enriched by building their knowledge of both the history and cultures of the countries of the Middle East. It has been hard to narrow down the selection of films and documentaries we will draw from and I am looking forward to having students assist me with determining which of these media resources will be most helpful for the students following in their footsteps. To me, that is one of the most exciting things about being a part of an inaugural course. This first group will inform how the course develops over time and I hope that these students will be excited by that opportunity.

(This spring Amy will also get a chance to teach a 200-level course on her primary field of expertise as a part of Bethel’s Honors program.)

Amid the larger curricular shifts, our capstone experience, HIS499 Senior Seminar, remains both unchanged and always unpredictable, as Prof. AnneMarie Kooistra explains: “…every new semester means a slew of new research projects from veteran History majors. I always look forward to assisting students as they get a glimpse of what it feels like to be a professional historian, and to do what they often consider their best work as Bethel students.”

<<Read the previous entry in this series of updates

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Why Major (or Minor) in History? Employers Want Good Writers!

This isn’t really news if you’ve been paying attention to recent surveys of employers, but it’s worth seeing again — this time from business cable network CNBC: (H/T Kevin McGrew)

Books on writing
Licensed by Creative Commons (Kristin Nador)

Can you tell a pronoun from a participle; use commas correctly in long sentences; describe the difference between its and it’s?

If not, you have plenty of company in the world of job seekers. Despite stubbornly high unemployment, many employers complain that they can’t find qualified candidates for the jobs they do have.

Often, it turns out, the mismatch results from applicants’ inadequate communication skills. In survey after survey, employers are complaining about job candidates’ inability to speak and write clearly.

…In a 2011 survey of corporate recruiters by the Graduate Management Admission Council, the organization that administers the standardized test for business school, 86 percent said strong communication skills were a priority—well ahead of the next skill.

While the CNBC article describes one response as companies investing in writing training for their employees, another answer is that those seeking business careers should strongly consider majoring in a writing-intensive humanities field like History, English, or Philosophy — or at least taking the five or six classes necessary to complete a minor in one.

Improving communication skills (not just writing and speaking, but listening) is a core objective of Bethel’s History Department. And our graduates tell us that it pays off:

  • In a 2010 survey of recent alumni, 96% said that their history coursework at Bethel improved their writing skills (the same percentage said the same thing about critical thinking; 99% said they were better researchers as a result of studying history at Bethel)
  • Then in a separate survey of recent alumni conducted earlier this year, we asked graduates to assess their abilities in writing and other skills on a five-point scale, with 1 being “Not skillful” and 5 being “Very Skillful.” On average respondents described themselves as mediocre writers entering Bethel (3.15 on short papers, 2.19 on long ones) and skillful writers on leaving Bethel (4.23 and 4.19, respectively).

So if you’re a prospective or new Bethel student worried about getting a job out of college… Talk to one of our faculty about declaring a major or minor in History!

Our Mission and Objectives (part 3)

In the first post in this series, we looked at our department’s revised mission statement, adopted last August. I closed that post by noting that we left the mission statement itself without explicit reference to Christianity, since it would be followed by two objectives that make our religious commitments eminently clear.

Last time we looked at the first of those objectives, which focused on student acquisition of historical knowledge. Today we’ll close the series by sharing the second objective, which affirms that knowledge of the past is not enough if, as we put it in our mission statement, our students should be “actively engaged with the present.”

2. Our students will cultivate wisdom, so that they can live skillfully in the present day, serving others and glorifying God wherever they’re called.

As important as it is for our students to gain a broad knowledge of the past, we view our task as more formative than informative. Above all, we hope to form our students as followers of Jesus Christ who “busy themselves on Earth” though “their citizenship is in heaven” (in the words of The Letter to Diognetus, an early Christian apologetic). While they sojourn in this world, our students will “busy” themselves in a variety of callings, but all to two basic ends: what the Pietist educator A. H. Francke summed up as “God’s glory and neighbor’s good.”

To do this requires not merely knowledge, but wisdom, which Eugene Peterson defines as “the art of living skillfully in whatever actual conditions we find ourselves.” So, knowing that our students will encounter a variety of conditions after leaving Bethel, we seek to cultivate wisdom through the development of two basic sets of skills:

LIFELONG LEARNING

The completion of a Bethel degree is but one stage in a lifelong process of learning, defined by the apostle Paul in the famous admonishment: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds…” (Rom 12:2a). So to help them avoid the trap of being “conformed to this world” and to sustain the ongoing renewal of their minds beyond college, we equip our students to ask good questions (rather than accepting assumptions and arguments without challenge) and to locate, identify, and evaluate sources and synthesize and analyze data and interpretations as they seek answers to those questions. So, across the curriculum and culminating in the capstone experience, our courses will train students in skills like critical thinking, reading (not just books and articles, but in a variety of media), and research.

Students should thereby be equipped not only to continue their studies in graduate or professional school (for those called to careers in education, law, ministry, health care, business, etc.), but also to ask and answer questions they might encounter as voters, consumers, parents, employees or employers, church members, and in other roles.

COMMUNICATION

Because learning itself is not a purely individual pursuit and because our students will follow callings that will take them into conversation with people of varying backgrounds, they must be able to communicate effectively. We place highest importance on the ability to write well in a variety of genres, but coursework will also prepare students to communicate orally or via audio-visual media.

Of course, we also want students to recognize that communication does not travel in one direction alone. They should also have the skill of listening, cultivated in part by treating courses as conversations in which students must pay attention to the voices of peers, professors, other scholars, and women and men from throughout history.

For our students and alumni who’ve been reading this series, we’d love to hear your take:

Do the stated mission and objectives seem to match up with what you experience(d) at Bethel?

Which of the objectives seem most important to you?

Are there other objectives you think are important but neglected in this statement?

– Chris Gehrz

<<Read the previous entry in this series

Our Mission and Objectives (part 2)

In the first post in this series, we looked at our department’s revised mission statement, adopted last August. I closed that post by noting that we left the mission statement itself without explicit reference to Christianity, since it would be followed by two objectives that make our religious commitments eminently clear. Today we’ll look at the first of those two objectives, the one that accompanies our mission statement’s ambition to “prepare students who are… imaginatively comfortable in a historic past….”

1. Our students will gain a broad knowledge of human history, deepened by the integration of Christian faith and learning, the recurrence of marginalization and interconnectedness as historical themes, and the development of their own particular passions and interests.

Believing that all of God’s creation — including all human beings, who bear the image of God — is worthy of study, we have constructed our curriculum broadly, so that it familiarizes students with the histories of peoples from multiple regions, including the United States, Europe, and parts of the Global South. Our curriculum features survey courses that each give an overview of a region, era, and/or field while also enabling faculty to teach to their interests and expertise and students to conduct more focused study on narrow topics of their selection.

Within this admittedly broad objective, our curriculum and courses will reflect the following shared emphases:

MARGINALIZATION AND EMPATHY

We affirm that our faith and learning are necessarily interrelated, so courses will frequently lead students to consider what is distinctive about the discipline of history as Christians practice it. While students should expect to see their professors model varying philosophical and methodological responses to this question, we share the guiding assumption that historians who follow Jesus Christ ought to imitate him in paying special attention to those on the margins of society: the poor, the oppressed, and the alien, to name but a few groups. Rather than simply repeating comfortable narratives of power and privilege, we will seek to tell the stories of those who are powerless and dispossessed. In particular, our courses will consider categories like gender, class, and race that have often been used to perpetuate injustice.

Such emphases demand that we work even harder to develop a basic skill for historians: empathy. We affirm that history is not merely the collection of an objective set of facts, but requires us to be aware of our own subjectivity and to develop the imaginative understanding necessary to see the world as others see it. As a special focus, we will be hospitable to those of different religions and ideologies.

THE “CLOUD OF WITNESSES”

While we are interested in the stories of people from all faiths (and those professing no religious belief), we will be particularly attentive to the role played by Christians within history.

This does not mean that we will engage in hagiography, celebrating uncritically the temporal story of the church and its members; all Christians sin and fall short of the glory of God, and so even their ecclesial institutions are inherently flawed and prone to subverting the very gospel they proclaim. But we are guided by the biblical image of the “great cloud of witnesses” (Heb 12:1), which reminds us that we are but the latest participants in a millennia-old narrative of God and his people, a story that will not always be comfortable for us to tell but nonetheless inspires us to persevere as we “run… the race that is set before us.”

INTERCONNECTEDNESS

No single history can be studied in isolation. So while each course may focus on a particular group, territory, civilization, or event, students should expect to encounter themes of interconnectedness: categories central to international and transnational history (e.g., war and diplomacy, empire, migration, trade and commerce, cultural exchange, technological development, human interactions with their physical environment); comparisons between societies and cultures; and attentiveness to continuity and discontinuity across time.

In addition, we will emphasize the connections of individual courses to larger educational projects. Each course helps to build foundations for further study in later history coursework, in the Bethel general education curriculum, and in students’ lives after college.

PASSIONATE CURIOSITY

We recognize that those who study history do so out of a God-given, passionate curiosity about the past that is as distinctive to the individual as it is unusual in contemporary American culture. So while providing basic foundations for broad historical knowledge, we leave ample room — in the curriculum and in individual courses — for students to explore their personal interests. This is exemplified by our capstone course, a seminar facilitating original research by senior students into virtually any historical topic.

In the next and final post in the series, we’ll share our second overarching objective, in which we focus less on knowledge and more on the cultivation of wisdom…

– Chris Gehrz

<<Read the first entry in this series          Read the final entry in this series>>

Our Mission and Objectives (part 1)

So sometime last spring we realized that it had been over forty years since the Bethel History Department substantially revised its mission statement and program description. Yes, our mission statement was older than Bethel’s current campus, and dated back to the Nixon Administration (at least).

Now, as historians, we don’t necessarily have a problem with things that are, y’know, old. But aside from one member of the department, there’s been a bit of staff turnover since the Vietnam War, and it seemed like it might be a useful exercise to spend part of our summer workshop rewriting our mission statement and objectives.

Here’s how we decided to state our mission:

The Bethel University Department of History prepares students who are “bilingual,” imaginatively comfortable in a historic past and actively engaged with the present.

I like this statement for several reasons. First, it’s relatively succinct. If I put my mind to it, I could probably memorize it and repeat it to all prospective students and their parents. (If I put my mind to it…) In any case, the key points are easy to remember and communicate.

Second, it stresses that historians rely on a faculty not normally associated with academic disciplines outside of “the arts” — the imagination. After all, we can’t run experiments, or observe past time… We can only gather partial evidence and use our imaginations to connect the dots.

Third, it suggests that historians are not simply antiquarians — we have roles to play in our own time. But it resists the temptation to suggest that the only or principal value of studying the past is to learn lessons for the present. I think we’d all affirm that learning about the past is valuable in its own right. At the same time, undertaking that kind of project also helps historians to engage well with the problems of the present day. (In the third part of this series, we’ll start to talk more about this, emphasizing the idea that education is primarily about formation, not information.)

Fourth, it underscores that we are, above all else, a “teaching department.” To make that perfectly clear, we added a brief follow-up sentence: “While we serve a variety of constituencies (including, as scholars, professional societies and the larger academy), our mission is centered on teaching and student learning.”

As with most decisions in our department, adopting the mission statement provoked little heated discussion but a couple of valuable debates. The first discussion had to do with the word “bilingual.” We wondered if it implied a belief that the past and present are radically different, like two languages whose speakers can’t begin to understand each other. Ultimately, we liked that it was somewhat jarring, perhaps even eye-catching — since it’s not necessarily the first word that comes to mind in describing historians. It also suggests a kind of intercultural competency, the ability to move between worlds, even within the same conversation.

The second discussion dealt with a more serious objection: the mission statement made no explicit mention of our commitment to Bethel’s mission and identity as an evangelical Christian university in the Baptist and Pietist traditions. Perhaps we could add “Christian” in between “prepares” and “students”?

In the end, we decided it wasn’t necessary, since the mission statement was to be followed by two objectives that would make eminently clear that we regard Christian belief and practice as integral to our work as individuals and a department. More on those two objectives in the coming days…

– Chris Gehrz

Read the next post in this series>>