history

Despite the prestige of Penn's history department, some professors are concerned about recent changes and faculty losses.

Photo: Courtesy of Sarah Browning/Creative Commons

Penn’s history major was ranked eighth-best in the country by College Factual in 2013, but some within the department are not so satisfied.

At the forefront of these concerns is the recent slew of faculty retirements and departures. The department’s professors of American history have been most affected by this drop in numbers — a total of nine have retired or died in the past seven years. Meanwhile, top scholars of American history like Thomas Sugrue and Stephanie McCurry are planning to move to other universities soon.

Past and present professors say these losses are particularly problematic since American historians at Penn have strong reputations in the department.

In response to these losses, the department has rehired not only American historians but some in other subject areas like global history. The motivation behind this focus on scholarly diversity is lauded by some professors who point out that Penn’s history department is lacking in several important areas. For example, Penn’s History Department does not currently have a scholar of Indian history.

“There were many other areas [besides American history] that needed to be filled out and strengthened,” said former Penn history professor Sarah Igo, who taught from 2001 to 2008.“I think there was a general sense that the kind of dominance in numbers of American historians would kind of get balanced out by other fields, and properly so.“

“Certainly, my perception was the department could only be stronger if it was more even, if there wasn’t such a huge asymmetry,” a current Penn history professor, who wished to remain anonymous, added.

But other professors say these new hires have not restored the department to its former state. The difficulty of obtaining high-profile professors in underdeveloped areas of the department means that after highly visible scholars in American history retire, they are replaced with less-prominent ones in other subjects. This practice, some feel, has notbeen successful.

“If the American group was always the strongest and it got smaller without the other parts necessarily getting stronger, you have a problem,” the current history professor added.

This kind of hiring might not reflect undergraduate interests, and could limit the department’s ability to offer widely popular courses in basic subjects. “We offer tons of courses that have tiny numbers of people in them, and we used to have courses that had huge numbers of people,” the current professor said. "Why are we offering courses that nobody wants to take?”

One retired Penn Department of History chair agreed that the focus has shifted to more specialized history courses instead of more common or traditional history courses. “The moving away from courses that are of genuine interest to undergraduates has had a profound effect on enrollments in the History Department," he said.

Some within the History Department say the debate over which type of historians should be hired has lead to tension between staff.

“The department is much less collegial than it used to be; there's a much weaker sense of community,” another current history professor said.  “The power struggles and the distrust among the faculty is the most worrisome development in the department," the professor said, adding that tensions like these can be common in the academic world. "I wish it were otherwise. It makes the intellectual life less rewarding than it could be.”

Whether course offerings or other factors are responsible, enrollment has dipped —in 2010 Penn graduated 150 history majors, but in 2014 it graduated just 103.

But most professors within the department maintain that the quality of undergraduate teaching in history courses remains high. Although some faculty members prioritize research, hiring committees do weigh a potential candidate’s ability to teach.

“We have some very strong teachers in the department. We also have some people that aren't as strong, but that's sort of inevitable,” said the second current history professor, adding that he believes that Penn does value teaching ability. 

Despite the high quality of undergraduate teaching in Penn’s History Department, professors say, the nature of higher academia dictates that teaching will never be the ultimate priority. “I don't think teaching will ever [be] the deciding factor in hiring. You can be a great teacher but if your publication record isn't stellar than that's going to be a problem no matter how good you are in the classroom,” the second current professor said. “And that's true at all of our peer institutions.”

Despite the recent faculty losses and current polarized environment of the department, it plans to continue to move forward and improve.

According to Department Chair Beth Wenger, Penn’s History Department will hire several faculty members, including a senior twentieth-century American historian and professors in the subject areas of modern European and medieval history. A new series of “gateway courses” in American, European and world history will be offered. They will go beyond traditional survey courses and focus on specific historical themes and events.

“We are in the process of rebuilding in several areas of history. An academic department is a dynamic institution and is always changing,” Wenger said. “We are very confident about our plans to reshape and strengthen History at Penn.”

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