Thursday, September 5, 2013

How to Recruit a History Major

Earlier this week I had the privilege of speaking about the Messiah College History Department to the members of the Messiah College Admissions team as they prepare for the upcoming recruitment season.  I call this opportunity a "privilege" because I am not sure many department chairs do this sort of thing. Faculty complain all the time about the kinds of students that admissions officers bring to campus, but rarely do history faculty and admissions counselors have anything to do with one another. 

I tried to use my 20 minutes to talk about the distinctives of the History Department at Messiah and offered suggestions as to how we might work together to grow our department.  I also had the chance to show off a copy of Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past.  (Stay tuned--the book was released to the warehouse today).  In many ways, this book stems from my vision of what the discipline of history should look like at a place like Messiah College.

During the course of my talk I suggested that there are three types of potential history majors.  I will describe them briefly below.

1.  A high school senior who loves history and knows for certain that he or she wants to study the subject in college.  We do not have to tell these students about the merits of a history major.  Instead, we need to convince them that they should study history at Messiah College as opposed to another college or university.  To land this student we must stress what is unique about our program.  We can tell them about the close relationships they will develop with the faculty in our department, the extensive career development we try to provide for them, our commitment to integrating Christian faith and the discipline, and the outstanding teachers and scholars in our department.  Many of them will be choosing between other Christian or church-related colleges on the one hand and local state universities on the other.

2. A college senior who wants to major in history but is not sure how he or she will use the degree after graduation.  Today I had a potential history major tell me that he has always loved history, but was hesitant to pursue it as a major because he saw the subject as a "rewarding and mentally stimulating hobby; not a tangible tool for acquiring a job." We still have to convince students like this to come to Messiah College, but we have additional work to do in convincing them of the benefits of a history major.  How we accomplish this will depend on the student (and the parents).  Most of them will not be convinced that history should be studied for its intrinsic value.  Parents are paying big money to send their kids to college and they want them to study something that will be useful.  For some, an argument for the way the study of history prepares one for a life of responsible citizenship in a democratic society might do the trick.  But most students and parents think about "usefulness" in economic terms.  It is thus essential that these students and parents understand the marketable skills a history major can talk about at the interview table.  It is important that we are able to convince prospective students and parents that a plan is in place to prepare students to make the connections between their history education and the needs of the marketplace.  We need to tell them stories about Tara Anderson and others like her.

3.  A student who loves history but imagines a career in another field and thus has no clue that a history major can get her where she wants to go.  These are the toughest students to recruit because they are unaware that they can study what they love and still have a successful career in business or medicine or the non-profit sector or politics or the ministry, etc....  When these students approach an admission representative from Messiah College and tell them that they hope to have a career in business, they are usually given literature about the college's business major.  When they say they want to go into the ministry or pursue seminary, they are directed to the religion department.  I am sure this is the case at many colleges.  These students do not show up at history department open house presentations because they do not realize that they can major in history and use their degree to work in a variety of different fields.  These history-loving students are out there. We just need to find them so that we can tell them about the value of a liberal arts education.

I would appreciate any thoughts on this front from The Way of Improvement Leads Home readers.  How do you recruit history majors in your departments?