Thursday, May 1, 2014

What if a Historian of American Evangelicalism Taught a Course on the History of American Evangelicalism at an Evangelical College and No One Came?

Creation Festival: A Rite of Passage for Pennsylvania Evangelicals
Some of you may recall that I am scheduled to teach a course on the history of American evangelicalism in the Fall.  I am very excited about teaching this course.  I made up a flier for the course and had it posted on nearly every bulletin board in the college during registration week.  The flier includes pictures of George Whitefield, Billy Graham, Phyllis Wheatley, Joyce Myers, Joel Osteen, a camp meeting revival, and Billy Sunday.  At least two professors from outside my department have asked to sit in on the class and our college president has offered to come in and talk about some of her research on the rhetoric of the Christian Right.  I even thought I could use the course as a springboard for a possible book.

So needless to say I was disappointed when Messiah College students finished registering for their Fall 2014 classes and only 4 students enrolled in my course.   There is a chance that a few students might add the course over the summer, but there is a also a chance that one or more of the students currently enrolled will drop the course.

I have been thinking a lot about the low enrollment and have come up with a few possible explanations:

1.  The course does not meet a general education requirement.  In other words, only history majors can get credit toward graduation requirements by taking this course.  Most students cannot waste their time by taking a course that does not meet a requirement.  Others may not want to use one of their prized electives on a history course.  Some majors are so packed with required courses that students do not get the chance to explore interesting subjects outside of their primary fields of study.

2.  My course counts toward an American history elective in the history major or one of 3 free history electives within the major.  We often try to offer 2 upper-division American history courses each semester.  In the Fall, my History of American Evangelicalism course is competing with a course on the American Civil War taught by a very popular adjunct instructor affiliated with the Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College.  (I can't complain--as the department chair I hired this adjunct!).

3.  Students are tired of taking courses with me.  (I hope this is not the case, but you never know).

4.  This is a new "topics" course and students like to take courses that have a track record.

5.  I sometimes wonder if Messiah College students really care about a topic like American evangelicalism.  Messiah has roots in Pietism, Wesleyanism, and Anabaptism.  All of these streams of Protestantism have intersected in one way or another with American evangelicalism, but few professors and staff--especially in the School of Humanities where I teach--use the term "evangelical" to describe the college.  (I think this sense of evangelical identity is a bit stronger in the more professional programs, but that topic needs to be saved for another post).

Compare this to a place like Wheaton College (IL), the home of the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals and the college that most observers still consider to be the flagship academic institution of the evangelical movement in America.  Several years ago a Messiah College history graduate enrolled in Wheaton's M.A. program in American Christianity.  After his first semester was complete he came back to Messiah to see me and talk about the program.  He was really enjoying his classes, but he said it took him a long time to adjust to an academic culture in which "endless hours are spent trying to define the parameters and boundaries of evangelicalism."  This is not meant to be disparaging to Wheaton or their fine M.A. program, but it might explain why a course on the history of American evangelicalism might attract more students at Wheaton College than a similar course at Messiah College.

What do you think? Can you come up with another explanation?

I should conclude this post by saying that I am really excited about the four students who have enrolled in this course.  I am sure that we will have some great conversations next Fall, assuming that the "powers-that-be" at Messiah College allow me to teach it with such a low enrollment.  I want to thank one of those students--Phil (you may know him as the force behind Reckless Historians)--for encouraging me to write this post and for brainstorming with me about a possible title.