History needs structure

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The history department needs to be more standardized.

Besides a Canadian history credit requirement, there are almost no core courses in the major and medial programs. Upper-level seminars require only a third or fourth-year standing in history, and no prerequisites.

For the most part, we take courses that pique our interest until we leave.

I take issue with this structure, or lack thereof. I appreciate openness in a program. It allows students to explore their interests. However, the current program provides no common base of knowledge, or even a defined way of approaching history.

For a program that values critical thinking skills, it’s hard to justify the arbitrary methods used to teach them. There’s something to be said for learning the basics of studying history — not any specific topic, but the skillset for conducting research and analyzing historical sources.

I went until the middle of my third-year without a clear understanding of how to properly conduct research. I chose a thesis beforehand and searched for information to justify my conclusion. Sometimes the essays worked. Often they didn’t.

Later, I learned to find the available evidence first and test my ideas based on that information. But I can’t name where or when I learned this method, or whether I learned it in a history class. Even now, I feel my methods are haphazard.

Many of my professors have been fantastic, but their primary concern has been teaching students various topics in history, not how to study history.

Most programs have mandatory courses on methodologies. Economics has statistics and econometrics courses. Psychology has research methods courses. Political studies has a political theory course and a political research course.

A required methodology course — a course on history as a field and different approaches to historical writing and research — would provide a knowledge base for all history students.

Other mandatory courses would strengthen the program. A student shouldn’t be able to obtain a history degree without having ever taken a course on a time period before 1800, or get away with taking courses focusing on only one continent.

There’s also the question of prerequisites. Most upper-year seminars have a second-year course on the same topic; making them mandatory would allow seminars to deepen our knowledge on familiar topics, rather than continually restarting the learning process.

History is a challenging field of study — it’s one of the oldest in existence — and proper historical understanding requires a wide base of knowledge. Our department already does great work, but we can do better.

Sebastian is one of the Journal’s Features Editors. He’s a fourth-year history major.

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