Expanding Access to History at JMU: A First Case Study

For the past year, NHA has been researching strategies that are succeeding in expanding access to undergraduate humanities education. These include a broad range of initiatives and interventions that have attracted more first generation, BIPOC, and/or low-income students. Some of these efforts have been very intentional about engaging students from specific underrepresented groups, while others have succeeded in expanding access through strategies aimed at the broader student population. In this blog post, we feature an example of the latter. The full report will be launched at the 2023 NHA Annual Meeting and Humanities Advocacy Day to be held in Washington D.C. March 19-21.

From 2019 to 2022, the history department at James Madison University increased its number of majors by 21% (286 total) while more than doubling its number of minors to 62. Much of this overall recruitment success can be attributed to the department’s ability to attract more first generation college students. The number of first gen history majors more than doubled over this three-year period, accounting for 60% of the overall growth in majors. Curricular reforms and redoubled marketing and advocacy efforts all appear to have been critical to making the history major and minor more attractive to students overall and more inclusive of first generation students in particular. 

First, the department overhauled its traditional curriculum for majors to offer courses of clearer relevance to a wider range of students. “We did away with the geographic requirements,” explained Department Chair Maura Hametz. “We looked at history as a method, as information literacy rather than as a body of content knowledge. We highlighted its contemporary relevance by emphasizing skills and knowledge acquisition—that was the guiding principle for the development of our curriculum.” The department introduced new requirements for connected courses and applied courses at the 300 level and funded faculty teams to develop them. These curricular innovations have helped to attract first generation students who may not recognize the value of traditional approaches in history and the humanities. 

The department’s new connected courses have a transnational and/or comparative component to them and are often organized thematically. For example, one such course is titled “Our Better Angels?: The History of Violence.” Applied courses center around the acquisition of particular research skills, particularly digital skills. For example, students write profiles for the public history app Clio, record podcast episodes, interface with GIS tools, participate in Reacting to the Past games, study material culture, and contribute to public history projects like Histories of the Blue Ridge. These applied courses enable the department to take advantage of high-tech facilities in its newly renovated building, known as the History Lab and History Studio, which house a recording studio, 3-D printer, GIS lab, and virtual reality equipment. Meanwhile, student projects in a required methods class and in 400-level seminars now take a variety of forms far beyond the traditional research paper. “There are few empty seats in upper division courses,” said Hametz. 

At the same time, the department has redoubled efforts to promote these courses and recruit students. The building the department occupies is adorned with digital signage that displays a series of slides advertising upcoming courses on a continuous loop. This slide presentation is also posted to the department website and distributed via email. This enables faculty to present their vision for their courses in a more complete and engaging manner, which is especially crucial for those offered as topics courses, which are described only in vague, generic terms in the university course catalog. These slides seem to have had a great impact on enrollment, as the only course not to exceed 50% of its capacity is the one for which a slide was not submitted on time. The department has also adopted more intentional scheduling policies; each faculty member schedules at least one course within one of the most popular time slots and at least one course outside prime hours. Faculty are encouraged to schedule their courses strategically to maximize enrollment; for example, scheduling a large course that doesn’t always fill during peak hours while filling their off-peak slot with a popular upper division course with limited capacity. 

Meanwhile, the department has expanded its recruitment efforts and gotten students and younger faculty members involved. They designed t-shirts for students who volunteer to provide tours to prospective students and support recruitment events. And they purchased swag to distribute at these events that pair a picture of the department’s iconic building and the tagline “Make History.” The department has also introduced History Huddles, meetings once a semester where students and faculty share a pizza lunch and talk casually about classes, advising, careers, and opportunities for research, study abroad, and internships. Collectively, these interventions make for a more inviting atmosphere.  

Efforts to connect history to careers have been integral to this broader recruitment push and the department’s success in attracting more first generation students. The department created a required course that supports students' professionalization and preparation for their post-graduation job search. Alums (not necessarily JMU alums) with exciting jobs visit the class via Zoom to talk about what their history major has meant to them and what they look for when hiring. For example, students in the course recently heard reflections from the leader of the U.S. component of the UN World Food Programme, which was awarded the 2020 Nobel Peace Prize. The department also created a “Historians as (specific type of professional)” event series to highlight precise career paths for history majors. Information on careers also scrolls on digital signage throughout the building. These efforts clearly signal that the history major is a viable path to career success for students of all backgrounds. 

All of these efforts have been strengthened by mutually supportive relationships with upper administrators. When the university hired a new dean and provost who prioritized inclusion, the history department came through with ambitious plans that aligned with the university vision. As a result, the department was able to obtain course development funds to support its curriculum overhaul, while individual faculty received stipends for developing new courses that support diversity, equity, and inclusion. When a new dean of admissions was hired and charged with emphasizing recruitment of underserved students, the department developed plans that aligned with this vision. They initiated programming to support first generation scholarship students and organized events to help first generation students acclimate to the community and to spur their interest in history. “The institution is very generous in supporting these efforts if you give them a really reasonable plan and ask for things that aren’t simply self-serving,” said Hametz. In turn, the department has communicated its gratitude for institutional support and demonstrated how it is making good on these investments. For example, Hametz sent a particularly impressive podcast created in one of the applied courses to the university president with a hearty “thank you” for the studio in which it was produced.   

This strong relationship with upper administration, combined with growth in majors, minors, and enrollments, has helped the department secure approval to replace departing and retiring tenure-track faculty on a relatively fast timeline. Hametz observed that “the key has been to make the case for what we want to add and why, rather than complain about what we’ve lost.” The department has used these open lines to rapidly diversify its faculty and course offerings at a time when this predominantly white institution is working to attract more students of color. And the curricular and recruitment reforms described above help these new faculty members to quickly establish their place in the curriculum. “I know it is working,” said Hametz, “not only are our majors up, but our links to interdisciplinary programs have strengthened and when new faculty come in, at first their classes are small, but they quickly gain popularity.” Taken together, all of these interventions have helped make the JMU history department a more vibrant and inviting place, particularly for first generation students.

We look forward to sharing more case studies of successful efforts to attract historically underrepresented students to the humanities in March via a report and associated sessions at the 2023 NHA Annual Meeting.


Photo Credit

Thumbnail image: A fully enrolled applied upper-division history course at James Madison University, which invites students to engage history using the technologies housed in the History Studio, which adjoins the classroom.

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