Choose your own adventure pursuing history

Students can often face a bewildering array of options when choosing their degree. Maryanne Rhett suggests the best ways to find your perfect history course in the USA.

Choosing academic programmes is sort of like those once popular books Choose Your Own Adventure. If you have decided to take up the mantle of history as a programme of study, this remains true. There are a series of questions you should ask yourself, each one leading to different answers and thus different types of programmes or schools. The very first question you should ask yourself is 'what kind of school do I want to attend?' If you want to get into smaller, more focused classes sooner, you may want to look at small liberal arts schools, not big state schools.

While it is true that the smaller the school, the more limited the areas covered by faculty, it is also true that that some faculty are willing to help you in self-directed study. Conversely, if you are not sure exactly what area of history interests you, the big state schools will act as an academic buffet, letting you sample from a wide variety of topics. In time you may narrow in on themes, but you will not feel pressured to do so early on.

Choose your own adventure persuing history

“history as taught in US universities will have a distinctly US perspective, whereas a class in England, India or Kenya offers a different interpretation, even of the same events”

Once the big decision is made regarding the mode of learning, the next question you want to consider is 'what really interests me?' History is a vast field and can be taken in a variety of ways; from ancient to modern, from scientific to humanistic. If you are interested in learning about the Roman world, it would not benefit you to attend a university without a Roman historian. Thus, the University of California at Santa Barbara might be ideal because, as their website boasts: “Across two departments, History and Classics, UCSB has no fewer than five professors who identify their primary research area as Greek or Roman History.” As is the case here, do not forget to look beyond the history department for professors who teach in the area which interests you. As a history major you want to know your department is strong, but it is not the only place you may get detail and depth in your chosen field. Look for specialists in anthropology, sociology or political science. All of these disciplines are complementary to a history programme, and frequently have 'cross-listed' courses that count towards your degree.

If you are not sure how to begin looking for a school which best fits you, another way is to find regional programmes by looking for 'centres', like the Center for South Asia at the University of Wisconsin, Madison; the Center for World History at the University of California at Santa Cruz; the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Arizona; etc.

Being creative about how you pursue your degree is vital. In an era with major budget cuts, getting what you want out of college means developing your own plan. To this end, it is beneficial to seek out schools with opportunities like studying abroad. No matter where you go, a history class allows you a nuanced view of the local history and likely gives you another perspective on the practice of interpreting history. After all, history as taught in US universities will have a distinctly US perspective, whereas a class in England, India or Kenya offers a different interpretation, even of the same events.

There are a variety of other details to consider while you decide upon your school. Take a look at the faculty who teach in the field. How close to retirement are they? If they retire during your time there, another professor with the same expertise may not be available immediately or at all while you continue your course work. If you can, find out what other academic commitments the faculty have. Universities may not ask professors to teach as many classes, or not as many undergraduate classes, if they serve on a lot of committees or chair programmes. This could be difficult information to find, but if you contact the department they are likely to help and provide some details.

Written by Maryanne Rhett
Program Committee Chair
World History Association