By Jackson Sundheim
The History major at Lewis & Clark is unlike any other major. Out of the 29 majors available, it is the only one whose foundational course is at the 300 level: HIST-300, also known as Historical Materials and sometimes as “bootcamp.” Historical Materials is the class in which students learn the theory and practice of historical research, culminating in an editing project which is famous among History majors for its difficulty. This structure results in a curious departure from the typical major trajectory seen in majors like Biology or Philosophy, which have 100-level foundational courses and escalate from there. Despite this unique structure, the History major has enough advantages to hold its own with the current lineup.
Before we get too eager about the positives, let us examine the difficulties one might face when approaching the History major. The hidden danger in its trajectory is that taking 100 and 200-level courses can lull a student into a false sense of security. Essentially, there is a hidden difficulty to the History major. Where other departments have 200-level methods and survey courses that allow students to get an idea of the practical applications of their major, history students have to wait until a 300-level course to get a clear idea of the applications and rigorous requirements of the major. The upper-level core history courses are not only much harder, they are also a huge departure from the lower level curriculum in their focus and, in my opinion, a lack of engaging topics. Every aspiring history student is told that Historical Materials will be the bane of their existence, but they might not be told that many professors feel the same. As students embark on the editing project, they may find themselves realizing why it is that the History faculty display minimal enthusiasm about being thrust into the role of drill sergeant in this so-called bootcamp.
Historical Materials is generally followed by HIST-400, the Reading Colloquium; although the numbers are very misleading as the courses should be either switched or combined into one. The tremendous deluge of historiographical analysis which characterizes Reading Colloquium is enough to shock even a wily veteran of Historical Materials. Basically, students interested in studying history at LC should know that there is a large divide between lower and higher level classes, a divide that is much larger than other departments.
LC is not anomalous in the world of History majors. It shares a similar structure with nearby institutions, including Portland State University and Reed College. They all have a top-heavy structure, although Reed’s does include a year-long thesis course and the ominous-sounding “Junior Qualifying Exam.” Perhaps this is because History as a major is generally understood to occupy a unique position in many institutions’ major options, with a unique trajectory more suited to the needs of certain students.
Many students at liberal arts colleges like LC are unsure of what field of study to pursue, and at different points in their academic careers might be trying to decide between Religious Studies and Philosophy, or between Computer Science and Music. However, the unfortunate fact of the matter is that some of these majors are very difficult to switch to after the first or second year of college. History is perfect for indecisive or uncertain students. I myself was set on majoring in Rhetoric and Media Studies, but after admittedly being quite intimidated by Intro to Rhetoric and Media, I tried to find an alternative.
After intense searching of the course catalogue and my soul, I chose History. One reason was the amazing diversity of courses in which I could learn about all sorts of civilizations around the world and throughout time. But while this is a huge advantage of the History Major, another significant reason I chose it was because I could stay on track within the program without doing summer school or signing my soul over to the devil.
Because of these reasons and despite the drawbacks of the major, it is my opinion that History offers a unique and fun option for those interested in the liberal arts, especially for students that don’t know yet exactly what they want. That is not to say that it is flawless, but if potential History students take those into account before their final major decision, I think that they will be rewarded for it.