An alternative to attrition: A strategy to encourage the retention of history students

Published on: 13 Jan 2020

We’re taking this opportunity to reflect on some past “Teaching Corner” content from the Bulletin (now Intersections) and wondering if this issue about retention and enrolment, discussed in 2017 by Carl Bouchard, has shifted in the past 3 years or not?  We offer this re-post for your consideration.

Clouds are gathering over history departments in Canadian universities as student enrolment declines year after year. There are many deep-seated reasons for this decline, but a few stand out: a decline in attractiveness compared to the other humanities and social sciences, the questioning of our discipline in the age of truth, but above all the widely shared feeling that a degree in history is not the best professional avenue. Although the need for history is as pressing as ever in our societies, historical training, increasingly viewed through the sole prism of career opportunities and no longer as the cornerstone of a general culture and a sharp view of the world, is less and less popular. In this respect, it is significant to observe the current craze for political science - departments are overwhelmed by applications for admission - which is perceived as a discipline more able to respond to the anxieties of the times because of its predictive nature, but above all as potentially more interesting in terms of employment prospects. Yet recent studies show that history graduates do as well as others in the labour market. 1 Experts, for their part, are sounding the alarm: in a few years' time, artificial intelligence will have wiped out a whole range of professional sectors, which will now be able to operate with a minute human workforce. Alexandre Laurent, one of AI's gurus, is categorical: if the next generations want work, they will have to turn to the humanities, where general culture, critical thinking and multidisciplinary skills are developing.2

Let us rejoice for a few moments in these prophecy-like predictions, it doesn't cost anything, and let's hope that, in fifty years, the history departments will be invaded by young brains eager to learn! At the present rate, however, how many universities will have, by then, reduced their faculty to the strict minimum? How many history departments will have disappeared across the country? What do we do until the dust settles?

In my department, we are concerned, as everywhere else, about declining enrolment. A series of initiatives, supported in particular by the Faculty of Arts and Science of the Université de Montréal, are currently being implemented to counter this trend, such as establishing much closer relations with CEGEPs and increasing the visibility of history professors in the public space. In addition, it may be beneficial to make efforts towards those who are already in our programs because, while we need to attract as many students as possible, we also need to reduce attrition - up to 30% at the end of the first year of the program.

For us, this dual necessity has led us to reflect on the "student experience" that we can offer our students. What do we find here that we don't find elsewhere? A new course, in line with this issue, has been introduced in our History Research and Writing (HST1015) curriculum. I was fortunate enough to teach it for the first time in the winter of 2017. It is intended primarily for first-year students who did not perform as well as expected in their first term. The course aims to contribute to their determination by improving the overall quality of their work, and, more generally, to give them the tools to be in charge of their training, rather than being subjected to it. Such objectives resonate fully with the student success support policy that UdeM launched in 2015. 3 Each session is built around the major challenges to be overcome in history, in addition to the acquisition of knowledge: precision of thought, clarity and effectiveness of written and oral expression, structuring of ideas, note-taking (for courses and readings), problematization, etc. At the end of the first term, the students' commitment and appreciation of the course exceeded my expectations. A post-course workshop attended by several colleagues provided an opportunity to take stock of the experience; we looked at what could be transferred to other courses for the benefit of all, both in terms of communication (precision of lesson plans, guidelines for evaluations, information, etc.) and feedback, in particular the principle of a common marking grid for all introductory courses, which would provide better learning benchmarks - a principle adopted at the start of the September 2017 academic year.

It is obviously not possible to retain all those who register for courses in our department, which would, in any case, be detrimental fairly quickly. But we do hope, with a course like this one and through other initiatives, to generate a ripple effect: without ever abandoning rigour and disciplinary requirements, to offer added value to the training that comes to characterize the student experience in the UdeM History Department. It's an avenue to consider, so that the horizon is a little more promising.

Carl Bouchard, l’Université de Montréal

1 https://www.univcan.ca/media-room/media-releases/liberal-arts-degrees-are-a-good-investment/; https://www.historians.org/publications-and-directories/perspectives-on-history/april-2017/history-is-not-a-useless-major-fighting-myths-with-data 
2  Laurent Alexandre, La Guerre des intelligences, JC Lattès, 2017.                         
3 http://reussir.umontreal.ca/accueil/ 


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