“History as a topic is so expansive,” noted Benjamin Gilsdorf ’21 as a loud crowd of people milled around him, precariously balancing pizza on plates. “After all, anything that’s happened up to now is history.”
Expansion was definitely the theme at the Octagon that day, where the history department filled up the Gerald Penney Center for a festive gathering of professors, history majors, prospective majors and departmental staff.
Midway through the event, Professor Sean Redding got up to make a big announcement, which amounts to this: At Amherst, there will now be a new way of framing what’s old. To be more concrete: After decades of students pursuing a concentration within the major by the traditional geography (American history, say, or Middle Eastern history), they can now choose among new thematic concentrations as well. These will bracket the study of history not by territory but by broad constructs such as social justice, empires and culture.
“We’ve been asking ourselves, ‘How can we make our major better reflect what our courses are?’” explains Associate Professor Ellen Boucher. “We started seeing students interested in ideas that cross the world, having classroom discussions that make a lot of connections. I teach British imperialism, for instance, but students may shy away from it because they think it’s not relevant to their life. But in that class, we can talk about racial hierarchy or the ethics of free trade, and suddenly it’s much more relevant.”
There are now three thematic concentrations. The first is “Empires, Nations and Encounters.” It encompasses courses that dig into imperial conquest, world wars, nationalist and anti-colonialist movement and trade networks.
The second is “Social Justice, Rights and Inequality.” It emphasizes large-scale social movements toward human rights, such as civil rights campaigns, and struggles for racial, gender, caste and economic equalities.
The third is “Cultures, Ideas and Emotions.” It allows for a broader look at history beyond politics and ideology, shedding light on cultural innovation and traditions and how emotional standards are formed across time and national boundaries.
Why these three? After a pivotal departmental retreat in 2017, “we made a big list, and decided that these three buckets give the widest range for students to follow their interests, and capture a larger number of our courses,” says Redding. To get to that point, the history faculty did an informal study of how the history major works at 12 of Amherst’s peer institutions. Several had embraced themes already.
This trend feels natural to newer history faculty. “As more and more grad students are trained to think across borders, you’ll see it trickling down to majors,” says Boucher. Those majoring in history can still choose a geographical concentration, and students can petition the department to create their own thematic concentrations beyond the initial three.
At the pizza party, there was already a buzz. Lisa Zheutlin ’21 said she’s leaning toward the Social Justice concentration, while Anastasia Sleder ’19 and Ranko Vranic ’20 like Empires, Nations and Encounters. Whatever they pick, said Sleder, “this will really energize the major.” Added Heather Brennan ’20: “At Amherst, the ‘more options’ answer is usually the best one.”