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The changing face of history

Oct. 4, 2005
By Anita Martin

Ohio University's department of history is not in the business of reviving the past. To the professors who work there, the past is alive and well, and it affects the present. Their job is to consider all things in the broader chronology, or as Professor William Frederick puts it "to think in time," and to help others to do so.

The department, this year ranked 74th by U.S. News and World Report for its graduate program, prides itself on its prolific faculty and its quality of instruction. And now, the department has a chance to expand its services.

The Federal Department of Education (FDE) has awarded a $1 million grant to Ohio University's department of history, the Ohio Historical Society (OHS) and the Perry-Hocking Educational Service Center (ESC) as part of the federal "Think History" initiative to improve public teaching of United States history.

"We have a lot of very distinguished scholars who put as much into teaching as they do into research," says Marvin Fletcher, professor of history. "This (grant) recognizes the excellence of what we're doing in the classroom."

The grant money will fund three years of instructional services for South and Southeast Ohio public high school teachers. The university, together with OHS and the Perry-Hocking ESC, will offer seminars and workshops to local teachers for graduate credit.

"It's a great deal for everyone," Fletcher says. "Participating teachers have paid tuition and paid substitutes. We benefit because we get to reach out to the surrounding schools."

The department has a tradition of reaching out. In 1987, the Contemporary History Institute was founded at the university as a means of integrating related disciplines that could benefit from one another's methods.

"The original idea was that historians are particularly well-trained to interpret contemporary events because of the scope of their knowledge," says Michael Grow, CHI director. "The institute trains graduate students to apply historical theory and methodologies to recent events."

Each year, the institute accepts twelve to fifteen graduate students of history, economics, journalism and political science.

"We think history has something to share with these disciplines by showing them how to think in time," Frederick says. "Meanwhile, journalists might say that our nice calm view of the past ignores the crisis of the present. They have something to share with us too."

Such exchange breeds academic variety, but the institute is just part of the story.

"What really makes this department dynamic is the faculty itself," says Norman Goda, department chair. "In the past three or four years, the majority of our hires have been younger and more diverse, which has dramatically transformed the department in very good ways."

Although a major strength of the department, utilized by the FDE grant, is 20th century U.S. history, many recent hires specialize in earlier, non-western and comparative studies.

"Our department represents core components of African Studies and Southeast Asian Studies," Goda says. "We have contacts in dozens of countries. We are poised to do more innovative and cross-discipline programs."

Prospective programming includes medieval studies and Jewish studies, both curriculum candidates for fall 2006.

The student body has responded to changes with a rise in interest. Before the early 1990s, enrollments for history classes remained under 6,000, and in recent years, the numbers are approaching 8,000. Within the past five years, the number of earned history undergraduate degrees has increased by 36 percent.

Amid community outreach, enrollment growth and course expansion, the faculty has managed to produce six books in the past year, with six more on their way to the press next year.

"What makes the (U.S. News and World Report) ranking so important is that, in terms of state schools, we rank around 20th, and many of our peer institutions have faculties twice our size," Goda explains. "Basically, what you have here is a faculty of 22 people who are unusually productive."

Anita Martin is a writer with University Communications and Marketing

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Published: Oct 4, 2005 1:14:00 PM
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