Monday, April 9, 2007

Smaller Classes: An Improvement for History

As noted in my previous post the academic year is drawing to a close, and an institution is allowed the opportunity to reflect on the strengths and weaknesses of the year that has passed for its student body and how it can improve undergraduate programming. My home institution of the University of Southern California (pictured at the left), as a member of the Association of American Universities, takes full advantage of the chances that are provided with self-reflection at the end of another academic year. More specifically, the College of Letters, Arts, and Sciences has what is known as the Dean’s Prize, an attempt to actualize both the core ideals of USC and its plan for the future.

According to its role and mission, USC holds that its task “is the development of human beings and society as a whole through the cultivation and enrichment of the human mind and spirit….through a broad array of academic, professional, extracurricular and athletic programs of the first rank.” The USC 2004 strategic plan provides a more detailed set of values as to how the institution is going to improve the educational experience by stating that it “will focus [their] educational programs on meeting the needs of qualified students worldwide…This commitment will guide our choices regarding pedagogy, instructional technology, curriculum, admissions, and support services.” The Dean’s Prize places some of the decision making as to the learning experience into the hands of the students by asking those who directly coming into contact with the curriculum, as to where they believe the programs are falling short and how improvements can be made, which is one avenue that the college is using in an attempt to enrich the educational process.

This week I had decided to take on the task of looking back on my familiarity with the history department as a junior in my educational career and how it could best be helped. Numerous ideas whirled through my head about grand improvements that could have been made to the department buildings, classes provided, locations of instruction, but I came to the realization that there is actually a very simple change: smaller class sizes. I know that this may appear to be an insignificant and simplistic solution but it is the solution that the degree of history has been searching for.

I am not talking about making classes that already contain fifteen people in them smaller, but those classes are upper division courses typical of any major. One of the most fundamental ways of achieving that goal is by starting out with smaller class sizes at the lower division course level. Instead of having 100 and 200 level course where there are well over 100 people per class (similar to the one pictured at the right), make those classes smaller. The advantages are as follows. First, more personal interaction with working professionals rather than Teachers Assistants, for TAs are sometimes lacking in knowledge of the subject matter, causing frustration and dissatisfaction with the class, quickly shifting to discontent with the major as a whole. Next, professors are able to provide students with a fuller range of employment possibilities from museum curator to archivist or author instead of the typical lawyer or teacher. Many people starting out in the field of history fail to see these various avenues available to them. Finally, with a smaller class size there would be a greater opportunity for professors to make history a more tangible thing rather then merely information in a book. All of these benefits exemplify the strategic plan of the improvement of undergraduate education in accordance with the beliefs of USC’s history department of the ability to “appreciate and evaluate the world beyond” our lives.

I had a personal experience with this more physical technique of teaching through a class that I took in the spring of 2006. The class was the Vietnam War class taught by Dr. Roger Dingman (pictured at left), in which he planned and implemented a field trip to Little Saigon where our class (of only 20 people) was able to come face to face with the religion, food, and history of Vietnam. We were able to see, touch, and taste what we had been learning about in the pages of our books. That experience would not have been possible with a class of 150 people, and I would not have felt the joy and excitement of living history that I did that day. However, this was an upper division class made up of mostly juniors and seniors. These experiences must be made available for freshmen and sophomores so that they may see the enjoyment that comes from being a history major. Though it may look to be trivial change on the surface, the prospects that become available with the change are countless. The financial expenditure of employing more quality professors will be far outweighed by the enrichment of the learning experience of countless students and the robust growth of quality of the history department as a whole on a national and international level.

Monday, April 2, 2007

A Man Who Distinguished Himself in History: Ted Widmer

This week I will be taking an additional departure from my blog entries with the final refinements being placed on Pomp and Circumstance No. 1 (and the all too familiar mortar board pictured at left) for the fast approaching commencement ceremonies and the achievement of scholastic excellence. Among the various degrees bestowed upon college graduation day there is one degree that has often caused much debate: the honorary degree. As president emeritus of the University of Iowa and Dartmouth University, James Freedman, describes what he believes the true attributes of the presentation of the honorary degree ought to be to “celebrate distinguished and sublime achievement” because when a university gives an individual such a degree “a university mak[ing] an explicit statement to its students and the world about the qualities of character and attainment it admires most.” However, he goes on to provide the aspect of the honorary degree that causes debate among many individuals as to the legitimacy of the award. Freedman believes that over the years the North American higher education system has warped the original intention of the honorary degree into something used “to flatter generous donors and prospective benefactors” or “mere celebrities-who are often famous principally for being famous.” By taking Freedman’s perspective on the state of the honorary degree in American higher education one can see how they can be seen as “trivialized” piece of paper.

In spite of Freedman’s doubt as to the validity of the honorary degree I still believe that there are those individuals existing in the world in various fields of specialty who are deserving of a degree. A degree described by The University of Southern California as a designation to “honor individuals who have distinguished themselves through extraordinary achievements in scholarship, the professions, or other creative activities, whether or not they are widely known by the general public” and “recognize exceptional acts of philanthropy to the university and/or on the national or world scene.” Under the guidelines that have been specified by the university there is an exceptional individual in the field of history who is most deserving of an honorary degree from the University of Southern California named Edward L. “Ted” Widmer.

Ted Widmer (pictured at right) is currently the director of John Carter Brown Library at Brown University and a former speechwriter for President Bill Clinton. However, despite his two prestigious occupations what makes Mr. Widmer most deserving of one of USC’s honorary degrees (for there are seven different fields of honorary degree that USC gives out) is his dedication to the furthering people’s education of American history. He has performed this task through various avenue of involvement. He has taken on the task of educating America’s public on various topics of American history from his book on Martin Van Buren a part of the American President Series to collections of America speeches from the Revolution to Bill Clinton a two part book series aimed at providing primary sources demonstrating the important political, social, and moral ideologies that shaped America into what it is today. Widmer’s books are not simply additions to the already prolific array of non-fiction historical works existing in the world that makes important contributions to the field of history, but his first book, Young America: The Flowering of Democracy in New York City (pictured at left) has been recognized for its merit by the Washington Irving Literary Medal given out by the St. Nicholas Society of New York City for excellence in the literary field at representations of New York’s history. To help further American knowledge of American history even farther Ted Widmer has helped establish a literary award of his own in 2001 for recognition in the field of America’s early era history. The award named the George Washington Book Prize awards a $50,000 prize to the author of the book which “contributes to a greater public understanding of the life and career of George Washington and/or America’s foundering era” as described by the awards description. The important aspect of the award is that the book selected must have provide the public with a better understanding of American history and not an esoteric group of scholars and experts in the field.

Perhaps Ted Widmer’s greatest accomplishment was his work through the C.V. StarrCenter for the Study of the American Experience at Washington College in which he helped develop programs to enrich the knowledge of American history to groups that were lacking in their comprehension of that history. Through his programs he brought a more stimulating learning experience to under-funded inner city schools in Maryland all the way to Muslim college students in Anti-American regions of the world. More specifically during his work in at the C.V. Starr Center he developed the prototype in conjunction with the Untied States State Department for the American Studies Institute which “invite[s] undergraduate college students (pictured at right) exclusively from Islamic backgrounds to study American culture and history up-close and in-depth. A grant of $250,000 from the State Department covers 90 percent of the cost of the program” as described by John Buettner of media relations in a 2004 article published by Washington College on

Ted Widmer’s unwavering dedication to the not only national, but international expansion of the understanding and knowledge of American history through his books and the programs that he has brought into existence qualifies him to receive the Doctorate of Human Letters. For Widmer has shown that he is an outstanding citizen of the United States of America. He has helped to educate the public in areas that they have been found wanting in and has even extended that branch of knowledge to diverse groups of individuals such as Muslim students living in anti-American locations shortly after a time in America’s history when such actions may not be the most popular in American society. Widmer’s courage and dedication to his field of history makes him an indispensable figure to modern American society in which he would have much knowledge to pass on a new generation of graduates through a commencement address for he is the living embodiment of his field, something that any individual who has labored for the past four to five years on a degree in their field.