Me and the History Major…

Posted by | Posted on January 16, 2010


My name is Daniel Roettger, and I am a freshman from Little Rock, Arkansas, where my family moved last summer.  I attended high school in Batesville, Arkansas, a town of about 10,000 that is about 100 miles northeast of Little Rock.  My high school’s size and semi-rural locale meant a traditional and somewhat limited curriculum – quite a contrast to the curricular variety that I’ve found at Hopkins.  I came to Hopkins intending to enter the International Studies Department but soon gravitated toward history, which seems a better fit for my interests and aspirations.  History has always attracted me, and it promises to prepare me well for law school and a career in international law or in public service.

Several factors contributed to my decision to pursue a history major.  Foremost among these were my experience with the faculty and teaching assistants (yes, there are teaching assistants – TAs – and they’ve been terrific teachers and advisors) and the structure of the major.

If you have read my blog on my first semester coursework (to which I will here link), you will know that I took two history courses in the Fall 2010 semester – “Making America: Mastery and Freedom” and “Occidental Civilization: Modern Europe (1789-Present).”  I appreciated and liked both of these classes for different reasons, though the classes were entirely different on the whole.  Professor Ditz, who taught Making America, gave very formal lectures that were concise, cogent and stimulating.  She did not hesitate to offer her opinion  (“The American Revolution was not a radical revolution” she asserted, presenting us with arguments for and against this position, for instance).  On the other hand, Professor Shepard, who taught Occ Civ, as it came to be known, gave his lectures in far more chronological framework, concentrating on showing the class trends over time.  As is clear, these classes varied drastically in their general framework – with one being far more direct in its message/intent than the other.  That said, however, both classes were issue oriented rather than recitations of facts and date.  I appreciated them both and learned from both.

Making America and Occ Civ were both survey classes, meaning that they were rather large: Making America had about 60 students, and Occ Civ had about 120, give or take.  The size of the lecture classes meant that there was little in-class discussions, a circumstance that was offset by the weekly meetings of small sections that discussed the readings and lectures under the direction of teaching assistants.  (You’ve probably heard about teaching assistants or TA’s:  they are common at universities such as Hopkins, though they are typically found in introductory rather than advanced classes.)

Keep an open mind about TAs.  Adam Bisno was my Occ Civ TA, and Sarah Daminao was my Making America TA.   Both were outstanding.  They had or were pursuing doctoral degrees from some of leading institutions and knew how to run a class and lead discussion.  Most important, though, both Adam and Sarah were always accessible to meet to discuss something that was unclear, etc.  If they were unavailable, they were willing to clear up a question via email.  Their willingness to help a student – and their welcoming demeanor on this front – was a pleasant surprise — something that I didn’t expect in a large research University, where I feared that I might be lost among the student body.

At present, I am in the throes of preparing a research proposal for a Woodrow Wilson fellowship, and my project is rooted in history, though it also addresses a few legal questions, too (my project, if approved, will deal with a mid 1950s public school integration).  Knowing that I would have to find a faculty sponsor, I approached Professor Ditz during her office hours about my project idea and explained to her that I needed to find a sponsor.  Though prior engagements made her sponsorship impossible, she championed my cause, emailing other professors on my behalf and eventually connecting me to two professors whose fields of study are relevant to my project.  Both have been extremely helpful thus far, even though neither of them knew me before offering their aid.  That impressed me – that senior history faculty were so willing to help a first year student.

Basically, I have given you a chronology of my experiences with the history department thus far, starting from late August/early September and stretching to late December.  All of these experiences – interesting courses, varied courses, able and interested faculty – played major roles in my decision to declare as a history major.  But there’s more, and it has to do with the flexibility of the history curriculum and with the opportunities for guided research.

Flexibility is evident in most aspects of intellectual life at Hopkins.  Required courses are limited; instead, students (with lots of consultation from advisers) are encouraged to make their own way through an intellectually rich collection of learning opportunities that connect personal interests and experiences with the key concepts and schools of history.  This appeals to me — as does the prospect of independent research.

In high school, I undertook a rather ambitious project for National History Day, requiring a lot more research than I had expected.  I learned a good deal about my topic, but I learned even more about me.  I liked the research, the learning that it fostered, and the way that it engaged me in the process. So I was delighted to find that the History Department requires its majors to conduct a major research project during their sophomore year.  I find that exciting and attractive in the long term.  I also like the prospect of preparing a senior thesis which, if accepted, leads to “honors” in the major.  Additionally, the history department has an option for students to earn a Master’s in four years by taking graduate-level coursework and a dissertation.  These research and writing projects offer several distinct advantages, though, primarily, I like the idea of being challenged to write and think on my own and to produce a portfolio of research that I can reference when applying for summer jobs, internships, and, ultimately, graduate or law schools.  This amount of writing is unique as well, setting the history major apart from other majors at Hopkins and from other programs around the country.

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Comments (1)

Interesting comments. I’m particularly impressed with the quality and quantity of your interaction with the JHU faculty. Sounds as if they have a commitment to your education.