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2012



Making historians

JMU HIST 395: Gateway or gauntlet?
By Harry Atwood ('87)

Jessica Harvey ('11) proudly displays her
Jessica Harvey ('11) proudly displays her "I Survived HIST 395" T-shirt.

 

History is only one of JMU majors with a formidable course. However, HIST 395 may be the only one that is so reputed for its grueling demands that it has spawned a T-shirt that declares "I Survived History 395."

Paul McDowell ('11), who completed the course in May, recalls the angst he had before taking the class, "I was told by someone, 'Whatever you do, don't fall behind. You better keep up or you'll be in big trouble.'"

William Hayes ('09) recalls the early days of his course work. "About two or three weeks into it, I was pulling my hair out," he says. "I was to the point of considering changing my topic and starting all over. It was excruciating."

Not surprisingly, the professors put a more sanguine spin on the class. "It's a gateway," says Chris Arndt, JMU history professor and associate dean of the College of Arts and Letters. "It beats students up a little bit, but they come out knowing how to do research."

History professor Chris Arndt
History professor Chris Arndt

Gateway or gauntlet, students and faculty members alike treat this course with special reverence — a reverence borne out on a national level this year when JMU was one of five universities recognized by the American Historical Association and highlighted in a video about excellence in undergraduate research programs. Check it out at http://jmutube.cit.jmu.edu/content/hollowjb/playlist/162/play.

From apprentice to historian

At the heart of the course is a 15- to 20-page research paper that must meet with the approval of each student's academic adviser. Most students become quite attached to their topics and are understandably proud of their papers.

However, the paper is not nearly as important as the knowledge and skills students acquire through the research process. The ability to conduct solid, trustworthy research is the real reward.

"This is an apprenticeship program — a process class," says Michael Galgano, history department head and co-author, with Arndt and Raymond Hyser, of one of the textbooks, Doing History. "I see our role as training students to be independent researchers as early as we can."

Students are encouraged to take HIST 395 as sophomores or juniors. In 20 years of teaching the class, Galgano has seen countless students transform from well-meaning but novices into competent researchers. The skills they learn in this class inform the rest of their college careers, not to mention their lives beyond JMU.

Condensed from Fall 2009 Madison. Find the full story on Pages 42-47.