Reflections on a Departmental Merger

If things seems quiet here at Pietist Schoolman, it’s because I’ve been busy over at another blog: CC 4th, the site I’ve been administering for my department since 2012. See, this is the week we announced that “my department” at Bethel is no longer History, but History, Philosophy, and Political Science.

While the past few days have been a sudden flurry of activity, as I tended to the details involved in updating that blog and our Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter accounts to reflect the newly merged identity, the merger has been taking shape for a year now. So I thought I’d pause to share a few of my reflections on the process — knowing that Bethel is far from the only college or university of its type to make that kind of decision.

It’s impossible to think about this change and not feel sadness. It came out of the same set of decisions that led to faculty positions being eliminated. While those announcements were made in April 2020, they only went into effect at the end of the past year, so whatever anticipation I feel about the merger is tempered by knowledge of more painful transitions.

And while my overarching response to the merger is positive, I do feel a sense of loss. Bethel has had a distinct History department since the college moved to the suburbs in the early 1970s. That’s not to be taken for granted at a smaller liberal arts school whose students tend to major in business, education, health care, and STEM programs. So now that I’m the longest-serving history professor currently employed at Bethel, I do feel responsible for being a good steward of what people like Doc Dalton, Jim Johnson, G.W. Carlson, Kevin Cragg, and Neil Lettinga built.

I hope we can continue the distinctive strengths of the former department as a part of the new one, but it won’t be the same. So I get why my friend John Fea was so upset about going through a similar merger at Messiah University:

I still don’t fully understand why we are merging. The administration tells us that it has something to do with saving money, but I have not seen documentation about just how much money it will save. I have also not seen any reports on whether or not the amount of savings will make-up for the sense of loss, disconnection, and morale many of us in the old history department are experiencing right now….

I will try to adjust to the changes and find my way in the combined department. I will continue to teach history courses and advise history majors. My new political science colleagues are great people and I am sure they are dealing with their own sense of loss. And I even get to keep my office!

But right now I can’t help but have a diminished sense of investment and commitment.

I didn’t realize it would hit me so hard.

Why, then, do I feel so optimistic about being part of the group we’ve taken to calling “the Hippos“? (As in HIstory, Philosophy, and POlitical Science.) Three basic reasons:

We’re preserving all of our majors, but looking for more interdisciplinary innovation

Believe me, I would be writing a very different post if Bethel had told us that we’re not only merging into an administrative unit, but blending programs. (Just see my initial response when Gordon College proposed that very change not so long ago. A change they quickly walked back.) The longer I teach history, the more I appreciate what’s distinctive about our discipline. It’s why I’ve been quick to volunteer to teach our Intro to History gateway course, which continues to be a requirement for our major and minor — and will now also be a required course in our Social Studies Education major.

But I appreciate history even more as it connects and contrast to other disciplines. To my mind, interdisciplinary teaching and learning is as important a feature of a liberal arts education as the various arts, humanities, and sciences themselves.

In part, that attitude stems from my graduate work in the history of international relations, a subfield that has always overlapped with political science. At Bethel, I’ve created two international history courses that cross-list in Political Science, and last year I co-taught a course on the history and politics of sports with our international relations specialist, Chris Moore. Altogether, we’ve got about half a dozen HIS/POS courses in our catalog, a reminder that our two disciplines have not only officed together for about fifty years, but did share a single department during Bethel’s first quarter-century as a four-year college.

The sign hasn’t been updated yet — History and Poli Sci have been sharing this office suite since 2019

But I think my interdisciplinary bent has been honed primarily by my experience teaching and directing Bethel’s foundational gen ed course on Christianity and Western Culture. While CWC has the structure of a one-semester Western Civ survey and half of its faculty are historians, I teach alongside philosophers and theologians and regularly venture into those fields when lecturing or leading discussion. Of the eleven full-time faculty in our new department, all but two teach in CWC or its multi-semester Great Books alternative.

Even as that tradition endures, it’s also exciting that Bethel has put so many of its most innovative professors in a single place. I mean that in terms of our approaches to teaching — plus our hosting the Digital Humanities major coordinated by historian Charlie Goldberg — but also because so many of us seek to extend our scholarship to different audiences. For example, while I’m fairly unusual among the Hippos in the amount of time I spend blogging, almost all of us have participated in the podcasting network run by my colleague Sam Mulberry.

A new capstone course in applied humanities

I’m looking forward to seeing what other kinds of cross-disciplinary innovations — curricular and extracurricular — will emerge from our new department. But already, we’ve made one important change: instead of teaching separate senior seminars in the department’s three core disciplines, we’ll be sharing a common capstone course called Applied Humanities Seminar. I’m teaching its first section this fall, so expect to read a lot more about it at this blog. But as a quick introduction, here’s how I described it this morning at our department blog:

• Each semester of Applied Humanities Seminar will feature 10-20 students from Hippo fields working together with one of our professors. Dr. Gehrz will kick things off this fall, followed by Dr. Shady in Spring 2022. Political Science faculty will join the rotation over the next two years. Each semester we’ll tackle a different contemporary issue that seems particularly timely, starting with health care (fall) and democracy (spring) next year.

• Using the methods and insights of their major field, students will spend most of the semester researching and writing a paper on a particular topic in history, philosophy, or political science having some connection to the larger issue.

• Then in the last weeks of the semester, students will come together as multi-disciplinary teams to recommend solutions to present-day problems related to the seminar theme.

Our hope is that the applied emphasis will help students not just refine their skills in research, reading, analysis, and writing, but demonstrate them in a format that will be meaningful for future study and employment.

Because we can offer the new seminar for all our majors both fall and spring, Applied Humanities also gives our students some more scheduling flexibility. Moreover, students who want to major in multiple Hippo programs need only take the seminar once: that semester of Applied Humanities will count as the capstone for both majors.

Here too, something is being lost. I loved how our senior seminar gave undergraduate students a taste of grad school: evening discussion of big topics in our field, paired with an independent project of original research. Almost invariably, our alumni remembers fondly their senior sem project — even if they didn’t actually enter the historical profession themselves.

And we’ll retain much of that: the evening seminar culture; a slightly smaller but still challenging research and writing project. But the fact is that we’re no longer preparing students for grad school in history.

Of the hundreds of Bethel students I’ve taught since 2003, I can think of only four who have completed a doctorate in history or a related field. Instead, we’re sending our Hippo graduates into a wide variety of professions not obviously related to our disciplines: 30% in business, 25% in education, 20% in government or law, 10% in health care or ministry, and 10% in other nonprofit work, according to a survey we conducted this past January.

So to the extent that I’m right that the humanities are good preparation for employment in fast-changing economy, then it’s a good idea to end our programs with the kind of hands-on, collaborative, project-based experience that many employers say is often missing from college study — while continuing to help our students refine the research, analysis, and communication skills that most all employers claim to value.

A larger, but still intimate community

But more than anything, I’m looking forward to the kind of community that Hippos — students and professors alike — will build together in the merged department. I already know that I’ll enjoy myself, simply because the merger means that I’ll be sharing a rather nice office suite with most of my best friends on the faculty — serious scholars and teachers who are whimsical enough to embrace the hippo identity. And I hope our students find something special on CC 4th as well. I can’t wait to see more of them use our commons area for study and socializing, and it’ll be a joy to start planning all-department events as we get back to whatever “normal” looks like post-COVID.

My colleague AnneMarie Kooistra using our commons last fall to help a student start a family history project

There’s a fine line to walk in building this new community. I mean, we’re suddenly not just a small department, but a big one. For the first eighteen years of my career at Bethel, I was one of five profs teaching a pool of history students that has been shrinking steadily since its pre-Great Recession peak of around 80 (including social studies majors). Now, I’m in a department with twice as many faculty and — counting all majors and minors — over 150 students.

Now “we know,” I wrote this morning at CC 4th, “that part of what students value in our existing departments is that they’re small enough that they get to know their professors. So rest assured that our class sizes will remain the same, and that our faculty remain as interested as ever in mentoring students and working with them outside of class.”

But at a time when our majors are in decline nationwide, I don’t think it’s a bad thing for history, philosophy, and political science students to feel like they’re part of a bustling concern rather than a beleaguered remnant. Good for our faculty, too. Over the last few years, it’s been so easy to feel defensive, territorial, and resentful. I’m ready to try something new and see where it takes us.