Campus News

Munch and learn: History department offers programming to increase interest by nonmajors

Lectures and academic discussions at UGA normally don’t focus on illegal activities. However, that is exactly what Stephen Mihm, an associate professor of history, discussed last fall during his lecture “How Do You Counterfeit Money (In Nineteenth Century America)?” During the 30-minute talk, Mihm described the ins and outs of America’s counterfeit scene during the 1800s to 32 pizza-munching students.

The talk was a Lunchtime Time Machine lecture, a monthly series hosted by the history department, in which faculty members talk about historical topics ranging from the counterfeit trade to ancient Roman toilets.

Open to the public, Lunchtime Time Machine is just one of the many initiatives the history department hosts to promote itself and combat a national decline in students undertaking history as an academic discipline.

A study conducted by the American Historical Association found that there was an 8 percent drop in student enrollment in history classes between the 2012-2013 and 2014-2015 academic years. Additionally, 40 percent of the history departments taking part in the study said their faculty weren’t very involved in student ­recruitment.

While UGA’s history department saw a 14 percent decline in its undergraduate enrollment for the same time period, the entire department is taking steps to recruit more students.

“We have various initiatives in place,” said Jamie Kreiner, an assistant professor and the director of undergraduate studies in the history department.

Lunchtime Time Machine is just one of those initiatives, which are designed to appeal to students from outside the department. Professors give lectures on an aspect of their research. Mihm, for example, has written a book on the subject of counterfeiting: A Nation of Counterfeiters: Capitalists, Con Men and the Making of the United States.

“Most undergrads don’t really know what the history department does, so we have these lectures where faculty ­members present their research in an easy-to-understand, accessible yet complex way,” Kreiner said. “Each seminar asks something about history in the way an actual historian thinks.”

The remaining lectures in the series for spring semester are “How is the jellyfish the allegorical figure of global capitalism?” by Jake Short on Feb. 14, “What was the best brewery in Savannah in 1735?” by James Owen on March 14 and “How did slaves survive the Civil War?” by Scott Nesbit on April 11. Each lecture will be held at 12:30 p.m. in Room 101 of LeConte Hall.

Another initiative is the History at Work speaker series, which educates both current and prospective students on the marketability of a history degree.

As part of Black History Month, the department will co-host the discussion “From Attica to Ferguson: Race and the Criminal Justice System” Feb. 13 at 4:30 p.m. in Room 271 of the Richard B. Russell Building Special Collections Libraries.

Additionally, the department is now offering undergraduate scholarships to support international study opportunities as well as funding for research trips to regional archives.

It seems that the department’s efforts are paying off. While the number of history majors is down, Kreiner said the number of students enrolling in history courses has increased over the past year.

“With so much political, economic and social turmoil in the United States and around the world, we are confident that students and the public at large will recognize the value of history to understand how and why we got to this point,” said Claudio Saunt, head of the history department. “In short, history is more important than ever.”