A letter from the chair

Author: Jon T. Coleman

Jon Coleman 600Jon T. Coleman

It takes a long time to do history. Graduate students spend an average of three to four years researching and writing their dissertations, the longest stretch in the humanities. After the Ph.D., a book can take a decade to complete — if you are quick. 

The knowledge gained from these marathons often cautions against rash actions and overconfidently charging ahead. History books should arrive with a lengthy list of side-effects and warnings, such as “this policy has been tried unsuccessfully before,” or “people with good intentions may inflict suffering on others,” or “wars can create as many problems as they solve.”  

History is slow in the making and its conclusions often recommend slowing down, thinking plans through, and checking first impulses. This slowness runs counter to the light-speed of news cycles and Twitter storms. Today, information gushes in streams, while historians extract evidence from musty tomes in dribbles and drops. It is not surprising that history is currently out of fashion. 

History departments across the country have seen their major numbers fall by half over the past decade, and they have watched the enrollments in their courses decline as well. Here at Notre Dame, we in the Department of History have responded to these challenges with several initiatives.

Two years ago, we reformed our graduate program to hasten time to degree. This fall, we launched a new history minor. By spring, the department will have retooled the major to better reflect our global reach and our new clusters of expertise in areas like the history of capitalism and comparative world empires. 

We are eager to innovate and improve, to think forward and anticipate what the practice of history will look like in the future. My aim as the new chair of the department is to rally the enormous talents and energies of our faculty, our graduate students, our current undergraduate majors and minors, and our alumni to meet what’s coming by holding true to the one thing that has sustained us over the years: our slowness.

Historians know the depth of time. We know that fashions change and that tides that roll out eventually roll back in. It’s incumbent upon us to be patient and endure, to sift through information instead of swallowing every line whole, and to remember yesterday in the rush to tomorrow.  

Jon T. Coleman
Chair, Department of History