Academic History’s Midwestern Collapse

Jon K. Lauck has kindly alerted me to his important new editorial, “The Ongoing History Crisis,” in the autumn issue of the Middle West Review. It’s now available through Project MUSE. Lauck was the founding president of the Midwestern History Association and is the current editor-in-chief of the Review.

What’s extraordinary about this article—which isn’t very long—is the methodical way it documents the hollowing-out of history programs at colleges, universities, and other institutions across a single region of the United States. Lauck describes a profession in rapid collapse, across all kinds of institutions, large and small:

Around the Midwest, the news from history departments is grim, even at larger institutions. Iowa State University’s history department has been told by the ISU administration that its faculty needs to shrink from 20 to 8. The ISU doctoral program in rural history, a key contributor to Midwestern studies, is also being shuttered. The University of Iowa’s full time history faculty has declined from 26 to 16 in about ten years. University of Missouri: 30 down to 21 (over the past decade); University of Kansas: 35 down to 24 (since 2017); The Ohio State University (system): 79 down to 62 (since 2008); University of Minnesota: 46 down to 40 (in ten years); University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign: 46 down to 36 (since 2012); University of Illinois Chicago: 32 down to 20 (from 2005–2020). Smaller universities are also seeing the loss of history faculty: Emporia State University: 7 down to 4 (over a decade); University of North Dakota: 10 down to 5 (in five years); Grand Valley State University: 31 down to 27 (in ten years); University of South Dakota: 10 down to 7 (in five years); South Dakota State University: 7 down to 4 (in five years); University of Nebraska-Omaha: 15 down to 11 (in ten years); St. Cloud State University: 10 down to 6 (in 6 years); St. Olaf College: 12 down to 7 (in ten years); Central Michigan University: 22 down to 15 (in seven years); Miami University of Ohio: 29 down to 22 (since 2015); Ohio University: 31 down to 25 (since 2017); University of Cincinnati: 30 down to 21 (in ten years); Kent State University: 15 down to 12 (since 2008); University of Missouri-Kansas City: 17 down to 8 (in 6 years); Minnesota State University, Mankato: 11 down to 9 (since 2010); University of Missouri-St. Louis: 14 down to 8 (since 2016); Truman State University: 15 down to 4 (since 2013); Indiana State University: 16 down to 13 (since 2015); Marquette University: 21 down to 16 (since 2017); University of Toledo: 12 down to 5 (in a decade). The cuts extend beyond faculty. Central Michigan University lost the Michigan Historical Review, a journal it oversaw for decades. Truman State lost Truman State University Press, which closed in 2021. Emporia State lost its Center for Great Plains Studies. The journal Studies in Midwestern History at Grand Valley State fizzled out. Long-running collaborative history conferences such as the Missouri Valley History Conference and the Mid-America Conference on History have also been terminated.

Most of the veteran historians who have been cut or downsized are not finding jobs at other institutions because there are none, as newly-minted historians know very well. Between 2019 and 2020 1,799 historians earned their PhDs and only 175 of them are now employed as full-time faculty members.

This article has instantly become the single best source (that I know of) to show anyone who remains complacent about the future of the U.S. historical profession. I would like the leaders of other regional and thematic institutions (not to mention the American Historical Association itself) to follow Lauck’s example in making this kind of information so readily digestible—and in being so honest about what it means.

How Did You Learn to Tell Stories in the Classroom?


This semester marks seven years since I taught the first college course of “my own”—being solely responsible for writing the syllabus, choosing all the readings, designing all the assignments, and planning all the lectures and activities. I was hired at the last minute. On the first day of class, I didn’t even have password access to the classroom computer yet. The bookstore was still selling my students books that somebody else had chosen, which I didn’t intend to use and didn’t have copies of anyway. I don’t think my university email address had been activated.

I’m not absolutely sure, though, because at this point, I barely remember anything about that semester except a general feeling of panic.

What I do know is that one of my biggest challenges was simply learning to narrate history in the classroom. This was crucial because—in a single-semester U.S. history survey course—my students wouldn’t have a traditional textbook to carry that burden outside of class. (And The American Yawp had yet to be written.) The course’s narrative of U.S. history, all of it, both in the overall course arc and in each topic we covered, had to subsist in whatever I could accomplish in the classroom or through short readings scavenged from different sources and posted online.

I had a fair amount of teaching experience, but almost nothing of that nature. I had never been a gifted storyteller in person. (Not even close!) And to my recollection, despite a fair amount of pedagogical development in graduate school, I had never been provided with any specific instruction or advice relevant to this situation.

That first course … probably wasn’t great.

Even if my last-minute hiring made the need unusually acute, I don’t think my situation then was unique. I can’t speak as much to the experiences of primary- or secondary-level educators, but my sense is that in college, many people trained to teach history (or trained in the many other academic disciplines that also teach historical topics) never get any training in the basic task of building a historical narrative in the classroom until they show up in their own classroom for the first time.

But I want to check whether my intuition is right.

If you’re willing to leave a generous comment on this post (or email me if you need to communicate privately), I’d like to know what your experiences have been as a teacher (primary, secondary, college, university, whatever)—in history or any other field where the need comes up.

  • Did you have any formal training in how to build a historical narrative in the classroom?
  • Is this a problem you’re still trying to solve for yourself?
  • Have you found any instruction books, online courses, etc., helpful?
  • What aspects of storytelling or narrative-focused course organization have been the most challenging for you?
  • If you are a naturally gifted storyteller, have you faced any challenges bringing this skill into an academic setting?


Image: Detail from Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo, The Storyteller, 1770s. Blanton Museum of Art, Austin, Texas; via Wikimedia Commons. Public domain.