History Department Looks to the Future

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History Department Looks to the Future

Esti Beck ’19

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The history department is one of the leading causes of stress among Ramaz students, who spend tens of hours each year pouring over notes, DBQs, essays, and primary-source materials. It also happens to be one of the more dynamic departments, constantly making changes to the curriculum, testing system, and essay requirements. Much of this progress can be attributed to the department’s chair, Dr. Jon Jucovy, a longtime member of the history department and recently appointed Chair of Humanities at Ramaz.

Much like the Mesopotamian and Greek Eras, the “Jucovian Era” of the Ramaz history department cannot last forever. As the department is undergoing several major changes, including a curriculum overhaul and the introduction of a new teacher, Dr. Jucovy doesn’t envision his retirement coming anytime soon, but it does lie within the foreseeable future. Many of his currents students have preemptively begun to mourn his eventual departure. “It will truly be the end of an era for Ramaz when a teacher as venerated as Dr. Jucovy leaves,” said Hadley Kauvar ’19, a two-year student of his who is now in Dr. Jucovy’s Age of Reagan senior honors course. Hadley’s two older brothers, Darien ’13 and Ellery ’09, also studied under him. Gail Hafif ’20, who has Dr. Jucovy this year for history class as well as Model Congress, one of the clubs that he advises, concurred: “Ramaz will be losing a teacher who has tremendous knowledge about both history and life itself… It’ll be difficult, if not impossible, for any other teacher to measure up.”

This year, in particular, has been a relatively difficult and busy one for members of the history department.  Dr. Dunitz’s maternity leave left a strain on the remaining teachers to cover for her classes. As the department is relatively small, with only the aforementioned faculty, Mr. Deutsch, Dr. Bernstein, and Ms. Newman, teachers were sometimes double-booked between classes they had been slated to teach and their coverages for Dr. Dunitz. “It’s pretty disappointing to miss my Dr. Jucovy ‘Age of Reagan’ class and Mr. Deutsch’s ‘Modern Middle East’ course because both are very interesting,” said Elijah Posner ’19. “However, that doesn’t mean it isn’t nice to get a few free periods.” With the department back to full capacity by second semester, Dr. Jucovy plans to continue evolving it to best conform his vision.

In his last years in office, Dr. Jucovy plans to enact some major changes to the history department, as well as see recent changes in the department to fruition. First, the department rolled out the new eleventh grade curriculum this year. The current seniors are the last Ramaz class to have been taught two years of world Jewish history followed by one year of American; in the time since, the curricula have been combined into one chronological course covering US as well as international history. Since the class of 2020 is the first to go through the new three-year curriculum, this year will mark the end of the experiment’s original run-through. Dr. Jucovy also stated that he would consider the option of administering a sort of standardized history exam to the outgoing senior class, beginning this year, to test the knowledge gathered over four years of high school. These results could be a better measure of the “success” of the history program, but such a test is similar to previous proposals by Dr. Jucovy for entrance (9th grade) and exit (12th grade) history aptitude exams which never quite panned out.

Additionally, Dr. Jucovy has been keeping an eye on developments in the English department, which implemented the “literary seminar” system last year, creating what is essentially an honors course without the official honors title for tenth and eleventh graders. A similar system may be in the works for the history department, though they face similar problems to those of the English department. Some teachers prefer mixed classes for a diversity of opinions, while others would rather homogenous groups, which, through shared skill level, tend to make it easier to teach. “There are a number of people in the department who have advocated for that; I happen not to have been one of them, [though] I’m open minded on the issue,” Dr. Jucovy said. “I don’t mind teaching heterogeneous classes…but certainly I can see how it would be very exciting to teach a more advanced level history course.” He sees the argument opposing a history seminar as coming from two angles: first, philosophically, it’s challenging in a good way to have stronger students in a classroom, and second, practically, there are strong students who may not test well and would thus be excluded from the class. Determining eligibility on a case-by-case basis would then create a problematic degree of subjectivity, so the creation of such a class is still pending.

I don’t mind teaching heterogeneous classes…but certainly I can see how it would be very exciting to teach a more advanced level history course.”

— Dr. Jucovy

However, one development on track to be implemented by the end of this year is the syncing of the history and English departments’ curricula. Dr. Jucovy, a literature aficionado, feels that students have much to gain by studying the most famous works of an era as they examine the era in history as well. Under the current system, students study Shakespeare at various points in ninth and tenth grade, though the events surrounding the Bard’s life are only truly taught for a brief period in freshman year. Of course, such an overhaul would be more work for the English department, as their curriculum is not organized chronologically and would basically need to be rewritten. While there is no plan to definitively redo the entire curriculum yet, by the end of the year, Dr. Jucovy says students will begin to feel the first effects of these changes.

Another major change the department is undergoing relates to the tenth grade historiography paper, which is notorious for the difficulty students have in procuring sources. “I think finding sources for my paper on Blitzkrieg was more difficult than it was for the Nazis to invade France in the first place,” said Ilan Sidi ’19. Dr. Jucovy plans on reverting the tenth-grade paper back to its original form, a simple research paper. “Every single year we’re looking at this and seeing what works and what doesn’t work, with our changing population,” said Dr. Jucovy. “The one thing I don’t see myself getting rid of is having a research paper.” He says Ramaz is one of the only high schools in the country with a serious research paper, as many other institutions have abandoned the idea. One plan he’s considering implementing in order to make the process easier on everyone involved is instituting a system of “hands-on guidance.” As per this new system, students would do all their work on a shared google document, allowing teachers to make suggestions and comments and work collaboratively with them. Good faculty guidance for the paper, according to Dr. Jucovy, requires the teacher to know 80-90% of the sources on every available topic. Indeed, Dr. Jucovy insists that all history teachers at Ramaz not simply hand students the sources on their topics but also be familiar enough with each subject to help each student form a coherent thesis.

The one thing I don’t see myself getting rid of is having a research paper.”

— Dr. Jucovy

As for his eventual departure, Dr. Jucovy acknowledges that it will create the need for some rather substantial personnel changes. He is the only person to have chaired the history department, meaning that his retirement would be the first time Ramaz has had to fill the position. “I also have strong views on what [the department] should be – I mean, I’m the one who pushed through the integrated curriculum; I’m the one who developed (and continues to develop) the history research paper; I’m the one who developed the notion that we should be using and referring to primary sources, sometimes more, sometimes less successfully. There are a lot of things that it’ll be interesting to see – I’m not sure I’ll be the one seeing it – but it’ll be interesting to see what other kind of vision develops for the department,” he said. When asked if a successor would come from within the department or outside, Dr. Jucovy responded that they have “strong” candidates within Ramaz, but it could realistically come from either: “We should keep our minds open to any possibility and not have a nepotistic process just for the sake of it.” For now, however, he will continue to maximize his powers as department chair and lead the history department’s evolution.

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