The main goal of the History Department in educating majors is to provide them with a disciplinary training that will be of use to them in a variety of different careers.
The chief aspects of that training are as follows:
- Critical reading of sources;
- Familiarity with a variety of time periods and geographical regions;
- Familiarity with different historical themes, approaches, and interpretations;
- Experience in research;
- Planning and organizing independent research projects;
- Honing analytical skills;
- Improving writing skills.
Courses within the history major follow a pattern that builds towards these goals. Lecture courses at the 0100, 0200 and 0300 levels are designed to address the first three goals by instilling critical reading skills, as well as by familiarizing students with different time periods, geographical regions, approaches, and interpretations. In the junior and senior years, majors are required to take three different types of courses that advance the last four of these goals: a readings seminar at the 0400 level, in which they study historical interpretations more intensively; a writing and research seminar (HIST 0600), in which they carry out independent research in a 25-page paper; and finally, a two-semester senior thesis (HIST 0700), in which their research, analysis, and writing are supervised by a faculty advisor and graded by two readers. The senior thesis is the capstone experience for a history major, and it should sum up all the learning and experience gained in the previous three years of education within the department.
Disciplinary training is advanced at each course level by shared methods. While these are not absolutely standardized or rigidly imposed, there is general consensus concerning how they should be implemented.
- Critical reading begins with the first history course taken. Students have to be taught not just to read sources closely, but to question what they are reading. What point of view is the author taking? How convincing are the source’s arguments? How valid are its claims? How is evidence used within the source? How does the source relate to the historical context in which it was written? These questions can be applied to both primary and secondary materials, and students have to learn how to distinguish between the two. Papers in 0100-, 0200-, and 0300-level courses are largely designed to evaluate critical reading skills.
- Familiarity with a variety of time periods and geographical regions is built into the major requirements, which oblige students to take two courses that deal with the period before 1800, and one course in each of three broad areas: North American, European and Asian, and African or Latin American history. Majors are also required to take a 0100-level course that deals with a very broad geographical area (usually a continent or a major region) over a long period of time. Courses at the 0100 level often emphasize global social, economic, or cultural trends. In addition, students enrolled in HIST 0600 are asked to formulate research paper topics in three different geographical areas, from which the seminar instructors will choose one topic for them to pursue. Although the department does not emphasize the rote memorization of facts, most 0100-, 0200-, and 0300-level courses include exams that test the student’s ability to apply factual information learned in the course to critical questions.
- Familiarity with different historical themes, approaches, and interpretations is gained through all courses at the 0100, 0200, and 0300 levels. Courses may concentrate on a particular theme or approach—women’s history, environmental history, African American history, urban history, etc. The 0400-level readings seminars focus on interpretive issues, relating them to a specific set of historical events or to a particular methodology. In seminar discussions at the 0400 level, students are encouraged to identify, compare, and analyze the interpretations of different historians. In the final paper for a readings seminar, students are expected to deal with historiography, the accumulation of historical interpretations on a given subject. The History Department is also strongly committed to interdisciplinary approaches, through participation in Programs in American Studies, International Studies, Environmental Studies, and Women and Gender Studies.
- Experience in research begins at a simple level, with shorter papers in lecture courses that include a limited research component. In preparing papers for the 0400-level seminars, students are expected to compose their own list of readings. Independent research of a more sophisticated kind, under the supervision of an instructor, is pursued in the research and writing seminar (HIST 0600). The senior thesis allows a student to pursue research in any direction they choose, drawing on the guidance of an individual faculty advisor. The preparation of a prospectus, with a bibliography, is integral to HIST 0600 and the senior thesis. A library instruction session, led by a professional librarian, is another vital element of both courses. Research methods for the senior thesis should include use of primary and secondary sources, periodicals, online databases, and interlibrary loans; they sometimes include visits to other libraries, consultation of manuscript materials, and use of foreign language skills. Bibliographies of works consulted are appended to the writing and research paper, while the senior thesis requires an annotated bibliography. The quality of research is a component in grading independent research projects.
- The research and writing seminar and the senior thesis involve careful planning and organization, which also figure in the final grades. To assist students in acquiring these skills, the research and writing seminar begins with group sessions, taught by three faculty members, in which basic lessons are presented on how to allocate time, how to maintain work discipline throughout the semester, and how to construct a research paper. The senior thesis includes a workshop, taught by three faculty members, at which attendance is compulsory. The main emphasis in the workshop is on how to plan and organize the thesis. Rough drafts are presented to the workshop, and the degree to which students are sticking to a defined schedule is monitored. The workshop instructors give feedback to the thesis advisor, who has to file a grade of “Satisfactory” or “Unsatisfactory” for the first semester of thesis work, based on the degree of student progress toward the final goal.
- Analytical skills are at the heart of the senior thesis. It is expected that these will build on and surpass the critical reading skills that are taught in earlier courses. No longer are students just expected to criticize the interpretations of others; they must offer their own interpretations, which have to be put to the same critical tests for validity, evidence, persuasiveness, etc., that are applied to all historical sources. Analytical ability is advanced gradually, through direct conversations with faculty advisors, through the preparing of rough drafts, and through extensive comments from readers (including the advisor, the workshop instructors, and other members of the workshop). Perhaps the largest component in the final grade on the thesis is the quality of analysis. The grade is based on a reading by two faculty members, the advisor and a second reader who usually has not had any previous involvement in the project. If the thesis might qualify the student for departmental honors (that is, it might be graded at B+ or above), it has to be defended orally before the two readers. Questions in the oral examination tend to focus on the level of analysis found in the thesis.
- Clear and fluent writing should be an indispensable element of every paper written in a history course. All written work in history is graded in part on the basis of writing skills. The department tries to improve those skills by reading rough drafts at every level of instruction, but in the writing and research seminar as well as the senior thesis, rough drafts are required. In these longer research projects, clarity and grammatical correctness should be combined with an avoidance of awkward, convoluted, or overwritten sentences. Advisors work carefully with students to eliminate errors and understand the sources of problems. We seek to make students aware that good history always requires good writing.
Disciplinary training in the History Department is founded on the assumption that the skills of a professional historian—critical analysis, research, good writing, etc.—are fundamental to many other types of career. While a small number of our majors continue on to graduate work in history or other academic disciplines, most of them will become businesspeople, brokers, bankers, NGO workers, schoolteachers, lawyers, or medical doctors. We are convinced that our disciplinary training will serve them well in whatever careers they choose to follow.