Teaching Graduate Historiography Again

This semester I will once again teach our graduate historiography course. It is one of two required courses in our graduate program. The other is a research methods course. I last taught the course in 2012 and my syllabus is here. (My 2011 syllabus is here and my 2009 syllabus is here.)

The course is pretty exhausting to teach largely because it almost invariably pushes whoever teaches it outside of their comfort zone. Even the most diversified faculty members rarely feel comfortable talking about the contours of the entire discipline from antiquity to the 21st century. And, even if they can sustain a diachronic perspective on the past, it is unlikely that they can comment with equal ease on topics ranging from material culture to gender, literary criticism, and post-colonialism. (Or at least this is what I tell myself as a struggle through this or that seminal text for this or that subfield.)

It is also challenging because many of our students come into the study of history at the graduate level with firm ideas of what the discipline is about. Like many faculty members, our graduate students became passionate about history through narratives, and for some at the masters level, stories remain the most compelling aspect of the discipline. Others have become enchanted by the legalistic practice of historical argumentation that rests on the careful arrangement of empirical facts derived from well-established and accepted historical sources. Both of these motivations for the study of the past are valid and important contributors to the persistence of our field, but these approaches to the past do not necessary make students comfortable with more abstract exercises that force them to think critically about how the historical process creates a viable past. 

Traditional historiography classes do this by studying the historical development of the discipline from antiquity to the current time. This is a useful approach, and I use it in my undergraduate historical methods seminar. Unfortunately, I’ve found that historicizing the discipline has the tendency to lead students to imagine their own moment in the discipline as the telos of the past 2500 years of historical thinking. As most of my seminar are students of American history, they sometimes feel a gnawing opportunity to disregard earlier efforts to understand the past and to focus on their own corner of the world.

More importantly, at least for how I’ll teach this course this semester, a strict historical approach has the potential to lead students to believe that the professional discipline of history is the culmination of a series of longterm intellectual developments. While the present professionalized discipline surely evokes a clear genealogy, its disciplinary definition owes as much to the development of the 19th and 20th century university as any clear set of historical precedents or limitations. As higher education in the United States moves toward a post-disciplinary future, reinforcing the professional limits prescribed by historians in a different context and in response to different challenges seems unlikely to prepare the next generation of scholars. The rules of the game are rapidly changing, and while it remains useful to understand that there are rules (still), we have to do all we can to prepare our students to play a different game.

To start this conversation, I think I’m going to start with two books on academia. First, Louis Menand’s Marketplace of Ideas (Norton 2010) and then P. Novick’s classic work on the development of the profession of history during the late 19th and 20th century That Noble Dream (Cambridge 1988). This should frame the course at the intersection of the discipline and the profession.

To reinforce that, I’ll ask the students to read substantial sections of Herodotus and Thucydides in a week titles “Antiquity”.  In a week called “Philosophy of History”, I’ll ask the students to read R.G. Collingwood’s classic The Idea of History (Oxford 1946). These two weeks will nudge the students to accept that history is a thing that came from a particular time and place and that our current approaches to thinking about the past (largely grounding in the 19th century German response to the Enlightenment) remains problematic. 

With those realities in mind, I’ll then read with the students from both the center and the fringes of the discipline to both give them a bit of a sense of contours of our field, but also its limits. Some of the weeks will introduce practical considerations like the week on teaching which will perhaps include some recent articles on the role of “uncoverage” in creating a signature pedagogy for the discipline as well as Samuel Wineburg’s book, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts (Temple 2001). (I’m open to suggestions here).

I’ll also touch on topics that have a persistent significance for historians. Gender, for example, continues to shape how historians think and I’ll probably lean on Judith Bennet’s History Matters (Penn 2006) as well as classic works by scholars like J.W. Scott. Similarly, I’ll make sure the students have read some Benedict Anderson on nationalism and E.P. Thompson (and Gramsci!) on capital. These works will set up discussions on post-nationalism and post-colonialism that will rest on the contribution of subaltern studies and some recent critiques.

I’m also intent on having students think about issues that sometimes tend to fall to the side of historical critique. For example, our program’s growing emphasis on public history makes it important for students to consider the spatial turn in the humanities and at least be familiar with Delores Hayden’s work (and some of the more challenging Marxist critics) and perhaps a little Michael Given. I’d also like for our students to think about material culture and objects in our contemporary world. Materiality and space will complement discussions of time in history which I’ll ground in a reading of Braudel. Finally, I have generally assigned Hayden White’s Metahistory to get students to think about the line between history and literature. It’s a long book, so I might only assign the first section and then include some readings by Dominick Lacapra or similar.

The newest element to the course will be a week dedicated to considerations of structure and agency. I’ll get the students to read Sahlin’s Islands of History and parts of Sewell’s Logics of History (Chicago 2005). These works should echo with both Braudel as well as Thompson and Gramsci if not explicitly at least in terms of their shared concerns for the actor in history. 

The only thing that remains to be shoehorned into this syllabus is a week on Foucault. As he is pretty essential to understand the current state of the humanities (and his thinking informs the work throughout the course) and the familiarity of students with his work varies significant, I usually assign Archaeology of Knowledge.

I think the course as I have laid it out here should run over about 18 weeks. Unfortunately, I only have 13 or 14 weeks during the semester so something will have to give. I guess figuring that out over the next week. 

One Comment

  1. Nice historiography post, Bill. Great reading list, too. Here’s just one thought, at least speaking to your post: as the discipline refocuses from the Atlantic/Western to World History, I wondered if the introduction to James Belich, “Replenishing the Earth,” (Oxford, 2009) and the introduction and even chapter 1 of Margaret Jacobs, “White Mother to a Dark Race” (U of Nebraska, 2009) might be good to drop in the hopper? I’m only suggesting these since you said, “I’m open to suggestions.” Or at least I think you said that. So that’s what I’m going with.


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