Course Meeting Times
Lectures: 1 session / week, 3 hours / session
We will doggedly ask two questions in this class: "What is history?" and "How do you do it in 2010?" In pursuit of the answers, we will survey a variety of approaches to the past used by historians writing in the last several decades. We will examine how these historians conceive of their object of study, how they use primary sources as a basis for their accounts, how they structure the narrative and analytical discussion of their topic, and the advantages and limitations of their approaches. One concern is the evolution of historical studies in the Western tradition, which is not to say that the Western approach is the only valid one, nor is it to suggest that we will only read histories of the West. But MIT and many of the institutions in which you will work during your careers are firmly rooted in Western intellectual paradigms, and the study of times and places far removed from the Western past has been deeply influenced by Western historical assumptions. (And, to be honest, this is the historical tradition with which I am most familiar!)
We will begin with a brief overview of the construction and deconstruction of historical thinking in the West from the beginnings of Christianity to the present. Then we will consider questions of scale, a major preoccupation of post-WWII historians. In the second half of the twentieth century and the start of the twenty-first, history has been written at the national, global, and micro level. What are the advantages and disadvantages of each? Next, we will consider five of the more recent important influences on historians. These include environmental history, women's and gender history, new developments in the history of British industrialization, and the emerging fields of visual culture and media studies. How does the incorporation of these perspectives alter national, global, and micro perspectives? In each of these five cases, we will be joined by a leading MIT expert in the field, some of whom teach in the HASTS Program. Finally, we will read several essays by leading historians who are directly implicated in efforts to digitize the study and preservation of the past.
Our focus, therefore, is on scale, sources, and methodology, not on specific historical content. A sizeable proportion of the studies here focus on early modern Europe (roughly 1500 - 1800 A.D.), because of the richness of its historiographical tradition. We will think about the reasons for the broad influence of this work throughout the semester. I would urge you to read in areas with which you are not familiar as well as in home ground. It is not necessary to "know the facts" or become an expert in any of these areas; the point is to find out how similar historical approaches work in different cultural areas and time periods.
Read the required readings for each week and be prepared to discuss them in class. Some of these works are large, fat books. I will give you some hints to devise the best way of tackling them. (Starting at page one and plowing straight through is almost never the best method.)
I will post two or three questions on our course website for each week's readings; these will appear by the Friday before the class session when the readings are due. Each week you should submit before the class meeting at least two to three substantial paragraphs with your reactions to the reading. These should be critiques, not summaries. Reasoned argument is preferred, but gripes and raves are allowed. These posts will be useful in stimulating discussion. This is mainly a discussion course; our guests or I may sometimes give brief orienting lectures, but we will try to keep them short.
Each of you will be responsible for reports on two of the books listed in the partial bibliographies for each week. At our first class meeting I will ask each of you to select the two weeks for which you will do a report on one title in the partial bibliography list. You will prepare a one-page hard copy summary of the book you read, which you will distribute to us at the start of class. You will then present the book to your classmates and me, and our guests when we have them. In these presentations, you should summarize the book's argument and indicate how it intersects with the week's required reading.
Finally, at the end of the term, a longer paper is due (ca. 15 pp double-spaced). You are free to choose the subject, but you should probably take one of two tacks:
"Horizontal": examine the characteristics of the same historical approach used in several different countries and time periods (one of these countries should be non-Western), e.g.: the historical demography of 17th century France and Japan; the history of women in twentieth-century Russia and China;
"Vertical": examine a variety of perspectives on the same historical topic. The French Revolution is the classic one: it is open to Marxist, populist, economic, cultural, feminist, and many other interpretations. Other good possibilities are the British Industrial Revolution, American slavery, or European imperialism.
In either case, you need to search out the major works in the literature, analyze the basic terms of debate, discuss the different analytic tools and sources employed, and evaluate the relative merit of different approaches. Your paper should consider at least four works in the field in depth. You might have ideas of your own about where work in this subfield should go, which you should feel free to develop.
Fifty percent of your grade for this class will be based on your forum postings, contributions to our in-class discussions, and your two reports on external readings from the partial bibliographies. The rest of your grade will be based on your final paper.
Hegel, G. W. F. Reason in History: A General Introduction to the Philosophy of History. Translated by Robert S. Hartman. Prentice Hall, 1997. ISBN: 9780023513206.
Jefferson, Thomas. Notes on the State of Virginia. Edited by David Waldstreicher. Bedford/St. Martin's, 2002. ISBN: 9780312257132.
Brooks, James F. Captives and Cousins: Slavery, Kinship, and Community in the Southwest Borderlands. University of North Carolina Press, 2002. ISBN: 9780807853825.
Bayly, C. A. The Birth of the Modern World, 1780-1914: Global Connections and Comparisons. Wiley-Blackwell, 2004. ISBN: 9780631236160.
Cronon, William. Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England. Revised ed. Hill & Wang, 2003. ISBN: 9780809016341.
Hunt, Lynn. The Family Romance of the French Revolution. University of California Press, 1993. ISBN: 9780520082700.
Allen, Robert C. The British Industrial Revolution in Global Perspective. Cambridge University Press, 2009. ISBN: 9780521687850.
Elkins, James. Six Stories From the End of Representation: Images in Painting, Photography, Astronomy, Microscopy, Particle Physics, and Quantum Mechanics, 1980-2000. Stanford University Press, 2008. ISBN: 9780804741484.
Gitelman, Lisa, and Geoffrey B. Pingree. New Media, 1740-1915. MIT Press, 2004. ISBN: 9780262572286.
Ravel, Jeffrey S. The Would-Be Commoner: A Tale of Deception, Murder, and Justice in Seventeenth-Century France. Houghton Mifflin, 2008. ISBN: 9780618197316.
|WEEK # ||TOPICS |
|1 ||Introduction: Constructing and de-constructing history in the western tradition |
|2 ||National history: The case of the United States |
|3 ||Borderlands |
|4 ||Global perspectives |
|5 ||Microhistory |
|6 || |
Guest lecture: Prof. Harriet Ritvo, History
|7 || |
Women's history and gender
Guest lecture: Prof. Elizabeth Wood, History
|8 || |
The Industrial Revolution: Why Britain?
Guest lecture: Prof. Anne McCants, History
|9 || |
Visual culture: definitions, issues
Guest lecture: Prof. Caroline A. Jones, Architecture
|10 || |
Media studies: old and new media ca. 1450, 1890, & 2010
Guest lecture: Prof. William Uricchio, Literature and Comparative Media Studies
|11 ||Individual consultations with instructor |
|12 ||Digital humanities, publishing, and the library |
|13 ||Class presentations of final projects |