21H.991 | Fall 2014 | Graduate

Theories and Methods in the Study of History

Instructor Insights

Course Overview

This page focuses on the course 21H.991 Theories and Methods in the Study of History as it was taught by Prof. Anne McCants in Fall 2014.

This course examines some of the many ways that contemporary historians interpret the past, as well as the multiple types of sources on which they rely for evidence. It is by no means an exhaustive survey, but the topics and readings have been chosen to give a sense of the diversity of work that is encompassed in the discipline of history.

Course Outcomes

Course Goals for Students

  • Gain familiarity with a wide variety of historical writing, across a diverse range of methodological approaches and content areas
  • Acquire strong critical reading skills and an ability to place individual works into broader comparative contexts

Read More/Read Less

  • Understand that historical research and writing sometimes follow conventions adopted and adapted from other social science disciplines, while other times conforming more closely to the concerns and practices of humanistic disciplines
  • Appreciate the tremendous flexibility that good historical writing enjoys, sitting at the productive boundary space between the humanities and social sciences
  • Engage in regular writing exercises to hone skills as critical consumers of history
  • Become familiar with the major historical journals (either general or specialist) so as to be exposed to historians’ professional norms of practice and to be able to tailor one’s own work for publication in the future
  • Become a producer of history, and not only a consumer, by engaging in an independent research project
  • Experience how much fun it can be to read and do good history

Possibilities for Further Study/Careers

This is a required first-year course for all new Ph.D. students in the HASTS program, along with 21A.750J Social Theory and Analysis and STS.260 Introduction to Science, Technology. This required first-year trio of coursers reflects the fact that our graduate program is interdisciplinary, spanning across History, Anthropology, and Science, Technology, and Society. Each of these areas of study offers its own separate undergraduate programs and has its own disciplinary norms with which doctoral students need to become familiar. After completing 21H.991 Theories and Methods in the Study of History, the typical student would then move on to complete the other two required courses, as well as more specialized graduate-level courses offered by one of the three programs.

Instructor Interview

In the following pages, Prof. Anne McCants, describes various aspects of how she taught 21H.991 Theories and Methods in the Study of History.

Curriculum Information


Permission of instructor

Requirements Satisfied

21H.991 Theories and Methods in the Study of History can be applied toward a Doctorate in History, Anthropology, and Science, Technology, and Society (HASTS).


Every fall semester

Student Information


Fewer than 10 students

Breakdown by Year

Mostly doctoral students

Occasionally, the course is taken by an advanced undergraduate student as a culminating exercise in History or by a graduate student from another discipline altogether looking to fulfill a breadth requirement.

Breakdown by Major

3/5 HASTS, 1/5 Ancient and Medieval Studies, 1/5 Architectural History Program (Harvard School of Design)

Typical Student Background

Students’ background experiences vary from semester to semester. However, all of the entering HASTS students in this year’s cohort came from non-historical undergraduate backgrounds and most will likely direct their doctoral studies towards the anthropological side of our program rather than the historical.

Given that most students were coming to the serious study of history for the first time, the intended learning outcomes for the course were particularly important. Their mix of mostly limited backgrounds was both a challenge and an opportunity for me to help them really explore the intellectual fun that history can be. I definitely tailored the course to emphasize the acquisition of basic skills and tried to paint a broad picture of how history is practiced at the highest levels.

Ideal Class Size


You need a critical mass for discussion; I think 5 is the about the lower limit. More than 10 students would probably be too many, both in terms of class discussion not being well-distributed and in terms of the ability of the instructor to interact effectively with each of the students.

How Student Time Was Spent

During an average week, students were expected to spend 12 hours on the course, roughly divided as follows:

In Class

Class time was spent almost entirely on discussing the assigned reading for each week. When we did not have a guest historian, discussion would begin with issues members of the class raised in their weekly discussion reflections. These reflections were normally submitted the evening before class allowing everyone to read them before we met. Whether the students addressed common themes or a diverse range of themes determined how long we focused on the reflections.

During weeks in which we did have a guest historian, the class discussion would follow whatever format our guest found most useful. Typically we would devote some time to allowing our guests to introduce himself or herself and the trajectory of his or her work. Then the guest speaker would pose the first questions from the assigned reading. Guests were also invited to reflect on the discussion comments, which I always made available to the guests the week of their participation.

We also devoted one full class to a discussion of journal writing, and to the diversity of styles and expectations that different kinds of journals require for publication. This was really a class session devoted to helping graduate students develop strategies for advancing their professional careers.

The other class period spent differently was our visit to the MIT Library Storage Annex. We heard from the history research librarian about strategies for finding an archive, and perused the uncatalogued material from the MIT Collection that is currently housed on the top floor of the Annex. I wanted the class to have a sense of what roaming in an archive can feel like—both in its adventitious finds as well as its disappointments—and to have a fuller appreciation for some of the unknown (and in a very real sense, unknowable) treasures of the MIT Collection.

Out of Class

  • Assigned readings
  • Weekly reading responses
  • Research paper preparation
  • Journal project preparation

Course Info

As Taught In
Fall 2014
Learning Resource Types
Written Assignments
Instructor Insights