History 387

                                                               Practice and Theory of History

                                                                          Reed Browning

                                                                  First Semester, 2004-2005



Historians have long asked themselves whether their craft is an art or a science.  (Quick question: what answer does Kenyon apparently give to that question?)  The fact that there can be uncertainty about the matter suggests that the practice of history is actually part art and part science.  The goal of this seminar is to give students majoring in history a structured opportunity to reflect about the field of study they are committing their time and energy to.  To that end, we will have lots of discussion, an individual oral report opportunity for every student, two team-structured collaborative activities (each culminating in an in-seminar presentation), a set of three written assignments, and summary accounts (by you) of the results of your individual research endeavors.


The seminar meetings will vary in content and format from one week to the next.  Nevertheless, whatever shape they take, in order to participate effectively and honestly you must be ready for discussion by having read the assignment for the day and, if you have a special presentation for the day, by being prepared to make your report.



Books to be purchased:


Joyce Appleby, Lynn Hunt, and Margaret Jacob, Telling the Truth About History

Marc Bloch, The Historian’s Craft

Gertrude Himmelfarb, The New History and the Old

Niall Ferguson, ed., Virtual History

Mary Lynn Rampolla, A Pocket Guide to Writing History




Kate Turabian, A Manual for Writers of Term Papers, Theses, and Dissertations





September 2                  Getting Launched


Getting organized


September 9                  Planning a History Curriculum

Each of the four teams will have received a description of a history department at a particular kind of college or university and on this day will present a proposed curriculum for that department. Your proposal should provide a statement of departmental mission, a list of courses that will be taught, and a structure for a major.  This exercise will allow the seminar to discuss the reasons why the study of history may or may not be important.

September 16                 A Crisis for Historians?

In the past several years a number of eminent historians have been accused of unethical professional behavior.  The conjunction of so many lapses has led people to speculate about a “crisis” in historical scholarship.  We will receive reports on three cases and then discuss their implications.  What better way to explore what historians do for a living than to examine some careers that have run into trouble, right?


Reports on:                                                       

Michael Bellesisles

Joseph Ellis

Doris Kearns Goodwin


September 23                 An Historian Observes Himself

Marc Bloch was one of the greatest historians of the twentieth century.  His examination of what he did – The Historian’s Craft – is a celebrated account of what historians do.  We will discuss this book.  In preparation, each of you should write an essay of no more than 1000 words that describes and analyzes your reaction to Bloch’s prescription.


September 30                 History in the United States I: The Era of Intellectual Absolutisms

For the next three weeks we will be reading Telling the Truth About History, by Joyce Appleby, Lynn Hunt, and Margaret Jacob. This work will allow us to understand how history has been conceived of and studied in the United States over the course of the last 250 or so years.  For today you should read pages 1-125.  Additionally, we will have oral reports on:


Thucydides (why is he often called the father of history?)

Karl Marx (what was his contribution to the study of history?)

Alexis de Tocqueville (how did he shape thinking about U.S. history?)


October 7                      History in the United States II: The Dethroning of Absolutisms

This is the second week of the Appleby, Hunt, and Jacobs book. Read pp. 128-237.  This week we need oral reports on:


Friedrich Nietzsche (why do so many find him peachy?)

Clifford Geertz (what can anthropology teach history?)

Michel Foucault (why did this French intellectual sweep American academe by storm?)



October 14                    History in the United States III:  The Future of the Study of History

Read pp. 241-309 of Appleby, Hunt, and Jacob.  We’ll have five reports this week.  Each is on a fine recent history book, chosen because each book exemplifies the imaginative things historians are now doing.


Natalie Zeman Davis, The Return of Martin Guerre

Carlo Ginzburg, The Cheese and the Worms

Richard Price, Alabi’s World

Marshall Sahlins, How ‘Natives’ Think, About Captain Cook, for Example

Jonathon Spence, The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci                             


October 21                    COUNTERFACTUALISM

Scientists often use controlled experiments to tease out the truth.  Should historians use counterfactuals?  In exploring that question we’ll discuss Niall Ferguson’s essay, “Virtual History: Towards a ‘Chaotic’ Theory of the Past,” in Virtual History, pp. 1-90.  In preparation, each of you should write an essay, not to exceed 1000 words, presenting your thoughts about what Ferguson has written.  We’ll also set up the counterfactualism teams.


Research proposals are to be submitted at this class.


October 28                    WEEK OFF FOR INDIVIDUAL CONFERENCES



Today we examine some of the techniques, conventions, and habits of organization and presentation that mark the practice of historians who have mastered their craft.  For today’s meeting you should read Mary Lynn Rampolla, A Pocket Guide to Writing in History.  Please come with questions.  I may not have answers – but if I don’t, that just makes the question more interesting, useful, and entertaining.



Today we’ll hear a group report from each of the four teams on each of the four counterfactual essays that you’ve analyzed.



Not every historian is happy with the directions of modern historiography. For today we read several essays defending traditional practices, all from Gertrude Himmelfarb’s The New History and the Old, pp. 1-69, 143-84.





Half of the seminar members will outline the findings of their research work at this meeting.


December 9                               ORAL REPORTS ON STUDENT RESEARCH PAPERS: II

The other half of the seminarians will outline the findings of their research efforts at this meeting.




1.  The course grade will be determined by the following formula:


your participation in discussion                                        25%

your research essay                                                        25%

your two shorter essays                                                  20% (10% for each)

your oral report                                                              15%

your team success on the Ferguson assignment                 15%


2.  My office is 9 Seitz House. My office hours are 9:00 to 11:00 a.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.  If those aren’t convenient for you, we’ll find a time that works better.  My e-mail address is browninr@kenyon.edu. My office phone number is 5642.  My home phone number is 427-3155, and you may feel free to call me at any reasonable hour.


3.  Please feel free to speak to me whenever you have questions.  Some of this material may at first seem forbidding, but I’m hopeful everyone will find it interesting, maybe even enchanting, once we’ve discussed it.    And in particular, I invite you to speak to me whenever you wish about my assessment of your work in the course.  Don’t be shy.


4.  Plagiarism is the use and representation of someone else's work as one's own.  It is the most serious offense that can be committed in an academic community.  We are obliged to acknowledge our debts to the labors of others, and recourse to notes (footnotes or endnotes) is the most typical way of fulfilling that obligation.  Kate Turabian's A Manual for Writers of Term Papers, Theses, and Dissertations gives wonderful advice on building notes and bibliographies. The Student Handbook contains a full discussion of plagiarism.  Please read it.  I will be glad to discuss any issues about plagiarism with any student.


5.  I will have more to say at a later date about the research essay, which is due on Friday, November 19, just before the Thanksgiving break.  This assignment will be the major research-and-writing assignment of the seminar.


6.  If you have a physical, psychological, medical or learning disability that may impact your ability to carry out assigned course work, I would urge that you contact the Office of Disability Services at 5453.  The Coordinator of Disability Services, Erin Salva (salvae@kenyon.edu), will review your concerns and determine, with you, what accommodations are appropriate.  All information and documentation of disability is confidential.


7. I encourage the use of foreign languages in student research work.  I realize that few students will be proficient at reading Dutch, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, or Swedish, and so I'll be pleased to make significant adjustments in expectations if anyone wants to try to do some of the reading for the research essay in a language other than English.  Please speak to me about the possibility if the prospect seems enticing.