Home > Teaching > Teaching Thursday: How to introduce the M.A. in History?

Teaching Thursday: How to introduce the M.A. in History?

Over the past semester, we’ve re-conceived our M.A. program in History here at the University of North Dakota.  As part of this process we’ve added another required M.A. level course.  Traditionally, we’ve required that the students take a graduate historiography course; in our new program we will require our students also to take a an introduction to historical methods course.  This course will involve a “refresher” (let’s call it that!) on advanced research techniques.  This means an introduction to both library and online resources for doing independent historical research as well as basic refresher on note-taking, outline-writing, and thesis-formulating.  This work will likely culminate in the student’s writing a feasibility study for their proposed M.A. research.  In a two year program, it is never too early to start working on research.

The second part of the class will be the so-called parade of scholars.  This will involve at least part of our graduate faculty presenting their research interests and methods.  Our department has a nice range of scholarly approaches; several of use work on material culture (albeit in different ways), we have an oral historians, a quantitative historian, a biographer, a few archival guys, and a clever, philological Medievalist.  So, if even half of the graduate faculty in our department come through the seminar, we’ll provide a nice introduction to historical approaches present in our department.

The only other issue is how does the historical methods course work together with it’s trailing course in historiography.  The methods, approaches, and techniques of history are closely related to both the history of the discipline (particularly the process of professionalization) and the theoretical and epistemological assumptions that we rely upon to understand the past.  While separating methods from theory (or theory from practice) has long been a practical and pedagogical expectation, it also enables student to take unreflective approach to how they understand their own discipline.  In short, we preach that understanding the past is vital for understanding the present, but then offer courses that separate the two making it appear that present practice is sustainable without a sophisticated understanding of the history and theory of what we do.  It could be hypocritical at best, and at worse, perpetuate the a kind of theoretical complacency that is not uncommon in history department and among graduate students.

On the other hand, you can’t teach everything at once.  And the division between theory and practice does allow for a rather neat pedagogical division.  The practical techniques of historical research are best learned through going and doing historical research, whereas the theoretical and historical foundations for the discipline are perhaps better introduced through a directed readings type environment where a group of scholars wrestle with challenging ideas a group.  The challenge of re-writing the curriculum is how to accommodate these two different, yet nevertheless fundamental aspects the process of learning how to conduct historical research and analysis.  The key issue is whether we should structure our curriculum around pedagogical issues or around the conceptual links that unite theory and technique in the practice of history.

Categories: Teaching
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