Of all the disciplines in the humanities and social sciences, none is more oriented to understanding the present and considering the potential future than history. In a time of profound uncertainty—of accelerating climate change, increasing political polarization, economic instability, and ongoing social change—history provides the tools for making sense of an often troubling present. Historians are acutely aware that the present could have turned out differently, and that the future is, thus, always available for change. This awareness of radical contingency means that historians are particularly well positioned to show that the familiar patterns of world events, current systems of power, and social configurations, for instance, were all caused by many complex and intersecting forces, ranging from the actions of individuals to shifts in regional economies, and from the spread of disease to natural disasters.
In other words, history defamiliarizes the present. History demands that we understand that present institutions, norms, and systems are all still caught in the process of change. Even more important, history provides us the tools with which to make sense of the relationship between the past and the present. Historical thinking draws attention to the categories we use to understand society in the present, and thus, to understand the past without imposing contemporary norms or categories of identity; it emphasizes that the past is accessible through a range of sources—written and oral, official and personal—but which are fragments, and which need to be read critically; and that there are a range of ways of reconstructing the past. Every group of people across time has told its own history differently, and although guild historians are trained to make sense of the fragmentary, contested status of the archive, their research is informed by the understanding that they are constantly in conversation with other scholars.
Our research, as professional historians and thus as creators of new knowledge, is at the core of our pedagogy. Much as physicians learn, improve, and hone their craft by practicing medicine, historians learn through the practice of writing history. We engage in searching out new questions and digging for new answers; piecing together the puzzle provided by our sources as we creatively look for new ways to build new vistas for exploration. Doing this work enlivens our classrooms and puts our students on the cutting edges of our fields. But, we do much more than train future historians. We are inculcating a way of creative problem solving, sifting through mounds of data, discerning the right questions to ask of it, and articulating a compelling argument as to the meaning of it, that is a core component of participating in the modern knowledge economy. At the center of this is learning to read effectively, deeply, and critically and then synthesizing/distilling it to its essence. Our students emerge better equipped to process the world around them, ask questions that are steeped in context, with depth and nuance, leading to better identification of problems and thus more useful solutions.
History, then, provides students with three sets of skills, all of which are vital for navigating a present that is saturated with an apparently never-ending flow of information. Understanding history helps with navigating complexity and uncertainty. First, it teaches students to identify and recognize the categories and structures that they use to understand their own contexts, and how, then, to suspend these while understanding societies and pasts different from their own. They develop a deeper capacity for empathetic understanding of difference. By this we mean not historical relativism, but the ability to provide context for the actions, decisions, and experiences of people in different ages and circumstances. Second, it requires that students learn to read a variety of texts and sources—some very difficult to comprehend at first glance—critically. We help students to build informational literacy, how to read closely, and how to ensure critical consumption of information by working with primary sources, archives, maps, material objects, and books so as to foster creativity and originality in thinking about the past. Thus, they come to recognize that history can be mined from a wide diversity of sources that do not fit one mold. And third, it teaches students how to argue: how to put to use fragmentary and occasionally contradictory evidence to produce nuanced and complex arguments that demonstrate how the past shapes the present, and how, nonetheless, the present remains contingent.
Chair, Associate Professor John Turner
Professors Paul Josephson, Raffael Scheck, Larissa Taylor, and Robert Weisbrot; Associate Professor John Turner; Assistant Professors Arnout van der Meer and Sarah Duff; Visiting Assistant Professor Viktor Shmagin; Faculty Fellows Danae Jacobson and Erik Reardon; Visiting Instructor Lauren A. Parker
Requirements for the Major in History
Eleven semester courses in history (of at least three credits each), to include History 276 (Patterns and Processes in World History); two 300-level courses; a senior research seminar at the 400 level; and at least one course in each of three areas: Category I (Africa, Asia, and world history), Category II (Europe, Russia, and the USSR), and Category III (Colonial and Native America/United States). At least two courses must be in premodern history, as designated by the department (a detailed list of the distribution of courses among the fields is available on the department website).
Of the 11 courses for the major, no more than three may be at the 100 level. The two 300-level courses must be taken at Colby. All majors must also take a designated senior seminar (400-level) taught by a departmental faculty member in which they write a major research paper. The two 300-level courses and the senior seminar may also count toward fulfilling an area requirement. Students who choose to do an honors thesis during their senior year are still required to complete the senior seminar requirement. Many of these students choose to do the senior seminar in their junior year.
Up to three semester courses in history may be taken from historians at other colleges and universities in the United States and abroad. Please consult with the department chair if you have questions about nondepartmental courses that are approved for the major.
The point scale for retention of the major applies to all courses in history. No requirement for the major may be taken satisfactory/unsatisfactory. No course will count for the history major if the grade is lower than C-. Seniors with a GPA of 3.75 or higher in history courses will graduate with “Distinction in the Major.”
Honors in History
Admission to the yearlong honors program requires at least a 3.5 grade point average in the history major and approval by the department. Honors projects signify a serious engagement with independent scholarship; interested students should plan to devote a large portion of their academic time to the project during their senior year. Students should begin planning for the honors project by the end of the spring semester of their junior year and, at the discretion of the history professor who agrees to act as honors advisor and following approval of a detailed research proposal by the department faculty as a whole, may be admitted in the first semester of the senior year to the honors program. A total of up to eight credits may be given for the year, including January Program credit. The honors thesis must receive at least an A- grade for the student to graduate with “Honors in History.” For specifics on the procedures and expectations for Honors in History, as well as guidelines for writing the research proposal, please refer to the History Department’s website.