Heather Cox Richardson
As the school year winds to a close, incoming graduate students have been asking me what they should read to prepare for the fall. That question has an obvious answer, and the answer brings up what strikes me as an oddity in the way we handle graduate education in history.
|Boston Public Library. |
Photo by Randall Stephens.
It has always seemed to me bizarre that we treat graduate education as if it has little connection to undergraduate studies. A brilliant undergrad will understand facts, argument, and, with luck, historiography, as well as how to write. But one of the first things that brilliant undergrad will do in graduate school is to take a seminar in historical theory, where s/he’s supposed to converse intelligently about historical theories of which s/he has never heard. First year grad students are lost and frightened. (Except for that One Guy who throws around Foucault's name like they're long-time tennis partners.)
My antidote to that deer-in-the-headlights experience of first-year graduate school in history is Marnie Hughes-Warrington’s book, Fifty Key Thinkers on History. It lays out the major arguments of Tacitus, Natalie Zemon Davis, E P. Thompson, Michel Foucault, Marc Bloch, and so on, in a few pages each. It identifies both the major works of each historian, and how the argument of those works fits into the historiography of their era.
It's not perfect (of course), but it's a godsend for showing students the lay of the land so they can then absorb individual hills. This book lays out major theoretical arguments in history and situates them in their historical moment. It opens up the world of historical theory so students can then examine it in more detail, piece by piece.
This book helps to ease the transition from undergraduate course work to graduate studies. If you are looking for something to give you a leg up in your first year of graduate school, this is your first assignment.