Monday, May 13, 2013

Summer Reading: Understanding Historical Theory (Quickly)

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.

6 comments:

Eric Schultz said...

All hail Kindle, too--this book (as a book book) is about $90 used and $130 new, but can be rented for $6 on Kindle and purchased for $14.

Erica Washburn said...

@Eric Schultz I found if for $18 on amazon as a book book. I hate reading on a screen, so for those of you like me, it's available!

Gabriel Loiacono said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Gabriel Loiacono said...

This book looks really good. It reminds me that, while I loved my graduate education in history, and remain immensely satisfied with it, we never had a course on theory. We occasionally read theoretical works, but I got the impression that many Americanists had little use for formal attention to theory by 2001, when I started. Books like this, though, are a big help putting this theoretical world together. I will try this one. Another one I read was Green and Troup's Houses of History.

hcr said...

Glad to hear these comments, although when I bought it, it was just the normal cost. Gabriel, I have a theory about Americanists/Europeanists and theory (ironically). Perhaps I'll write it up....

Gabriel Loiacono said...

I'd love to hear that theory on theories, Heather!