Publication Date

April 1, 1992

Perspectives Section


AHA Topic

Graduate Education, Teaching & Learning


Teaching Methods

Times of growth, optimism, and innovation may be returning to the field of history, albeit at a modest level. The unprecedented slump of the past fifteen years in graduate training of historians appears to be coming to an end, as the combination of retirements, increases in enrollments, and development of new fields in history brings growing demand for new historians. The slump was little short of horrific. The number of history Ph.D.’s awarded in the United States fell from about 1,200 per year in 1974-75 to 600 per year in 1980 and remained at that level until the present. New Ph.D. programs, instituted at a rate of five to six per year in the early 1970s, fen to about one per year after 1980.

Graduate education in history was demoralizing work during that time. The irony is that this was also one of the most exciting and revolutionary periods in historical research and writing. But the glut on the market and the slump in graduate education tended to mean that existing Ph.D. programs responded piecemeal to the new situation, rather than redesign their curricula broadly.

The Department of History at Northeastern University (which has had a sizeable M.A. Program since the 1950.) has now embarked on developing a Ph.D. program. We have found it a remarkable opportunity to rethink the state of the profession, and to consider how best to prepare the next generation of historians.

Our department, including just under twenty members (the exact number depends on how one counts joint appointments), has a particular research strength in various areas of social history, and its M.A. program has a particular strength in public history. Most graduate students have focused on U.S. history; a large number have focused in various areas of European history; and about half of our graduates (including both Americanists and Europeanists) have specialized in public history. About a third of The department’s faculty members have significant interests in world history (These include historians of Africa, East Asia, The Middle East Europe, and The United States). Our strengths in U.S. and European history and in public history are those for which the department is best known. The first dimension of our plan for a Ph.D. program is to build on these existing strengths.

The second dimension is to focus new effort in two areas: formal methodological training and world history. Each of these areas is of increasing interest to the profession, and each is also a significant research focus for several department members. For reasons of inertia similar to those that have affected other departments, we had not previously brought our graduate training up to date with our research. Our decision to focus on methodology and world history results, Therefore, both from The interests of faculty members and from our conclusion that these are two key directions in which The field of history is, and should be, going.



I have already noted the irony that the moment of the great cutbacks in graduate training and employment coincided with the period of methodological revolution. The coincidence of these changes may be one of the reasons for historians’ difficulties in settling on a meaning for the term “methodology.” That is, in the 1960s and 1970s, the most obvious methodological innovations came in the use of quantitative techniques in social and in economic history. Courses in “methodology” tended, henceforth, to be centered on quantitative techniques. In fact, any comprehensive review of the methods used by historians leads well beyond the limits of quantitative techniques. If the term “methodology” is defined broadly enough to ensnare the various techniques, disciplines, and theories that historians employ to gather, criticize, and order data, and to elaborate and test historical interpretations as well, it is a broad subject indeed. But it is the meaning we have adopted for our proposed program.

To become up-to-date historians, our Ph.D. candidates will still need to develop strengths in the ancestral historical techniques of gathering and criticizing source material (especially written documents), of ordering the source material, and of writing interpretations that are logical yet sensitive to the interplay of many factors and variables. In addition, the remarkable broadening of the range of historical sources in recent times means that graduate students may have to learn equivalent techniques when working in oral history, material culture, or historical linguistics. Finally, they must learn to utilize one or several theories, each of which centers on a restricted number of variables linked together by a formal analytical logic, and they must learn The appropriate manner in which to apply these theories to historical data. No longer is it sufficient for the history graduate student to do some side reading or to take one or two courses to become literate in these areas of specialization.

In an attempt to address this need, our decision was to require six three-unit courses (we are on the quarter system, so this may correspond to four courses at semester-system schools) explicitly focused on method. The courses are set at three levels, which may be labeled as The introductory survey, specialized training, and the advanced survey.

First is the introduction to historical methodology, taken by entering graduate students. This course reviews traditional methods, materials, and techniques of historians: the standard sources and authorities of history in libraries and archives: types of historical writing, ranging from book reviews to research monographs to syntheses; a review of the regional fields and topical subdisciplines of the field; identification of the methods and theories of associated disciplines, such as social, economic, and cultural history; and preparation of a comprehensive research design. (In addition, students must take a course on historiography, focusing either on European, U.S., or world historiography.)

The second level requires four courses on methodology in a specialization chosen by the student and approved by the student’s doctoral committee. For instance, those specializing in economic history would take graduate courses in economic theory t in quantitative techniques, and perhaps a reading course linking economic theory and economic history; those specializing in social history would take graduate courses in sociological theory, in quantitative techniques, and perhaps a reading course; those specializing in cultural history might take courses in art history, in literary theory, or in anthropology. This restructuring of our program also enabled us to characterize public history as a methodology within history, rather than as a separate type of history: it has, in turn, such methodological subfields as material culture, archival management. historic preservation, and genealogy.

The third level brings together students who have completed (or nearly completed) their methodological specialization to take an advanced course on theory and method. Here students have to read and debate not only in their own area, but in the full range of the historical literature. From this experience they should develop a sense of the underlying logic of theory going beyond any specific terrain, a sense of the historian’s particular way of using theories and methods of other disciplines in order to interpret the past, and an ability to discuss critically current work addressing much of the broad methodological terrain for which historians are now responsible.

To implement this formal methodological requirement demands active cooperation of the History Department with associated departments, and even with neighboring universities. The groundwork on campus is already laid in our close relationships with the Departments of African-American Studies, Sociology and Anthropology, English, Economics, Political Science, and Art and Architecture.

World History

The existence of world history as both a separate and an integrative entity can hardly be in doubt today as the events of recent years have underscored the importance of a global perspective. But while the politics of today are expressed in continental terms, our history of the past is still written mainly in terms of the experiences of individual nations. Understanding the antecedents of recent global changes will require a reformulation of history: World history is not just an accumulation of local experiences, but also the study of phenomena at regional and global levels. In fact, fortunately, a sizeable literature on world history exists already, including the classic works of Arnold Toynbee and Oswald Spengler, major recent works by such authors as William McNeill, Philip Curtin, Immanuel Wallerstein, and Eric Wolf, and many monographic studies. Nevertheless, new graduate courses, bibliographic aids, and review essays will have to be prepared before the structure of the literature on world history can become readily apparent to graduate students.

The demand for teachers of world history, while relatively new, is now becoming as tangible as world history itself. Recent years have seen a dramatic increase in the number of undergraduate world history surveys taught, notably in state universities and liberal arts colleges. (In a related and more massive movement, world history has become required in the secondary school curriculum, notably in New York, California, and Texas.) Who teaches these world history courses? Mostly they are faculty members without any formal training in world history. They are, doubtless, dedicated and energetic, with all the strengths and weaknesses of self-taught artisans.

At Northeastern, our hope is to prepare historians ready to teach world history courses, and ready to lead their departments in improving world history offerings. We expect our graduates to write a dissertation focused on one of the traditional regions of historical scholarship (e.g., United States, Africa, modem Europe), which at the same time emphasizes a global theme. (Thus an Africanist might write a dissertation on the socioeconomic impact of a multinational firm in Ghana, but the dissertation would include work on the firm itself and its home country.) These graduates will also take courses and seminars on world history. (And, as we noted above, each will develop a methodological specialization) Further, they will teach world history course, first under supervision and then on their own. Overall, our world history graduates concentrating on, say, Africa will be a bit less specialized on Africa than some of their competitors in the job market, but they will be better prepared to teach and oversee world history surveys than these same competitors.

The New Graduate Program in Sum

We see an opportunity to restructure the traditional graduate program in history to account for the fundamental changes taking place in our field, and to prepare Ph.D.-holders who will succeed in this altered environment. We expect to begin instruction at the doctoral level in the fall of 1993; we imagine that the altered environment and the new opportunities will lead other departments to restructure their doctoral programs as well.

Patrick Manning
Patrick Manning

University of Pittsburgh