Published Date

January 1, 2014

Resource Type

For Departments, Program of Study

AHA Topics

Academic Departmental Affairs, Teaching & Learning, The History Major, Undergraduate Education

This resource was developed as part of the AHA’s Tuning project.

By Susannah Ottaway

Institution: Carleton College
Degree Name: Bachelor of Arts in History
Location: Northfield, MN
Year: 2014


Purpose of the Degree

The History Major has five principle goals for its majors:

  • To develop broad and deep knowledge of other times, places, and peoples and to equip them to perceive and understand complexity, causation, and connection in human affairs
  • To broaden their awareness of human diversity and creativity as well as enduring human problems in a comparative perspective
  • To develop research abilities essential to finding and analyzing primary source evidence and to engaging in an informed and critical dialogue with relevant scholarship]
  • To develop and refine the ability to communicate clearly in writing, speaking, or other medium (such as an exhibition) historical ideas and arguments based on careful engagement with historical evidence
  • To develop their own sense of “the historian’s craft” and the meaning of history in their lives and world

Characteristics of the Program

Faculty members employ a range of approaches in their teaching and scholarship but share important assumptions about learning history. They regard wide and critical reading as essential for broadening students’ knowledge and experience, and they see the ability to organize research material and ask critical questions as vital for working with historical sources. The history department emphasizes the skill of effective writing in every course. History professors rely on close faculty-student interaction in class discussion and on individual teaching and advising to help foster the development of these skills. The History Major’s rigorous yet flexible requirements and rich diversity of interest fields and course offerings make it suitable for students with many goals for their Carleton career.

Career Pathways for the Graduate

The study of history at Carleton equips students with vital professional skills and with broad cultural perspectives. They know where and how to find information quickly; they can cope effectively with large quantities of reading material; they can integrate ideas and information from a variety of sources; they can express themselves with clarity, economy, and elegance. Above all, they gain a depth of intellectual curiosity and openness to the diversity of human cultural achievements that will enrich their lives. Our alumni go on to successful careers in an extremely broad range of fields, with about close to 25% going on in business fields, and another 20% continuing in higher education. Among our alums, we count T.J. Stiles, winner of the the Pulitzer Prize for Biography and the National Book Award for Nonfiction; Jay Rubenstein, renowned Medieval Historian and winner of a MacArthur “Genius” grant; as well as numerous leaders in fields of public policy, business and law. Carleton has one of the highest percentages of students who go on to achieve a PhD in history in the country. (In fact, Carleton ranks 5th in the country in the production of PhD students in humanities fields, according to the National Science Foundation and Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System 2001–10 data on the undergraduate origins of doctoral degrees.)

Educational Style

Many professors offer first-year (“Argument and Inquiry”) seminars that stress reading, writing, and class discussion, ensuring that each seminar group becomes a close community of learners. Especially at the advanced level, history courses often provide opportunities to pursue in-depth research on topics of the student’s choice, and the department supports student research domestically and abroad through competitive prizes and fellowships offered through endowed funds held by the Department and by the College. Recently, the department has offered a rich array of public history and academic civic engagement units in history courses as well, so that students can analyze the uses of history beyond the academic environment in popular culture, public memory and K-12 education; we call this set of courses a “Public History Thread”.

A wide range of students enroll in History Department courses, many of which count for Area Studies concentrations at the College, and nearly all of which fulfill our “Humanities Inquiry” Distribution Requirements. Students who declare a History Major are required to choose one of our eight fields as an area of primary focus, and to take four courses in that field. They are also required to take two courses in each of two other chosen fields. While they can take these field-specific courses at any level, they must enroll in the Department’s Junior Colloquium to focus on historiography, and they are required to take at least one History 395-Research Seminar, which provides critical scaffolding for research and writing skills that they will utilize in their required Senior Writing Seminar and “Comprehensive” thesis, which results in an orginal, article-length essay based on a body of primary sources.

Our introductory, 100-level courses are broad surveys of a given period and region (e.g. Early Medieval Europe; Modern China; American Social History through the Civil War Era) that generally combine lecture and discussion-style classes. From the 200-level onwards, courses are heavily discussion-based, and often more tightly thematically or nationally framed (e.g. American Environmental History; the American Revolution; East Asia in the Cold War). Sophomores are encouraged to take Sophomore Seminars (History 200), which introduce the development of sophisticated research skills through carefully staged research projects, where all students work on a particular theme (e.g. the Russian Revolution). All of these courses require that students develop critical reading and writing skills while they build a deep knowledge of a given time and place.

All majors take History 298: the Junior Colloquium, which is an in depth exploration of historiography, introducing students to changes over time in the theory and methods that historians have used in writing about the past. The course requires students to write a historiographical essay on the topic of their choice. The culminating project for every major is an original thesis based on primary sources, which they defend at the end of Winter Term of their Senior year. This project is carefully structured and scaffolded, with a proposal due in the fall term, and extensive work with both a major field adviser and a professor who supervises the seniors in an Advanced Writing Seminar.

Program Competencies and Outcomes

By the time they graduate, we expect students to demonstrate their mastery of the disciplinary goals articulated above. Specifically, through an assessment of their senior thesis essays (required of every student in the major), each of our students shows competency in the following areas: formulating a historical question; proposing a persuasive answer to the question; basing their research questions on an analysis of a body of primary sources; locating their own thesis in a scholarly conversation via secondary literature; documenting sources; writing with sound mechanics; presenting their arguments effectively orally; responding effectively to questions about their research that are posed orally. Each student is assessed by at least two faculty members, and if they have not demonstrated adequate competency in each of these categories, they are asked to revise their senior thesis.