Historical Concepts, Methods and Controversies: How the Class Works

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Historical Concepts, Methods and Controversies: How the Class Works

The core course in Hilary Term of their second year for the M.Phil British and European History students is ‘Historical Concepts, Methods and Controversies’. Although there will be class leaders, this course basically runs on student input.  Each seminar is led by one of the students and takes as its theme a topic – a historical concept, method or controversy – of his or her choice, which should be related to issues arising from the experience of conducting research. You will need to identify a suitable topic during the second half of Michaelmas Term, so that everyone has the opportunity to prepare before the course starts in Hilary. You should discuss potential topics with their supervisors and/or the class leaders. The latter will remind you of this necessity in Michaelmas.

Each student leader will need to prepare for this class a document of approximately 2 sides, which contains: i) a synopsis of the topic; ii) a series of questions to orientate the class reading and discussion; iii) a bibliography. Don’t go overboard on the bibliography because all participants, including the leaders, are expected to read all the set literature – articles and chapters available online are therefore preferred. Please ensure that the bibliography is sufficiently broad that it will be of potential relevance to students researching very different areas. For example, if your dissertation focuses on women in Fascist Italy, and the topic for seminar discussion focuses on gender and power, the bibliography should not only contain readings on Fascist Italy. (There might be exceptions to this advice where, for example, the seminar topic relates to a particular controversy with its own extensive literature, such as the Australian History Wars.)

Each student will make an oral paper of no more than 20 minutes (standard for academic conference papers) to introduce the topic and initiate the discussion. This paper should draw on their research experience over the previous six months as well as relevant secondary and critical literature. Nevertheless, the focus of the paper (and the subsequent essay) should be a discussion of the theoretical, technical, and historiographical problems encountered in your research, rather than upon the presentation of your factual materials. As the title of the course suggests, you should use the paper to discuss (1) relevant conceptual issues (2) the methods you have found appropriate and any methodological problems encountered (3) any historiographical controversies that arise in the area of your research, or to which your own investigations may give rise. Some of you, for example, will have to address a large and controversial existing literature, whereas others will be working in a field where there is little or no secondary discussion. Some of you may need to draw heavily upon concepts drawn from e.g. political thought, anthropology, economic theory, gender theory etc, etc, whereas for others this will be inappropriate. (If there is no body of theoretical writing that is helpful and relevant to your work, then you should not hesitate to say so). ‘Methods’ will almost invariably involve evaluation and criticism of sources. Overall the aim of the course is to help you to think about your research not simply as a fact-finding mission but as an exercise in historical method, and to debate the practical and conceptual problems arising with tutors and other students working on the course. Although this paper presentation is not part of the formal assessment, students will receive feedback from class leaders.

Each student will write one ‘Historical concepts, methods and controversies’ essay of between 5000 and 7000 words, excluding bibliographies. The essay and the paper presentation will normally overlap, but need not do so. The instructions to candidates explains that ‘Candidates are expected to present some of the findings of their dissertation research in the light of historiographical, theoretical and methodological questions that have informed their research. They may wish at this stage to draw on and develop further the insights they gained from their first-year studies of the Theory and Methods and Sources and Resources elements of the programme.’ The title of this essay should be submitted to the Faculty Graduate Office for approval by Friday of 4th week, Hilary Term, and the final essay will be submitted to Exam Schools by Monday of 1st week of Trinity. 

As the paper presentation and the essay will likely relate closely to your research dissertation it’s important to emphasize that here as elsewhere you MUST NOT plagiarize yourself. Themes can be shared but do not repeat whole sections of text. The class leaders will discuss with you how to avoid any danger of overlap.

The course is designed so that everyone can benefit from the support and intellect of their peers. Students on this course are the new researchers who make up the cutting edge of discipline: they know better than anyone what the current debates are, and in what directions the discipline should travel. However, the course only works if everyone fully commits to it: that means everyone has to read the literature and respond to the questions.  One can’t expect to get much from it unless one puts a lot into it.

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