What Historians Do
“Historical knowledge is no more and no less than carefully and critically constructed collective memory.” William H. McNeill, Why Study History? (1985)
It is a common misperception that the academic discipline of History consists of the memorization of unchanging facts about people who are long dead. People often equate History to a game of trivia, and therefore see it as a discipline with little practical applicability.
The study of history begins with questions, not answers. We seek to know what happened in the past, and we also seek to understand why -- that is, how we should understand connections between one historical circumstance and another. In the process of seeking that understanding, historians work with historical evidence - evidence both written and oral, evidence embedded in both objects and texts, evidence in forms raging from numerical data to poetry and art. Meanwhile, as our present-day context raises new challenges for our communities, historians are inspired to ask new questions about the past, seeking understanding of a broad variety of human experiences. Historians explore questions about past politics and economics, intellectual developments, social concerns shaped by race, gender, and class, and facets of culture ranging from arts and languages to human spaces and emotions. As a result, the study of history is dynamic, rather than static, and those trained in this discipline develop valuable skills in gathering, evaluating, connecting, and interpreting factual information, and in the use evidence to argue persuasively for their conclusions.
History majors therefore graduate with analytical skills that equip them for a variety of employment opportunities. Employers value the skills History develops in the analysis of a variety of complex information, the clear and accessible communications and writing skills, and the management of time and projects. The strength and versatility of a history degree prepares students for successful careers in fields as diverse as teaching, museum curatorship, communications, public policy, sales and entrepreneurship, and managerial positions of many kinds.
The Historian's Skill Set
Given that History is such a dynamic field of inquiry, it would not make much sense if History majors were trained merely to recite factual information, or the interpretations of those facts endorsed by their professors. Instead, the goal of education in History is to impart a set of broadly-applicable skills to our students, skills which make them better at both consuming and imparting information. Our faculty envision the skills our graduates should have as follows:
- Information Gathering: Graduates of our program should be able to gather information effectively from a variety of sources.
- Critical Thinking: Graduates should be able to think critically about information, forming independent judgments based upon reliable evidence.
- Communication: Graduates should be able effectively to communicate their evidence-based observations and judgments, in oral/verbal and more lasting formats
- Professionalization: Graduates should be able to perform according to workplace standards of professionalism, demonstrating independent initiative, accountability, adaptability, and professional ethics.
In order to acquire these skills – skills which have applicability across a wide variety of careers – we require students not only to become familiar with the general narratives of human history, but also to explore, discuss, and interpret the past by engaging with both documentary evidence and with historical debate. Thus, our classrooms and syllabi seek to develop the core skills outlined above by asking the following of our students:
- Research: Students in this program will locate information independently, and evaluate its utility for their purposes.
- Critical Reading: Students will engage with a wide variety of texts, and glean useful information from them.
- Critical Thinking About Evidence: Students will evaluate the quality and utility of sources used to understand the past, keeping in mind their context, and purpose. Students will also make useful connections among disparate sources of information about history, and be able to propose causal relationships among them.
- Formulation of Analysis: Students will use both historical sources and logical inferences to construct plausible interpretations of the past.
- Writing: Students will strive to write clearly, accurately, persuasively, and elegantly, and to employ the research apparatus normative to historical scholarship.
- Presentations: Students will present information and arguments about the past in other formats, such as oral presentations, museum exhibits, archival guides, web-based presentations, and so on.
- Project Management & Interpersonal Engagement: Students will strive to work through the stages of any project or assignment in an organized and proactive manner, showing independence, timeliness, professional ethics, problem-solving skills, teamwork and collaboration, integrative learning and the transfer of skills, self-assessment, and good judgment in seeking support or resources.
People sometimes think that History courses are about sitting passively through long lectures and learning long lists of dull facts. Nothing could be further from the truth! Active, experiential learning lies at the heart of what we do in History courses.
We access the past through reading primary sources such as diaries, letters, court records, newspapers, movies, and interviews -- amazing windows into the past that History courses will teach you how to use effectively. We also use books and essays written by professional historians. History courses teach you how to extract arguments from these texts, compare them critically, and understand how historians' approaches to understanding the past have evolved over time (what we call "historiography"). We learn a range of applied skills, including archival research, digital / data analysis, oral history, and role-playing, how how to give oral presentations, and how to present clearly organized, convincing arguments in written papers. History students get to visit museums and historical sites. They meet visiting historians, listen to them talk about their work, and talk with them about their own work. Furthermore, the Department of History offers a range of exciting internships in the local community, and VCU has two clubs for History students, History Now! and the Alexandrian Society. Students can engage actively with the past not just here at VCU and in Richmond but throughout the world by signing up for Study Abroad programs.
As a History major, the world is at your fingertips!