Instructor: Dr. Beth Robertson

Course Description

Every historical performance, movie, monument, mural or graphic novel has a theory about the past informing it. This course will encourage you to be more thoughtful in identifying what those theories might be. As a class, we will endeavour to be curious, adventurous and imaginative as we explore historical theory as a means to think through and with the past.

Historical theory may be abstract at times, but it certainly is not impractical. Theory helps us approach critical questions about the nature of history, its textual and material representations, as well as the kinds of stories we tell, or do not tell, about those who have come before us. Although based on ideas and conceptual frameworks, historical theories are rooted within specific social, cultural and temporal contexts. As such, in this course we will examine the central premises of certain theories of writing about the past, the historiographical traditions they originated from and even challenged or critiqued, while also taking time to explore the geographical, social and political contexts that encouraged their emergence.

The course charts the shifting theoretical approaches that historians have taken to the study of the past from the nineteenth century to now. Together we will explore the major questions and conceptual issues raised by fields such as social history, women’s history, postmodernism, postcolonialism, queer theory, the digital turn and more. It is, of course, impossible to cover every debate about the representation and interpretation of history. However, a broad grounding in some of the key debates covered in the course will give you important historiographical context, and help you engage more deeply with the ever-changing nature of our understanding of the past, the lives of those who lived in it, the different ways that historians have written about specific moments, people and communities, as well as how and why historical interpretations have altered over time.

This course emphasizes critical reading and historiographical thinking – skills that will help you cut across the boundaries of specific time- and place-based histories in order to communicate more effectively with all historians and students of history, both within academia or out in the public. An engagement with key theoretical issues will also provide you with various examples of interdisciplinary collaboration between historians and scholars working in diverse fields to powerfully convey the importance of historical thinking to speak to a range of issues of our broader world.

Evaluation of the course will consist of attending and participating in class and tutorial groups, online reflections as well as a ‘chose your own adventure’ set of final assignments for which students will submit a proposal earlier in the year, consisting of either a formal essay or public history group project.