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HST 803
Prof. Peter Vinten-Johansen
Seminar in Methodology of Historical Research

Imagine yourself in the following situation:

The research portion of this seminar actualizes the above story, with several twists: we're in East Lansing; Browne is available at a local bookstore, along with other required and some recommended books; and you are expected to write a research paper on Darwin's Beagle diary, not a Master's thesis.

HST 803 contains three integrated dimensions:

 I. A research experience focused on the Beagle Darwin.  Although the actual product is a seminar paper, the process parallels what is typically expected for a Master's thesis or doctoral dissertation.  That is, you will (a) select a focused topic from the Beagle diary in tandem with (b) undertaking library research and writing a research prospectus.  This prospectus should introduce the topic, review scholarly literature on the topic, present a scholarly problem on the topic that you hope to resolve, discuss primary and secondary sources you plan to consult in your research, and outline your intended theoretical perspective and methodological stance.  After the instructor approves the prospectus, you will (c) research and write three drafts of a research paper–in this case, an historical narrative on your scholarly problem.

 During the research experience, we will discuss productive study habits and develop a bibliographical system that you may employ later, such as when preparing for preliminary field and comprehensive examinations.  Part of this process involves complementing your normal notetaking practice with exercise sheets designed to recapitulate bibliographical and methodological elements of textual material that you are expected to consult during class discussions, as well as when writing your research paper.

 The research dimension of HST 803 is designed as a modified History Workshop.  That is, texts relevant to Darwin's Beagle voyage–especially his diary, field notes, and correspondence–are the lodestones for every research topic and much of the class discussion.  This format has the decided advantage that (despite diversity in topics) common and familiar texts will permit seminar discussion of every phase of the research process that every participant is experiencing.  The History Workshop also means that everyone in the seminar at least understands the context of every topic; in short, the seminar constitutes an informed field for assessing individual projects.   The workshop format permits us to distribute responsibilities for covering a humongous resource base and, in the process, gain some practice in undertaking collective research projects.

 II. Re-thinking our notions of how professional historians work and what they write.  Most of us assume that the approach we learned is the only one that passes muster in the historical domain.  The reality is that professional historians differ considerably in their notions and practice of history.  Some believe we should ideally be neutral, objective truth-seekers; others have long thought this ideal is neither possible nor desirable.  Such variation at the core of the historical profession was recently heightened by post-modern critics who challenge the objectivity claimed by some historians as a distinguishing mark of professional practice.

In this seminar, we will examine a range of methodologies that lay claim to professional legitimacy.  We will read and discuss several arguments bearing on the "objectivity question"--both pro and con--with particular attention to the history/fiction debate.  Are there differences between what historians and creative writers do?  If so, what are the distinguishing criteria for an historical product?  My long-term objective is to encourage all seminar participants to clarify their own philosophies of history and the methodologies they use in doing history themselves.

 III. The third dimension is what you bring to the course--as individuals and as a group.

 Books Available at Local Booksellers

The research dimension: There will be some common reading in every book; how much more you are expected to read in each book depends on your eventual research topic.

HERSCHEL  John Herschel, Preliminary Discourse on the Study of Natural
   Philosophy (1830; reprint, Chicago, 1987).

HUMBOLDT  Alexander von Humboldt, Personal Narrative (Penguin, 1996).

MILTON   John Milton, Paradise Lost and Regained (Signet, 1968).

PALEY    William Paley, Natural Theology (1802; reprint, Charlottesville, 1986).

* * *

ALTICK  Richard Altick. Victorian People and Ideas (Norton, 1973).

BROWNE   Janet Browne, Charles Darwin. Voyaging (Princeton, 1995).

D & M  Adrian Desmond and James Moore, Darwin: Life of a Tormented Evolutionist (Norton, 1995).

RUSE   Michael Ruse, The Darwinian Revolution (Chicago, 1981).

The objectivist/post-modern debate: We will read some books in their entirety, others only a few to several chapters.

A,H&J  Joyce Appleby, Lynn Hunt, and Margaret Jacob. Telling the Truth     about History  (New York, 1995).

HILLERMAN Tony Hillerman. The Dark Wind (Harper, 1982).

JENKINS  Keith Jenkins, The Postmodern History Reader (Routledge, 1997).

NOVICK  Peter Novick. That Noble Dream: The "Objectivity Question" and the    American Historical Profession (Cambridge, Mass., 1988).

ROSENAU   Pauline M. Rosenau. Post-Modernism & the Social Sciences  (Princeton, 1992).

SCHAMA  Simon Schama. Dead Certainties (New York, 1992).

Reference book for writing workshops:

HACKER  Diana Hacker. Pocket Style Manual, 2nd ed. (St. Martin's, 1997).

All books available for purchase are on 2-hour, no-overnight reserve in the Assigned Reading section of the Main Library, listed in the appropriate notebook under Vinten-Johansen.  In addition, I have placed on reserve books that past students have regularly consulted when writing their research papers.  You are not limited to these books.

 Assessment and Course Mark

        1. Seminar preparation and involvement, 50%
Everyone begins the semester with a participation mark of 4.0.  You will maintain it with regular attendance, full preparation, and informed participation.  Various exercise sheets are due most weeks, either during or at the end of the class period.  I will assign each sheet a check or check-minus.  A check-minus means that either you misunderstood the assignment or it did not meet my expectations; you should redo anything on which you received a check-minus.  Since the major purpose of these exercise sheets is to develop habits of mind necessary for effective class participation, I will only review late submissions when I collect Processfolios (see below).  Reading exercise sheets are referred to by the following abbreviations in the Schedule of Assignments:

 Bib = Bibliography
 SoA = Structure of Argument
 TC  = Thematic Clustering
 TS = Thesis Statement

Maintain a Processfolio of all reading sheets and writing exercises/drafts completed during the semester. It should be organized to reflect the progress of your increasing mastery of course expectations.  Also keep in your processfolio the research notes and log you prepare for your research paper and an updated writing log.  Bring processfolios to every class meeting and to office hours when you come to see me.

        2. Prospectus, writing exercises, and three drafts of a research paper, 35%.
I will distribute expectations for the prospectus early in the semester.  The research paper should contain an introduction (problem statement, literature review, and thesis statement), substantiation in the form of an historical narrative, endnotes, and bibliography.  Unless you make individual arrangements with the instructor (in writing) to the contrary, the expected length of your research paper is 20-25 pages, not including endnotes and bibliography.  Endnotes and bibliography should be prepared according to guidelines presented in The Chicago Manual of Style, 14th ed.

A 4.0 will be awarded to final drafts of research papers that meet all of the following criteria: (1) an introduction that includes a viable historical problem, thorough review of the scholarly literature on your topic, the gaps your paper is designed to fill, and a clear, interpretative thesis statement; (2) an historical narrative that substantiates the thesis; and (3), endnotes and bibiliography prepared according to The Chicago Manual of Style, 14th edition.

Please make both electronic and paper copies for the instructor.  We have notebooks containing research papers completed in HST 803 over time.  They will be available to participants in subsequent seminars (just as theses and dissertations are available to other researchers).

        3. Two drafts of a review essay on the post-modern challenge to historical objectivity, 15%.
In addition to an assessment of the common reading on the subject, your essay should conclude with a personal discussion of your view of appropriate historical methodology at the beginning of the course, the methodology you employed in completing your research paper, and your philosophy of history at the end of this course.

At the end of the semester, hand in a Portfolio containing a sample of each reading exercise, the final draft of your research prospectus, a clean copy of the final draft of your research paper, your writing log, your research log, and the final draft of your review essay on history and post- modernism.   I use an improvement factor when I figure final marks; to do so, I need a well- organized Portfolio from you.

Peter Vinten-Johansen
332-3316 (H)

328 Morrill Hall
353-9417 (W)
e-mail address:

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