Pedagogical Aims and Methods

History is the integrated study of the diverse elements of the human experience as they change over time. It introduces students to the interrelations between political, social, economic, cultural, religious, intellectual, artistic, and other developments. It expands their ability to engage with complex causal analysis, and helps students recognize and appreciate the intricate links that shape and characterize societies and cultures, in the past as well as in our own time. From the roots of contemporary globalization to the origins of current political, legal, religious, or economic realities, exposure to complex historical analysis enriches students’ awareness of the world they live in, and helps them grow into more engaged citizens.

With these considerations in mind, we have made exposure to both the broad sweep and variety, and the focused engagement with specific topics, which together constitute the work of historians, the basic structure of our general education curriculum. Thus, even beginning students learn to explore changes and continuities in the many spheres of human endeavor, gain insight into the breadth and range of the human experience, and understand that experience as a process of long-term dynamic evolution.

Our general education courses (in particular the introductory surveys) also offer, to majors and non-majors alike, a model of trans-national, cross-cultural history that raises their awareness of global themes and issues and leads them to examine the interaction of diverse cultures and groups. This model applies also to many of our upper-level courses, and to the structure of our major. History majors are required to take at least three courses, including advanced seminars, in two world regions, drawn, broadly speaking, from the western and the non-western worlds. This allows them both to broaden and to deepen their historical knowledge and leads them to confront the past – and the present – in a global and comparative manner.

By engaging them in critical reading of primary texts, both in discussions and in written assignments, we push even students in our introductory classes to develop their research skills. All our courses, in particular, require student engagement with sources and significant writing. These skills are further expanded in our upper-level classes. Our seminar courses in particular offer students the opportunity further to hone their ability for both written and verbal argument, and to produce more sophisticated analytical papers. More commonly in these upper-level courses, but often in lower-level ones as well, students also expand on their analytical reading skills by confronting not only primary sources but also the arguments of scholars, again both in discussions and in written work. In the Senior Honors Seminar some of our strongest seniors write substantial Master’s-quality theses based on original research. Our final capstone portfolio workshop course offers students, as they approach graduation, the opportunity to reflect upon the skills they have learned and to practice how best to present their own accomplishments. The increasing complexity of our courses at the various levels of the undergraduate curriculum allows us also to monitor student progress: generally speaking, while the quantity and complexity of both readings and writing assignments increase in higher-numbered courses, student performance improves as well.

At all levels of our curriculum, however, our aim is not only to bring students to progressively higher levels of knowledge and understanding of historical developments. We also consider it essential to introduce them to historically-grounded critical thinking, and thereby to develop their critical reading, writing, and analytical skills. Central to this is the ability to analyze evidence critically and honestly, which is one of the foundations of responsible, informed citizenship. “How do you know what you know?” is perhaps the single most important question we as historians can lead our students to ask, of themselves and of others; this has shaped in particular the recent addition to our general education curriculum (HIST 1099). Close engagement with important historical texts and primary sources brings students to a fuller comprehension of the past and of how we work to understand it, and thus helps them learn how to frame and answer analytical questions based on evidence.

Historical understandings and contemporary perceptions always generate multiple perspectives. Teachers and students of history join in the critical analysis of these diverse visions and of how they, too, change, which is why we insist that all faculty members always share in leading discussions and in grading all work. Even in large general education courses that employ Teaching Assistants, students regularly meet in small groups, led by both faculty and Teaching Assistants, for discussion of primary and secondary texts. We have also designed several processes to help both new colleagues and our graduate students improve their abilities both in the teaching of writing and in conducting open discussions. We take pride in our commitment to excellent teaching: more historians have won the College Dean’s Teaching Award than faculty in any other discipline.

Across the levels of our undergraduate program, we aim for students to acquire complex long-term knowledge, critical skills, openness to diverse perspectives, and the intellectual humility that comes from repeatedly questioning how we acquire and expand our own knowledge and from awareness of the multiplicity of perspectives that frame historical questions. The Georgetown History curriculum thus helps students develop aptitude for understanding and engaging a world facing rapid change, the capacity to explore how the world’s societies are interconnected, and the ability to contribute thoughtfully to an informed vision of humanity’s future.

[May 2024]