Spring 2024

The Myth of the Past: Exploring Historical Experiences

Listed in: History, as HIST-323


Ali Mirza (Section 01)


[TC/ C] This course surveys how different peoples in different places and distant times have conceived of and engaged with the past. Our guiding questions include: Why have different groups described the past in different ways—as lost or recoverable, dangerous or a teacher, determined or open to change? What mediums—from rocks to charts, songs to manuscripts, and isotopes to cities—contain history’s secrets and shape it? And how have cultures adapted their understanding of history to form new ways of living? Our exploration will be extensive, including the following case studies: how Charles Darwin’s reading of eighteenth century nautical charts and study of animal migrations led him to deny humanity’s ability to understand many aspects of Earth’s natural history; how studying fossilized footprints in the nineteenth century led Amherst’s Edward Hitchcock to re-evaluate humanity’s political and technological aspirations; and how the Wakuénai in South America, in the twentieth century, conceived antisocial travel as bridging oneself to ancient forces that could then affect present personalities. We also look at how producers of fiction from Hubert Robert to Steven Spielberg used expansive histories to elicit wonder in audiences.  This course contains lectures, discussions, and hands-on interactions. The latter include organizing relics to affect our historical interpretations, learning to read geological history from “footmarks,” and searching for overlooked sources in archives. These abilities are refined through exams, essays, and a creative final-project. 

Spring semester. Professor Mirza.

How to handle overenrollment: null

Students who enroll in this course will likely encounter and be expected to engage in the following intellectual skills, modes of learning, and assessment: Learn to adapt one’s historical and philosophical method to the medium in which history is contained, such as manuscripts, nautical charts, fossils, and artifacts. Involves interdisciplinary engagement with geology, cartography, anthropology, etc. Compare practices, motivations, and artistic expressions of different peoples using close-readings and refine this knowledge using essays, exams, and presentations. Formulate and adapt a final-project to aid one’s long-term aims (journalistic, writing a novel, etc.). The latter may include a surgical dissection of a culture’s concept of history, archival work, dioramas, fiction writing, etc. Requires scrutiny of primary and secondary literature and rigorous participation in class discussions.


2024-25: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Spring 2014, Spring 2024