Spring 2025

Proseminar in History: Writing the Past

Listed in: History, as HIST-301


Ellen R. Boucher (Section 01)


This course offers an opportunity for history majors and students intrigued by the past to reflect upon the practice of history. How do we claim to know anything about the past at all? How do historians construct the stories they tell about the past from the fragmentary remnants of former times? What is the connection between the past as it was lived and the narratives that historians write? How do we judge the truth and value of these histories and memories? The course explores questions such as these through readings and case studies drawn from a variety of places and times. Throughout the semester, we will examine a variety of subjects, from the heroic yet complicated life of noted abolitionist Frederick Douglass, to the clashing worldviews of Hawai’ians and Europeans at the time of Captain Cook’s Pacific explorations, from debates over the motivations of perpetrators in the Holocaust to contrasting interpretations of Chinese footbinding. To be explicit, though: our object in reading these books is not to learn their subject matter. If you gain a better understanding of these historical events through our readings, great – but that is not the goal of the course. Rather, our aim is to study the discipline of History itself, looking closely at how the historians writing these texts tried to make and discover knowledge. This approach will allow us to grapple with a number of significant philosophical questions that still dominate the study of the past. Is there such a thing as historical truth? Is it appropriate for historians to have a political agenda? What does it mean for a history, or a historian, to be “biased”? To what extent is history a useful lens for understanding the present?

Not open to first-year students. Limited to 25 students. Fall semester: Professor Manion. Spring semester: Professor Boucher.

How to handle overenrollment: Preference given to History majors.

Students who enroll in this course will likely encounter and be expected to engage in the following intellectual skills, modes of learning, and assessment: Exploration of methodological and theoretical debates about the writing of historical scholarship. Extensive reading, several argumentative papers, intensive in-class discussions.

Course Materials


Other years: Offered in Fall 2011, Spring 2012, Spring 2013, Fall 2013, Spring 2014, Fall 2014, Spring 2015, Fall 2015, Spring 2016, Fall 2016, Spring 2017, Fall 2017, Spring 2018, Fall 2018, Spring 2019, Fall 2019, Spring 2020, Fall 2020, Spring 2021, Fall 2021, Spring 2022, Fall 2022, Spring 2023, Fall 2023, Spring 2024, Fall 2024