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Department of History

College of Humanities and Sciences

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Why Study History?

What Historians Do

Historical knowledge is no more and no less than carefully and critically constructed collective memory.

William H. McNeill
Why Study History? (1985)

It is a common misperception that the academic discipline of history consists of the memorization of unchanging facts about people who are long dead. People often equate history to a game of trivia, and therefore see it as a discipline with little practical applicability.

The study of history begins with questions, not answers. We seek to know what happened in the past, and we also seek to understand why – that is, how we should understand connections between one historical circumstance and another. In the process of seeking that understanding, historians work with historical evidence - evidence both written and oral, evidence embedded in both objects and texts, evidence in forms raging from numerical data to poetry and art. Meanwhile, as our present-day context raises new challenges for our communities, historians are inspired to ask new questions about the past, seeking understanding of a broad variety of human experiences. Historians explore questions about past politics and economics, intellectual developments, social concerns shaped by race, gender, and class, and facets of culture ranging from arts and languages to human spaces and emotions. As a result, the study of history is dynamic, rather than static, and those trained in this discipline develop valuable skills in gathering, evaluating, connecting, and interpreting factual information, and in the use evidence to argue persuasively for their conclusions.

History majors therefore graduate with analytical skills that equip them for a variety of employment opportunities. Employers value the skills history develops in the analysis of a variety of complex information, the clear and accessible communications and writing skills, and the management of time and projects. The strength and versatility of a history degree prepares students for successful careers in fields as diverse as teaching, museum curatorship, communications, public policy, sales and entrepreneurship, and managerial positions of many kinds.


The Historian's Skill Set

Given that history is such a dynamic field of inquiry, it would not make much sense if history majors were trained merely to recite factual information, or the interpretations of those facts endorsed by their professors. Instead, the goal of education in history is to impart a set of broadly-applicable skills to our students, skills which make them better at both consuming and imparting information. Our faculty envision the skills our graduates should have as follows:

In order to acquire these skills – skills which have applicability across a wide variety of careers – we require students not only to become familiar with the general narratives of human history, but also to explore, discuss and interpret the past by engaging with both documentary evidence and with historical debate. Thus, our classrooms and syllabi seek to develop the core skills outlined above by asking the following of our students:

Active and Experiential Learning in History

People sometimes think that history courses are about sitting passively through long lectures and learning long lists of dull facts. Nothing could be further from the truth! Active, experiential learning lies at the heart of what we do in history courses.

We access the past through reading primary sources such as diaries, letters, court records, newspapers, movies and interviews – amazing windows into the past that history courses will teach you how to use effectively. We also use books and essays written by professional historians. History courses teach you how to extract arguments from these texts, compare them critically, and understand how historians' approaches to understanding the past have evolved over time (what we call "historiography"). We learn a range of applied skills, including archival research, digital/data analysis, oral history and role-playing, how to give oral presentations and how to present clearly organized, convincing arguments in written papers. History students get to visit museums and historical sites. They meet visiting historians, listen to them talk about their work and talk with them about their own work. Furthermore, the Department of History offers a range of exciting internships in the local community, and VCU has two clubs for history students, History Now! and the Alexandrian Society. Students can engage actively with the past not just here at VCU and in Richmond but throughout the world by signing up for Study Abroad programs.

As a history major, the world is at your fingertips!

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