International History

Carol Benedict, Field Chair; Anthony Pirrotti, Curricular Dean 

Processes of historical change have become increasingly global during recent centuries. The major in International History combines a broad introduction to the analysis of historical changes that transcend national boundaries with the opportunity to explore a particular theme or question in the context of a self-designed major concentration.

The major goes beyond study of the formal relations between states - the traditional subject matter of diplomatic history - to address themes in social, cultural, and intellectual history. Historical scholarship today draws on ideas and data from subjects as varied as anthropology, philosophy, sociology, political science, religious studies, and literature, and this mix is reflected in the coursework for the International History major.

In addition, the major exposes students to a range of theoretical tools and methodological approaches to historical analysis, and places special emphasis on the development of critical thinking, argumentation and writing skills.

Goals of the Major

The goal of the International History major is to prepare students to understand how the world got to be the way it is today and the forces that govern its ongoing evolution. It is designed to introduce them to the breadth and depth of the human experience by a comparative study of past and contemporary societies and cultures, and to develop their ability to conduct research, analyze and assess evidence, and articulate sound conclusions both orally and in writing.

Our students thus acquire knowledge and skills that help them develop as informed, engaged, and thoughtful citizens and scholars. The study of international history will enable our students to become more involved with the complex world they live in, and to maintain throughout their lives a spirit of inquiry and curiosity that can not only make them more active in their communities, but also provide them with personal enrichment and enjoyment.

Objectives of the Major

The study of history plays a distinctive and central role in a strong liberal arts curriculum. Knowledge of history is essential to understanding the emergence of the modern world and to grappling with continuing global interactions and conflicts. International History majors enjoy considerable freedom to focus their work on their own areas of interest and to design programs that complement the rest of their academic work.

The International History major will enable students to:

  • develop the ability to explain and contextualize change over time on the basis of evidence.
  • distinguish between types and genres of sources and between evidence-based conclusions and unfounded statements.
  • use sources to formulate questions and construct original arguments, and develop their ability to support their conclusions orally and in writing with evidence and appropriate documentation.
  • identify, evaluate, and compare historians’ different interpretations of the past, thus understanding the discipline of history as an ongoing conversation between sources, scholars, and students.
  • identify and trace major themes, issues, and developments in comparative, international, and global history, and gain the ability to formulate comparative questions and arguments about different societies and cultures.

Students in the Honors program will further develop these abilities and their research and writing skills, and will produce theses comparable in quality and depth to many Master’s theses.

Writing in the Major

The study of history and writing are inseparable. As a form of knowledge based on the interpretation of fragmentary records that survive from the past, all historians use the written word to posit an argument and defend it with evidence. Because historical sources reveal only part of the whole story, no single historical work can ever be fully comprehensive or definitive. As a result historians continually debate the varying interpretations that emerge between different schools of thought. Ultimately, the quality of historical writing is determined by the successful collection, organization, and presentation of evidence in support of a coherent and convincing thesis.

At its core, historical writing depends on judgment: the thoughtful selection of good research questions and the identification and interpretation of historical sources. Historians use two types of evidence: primary and secondary sources. Primary sources are documents or other records created at the time of the events under analysis; they come directly from the participants themselves. Secondary sources are the findings of writers who were not direct participants in a historical episode but those who have subsequently investigated primary evidence of it. Works of scholarship are the most common secondary sources students of history will encounter. In certain situations, a secondary source can become a primary one.

Sources, whether primary or secondary, do not answer historical questions themselves. Students of history must sift with a critical eye through the information provided in their sources and then rely on their own judgment to construct a historical argument grounded in evidence. In order to determine the reliability of their sources, historians read documents closely and place them in historical context. They ask critical questions to determine who wrote the document, when and where it was created, and for what purpose. The capacity to determine what matters—to think critically about what evidence to include and what to exclude and how to frame one’s analysis—is one of the core skills students of history acquire through writing.

Writing in history takes many forms. Some history papers are organized as narratives that tell stories of people and events in the past; others are more analytical and organized as an essay. Most historical writing incorporates both narrative and analysis. Some papers deal with historiography, that is, how different historians or schools of thought have approached the history of a particular subject. Other papers deal directly with history, analyzing not simply what happened but why and how it happened. Whatever the format, history students must begin with a thesis statement and the evidence bolstering their argument must always be divulged using a responsible and consistent citation style.

In contrast to some fields of study, history as a discipline has no standard content or proscribed sequence of courses. Within the History Department curriculum, different course levels require different amounts of research, analysis, and interpretation but we do not mandate a rigid progression from one level to the next. Depending upon the course, undergraduate students of history are typically asked to write many kinds of history papers, including document analyses, book reviews, response papers, bibliographic surveys, historiographical essays, research or exhibit proposals, or research papers. They might also be asked to develop a digital history project, which would involve writing text to accompany any digital maps or images.

As they move through the SFS Core Curriculum and meet the requirements towards their major, IHIS students thus repeatedly encounter and practice various forms of historical writing. All SFS students, including IHIS majors, take history courses as part of the Core Curriculum.  These courses (which are numbered within the HIST 007-199 range) introduce students to writing in the discipline of history through the careful reading and discussion of primary sources and writing assignments that require engagement with the past based on evidence-based analysis and interpretation.  In HIST courses in the 100-299 range, students continue to work on primary sources, but they will more frequently encounter differing interpretations of modern scholars. They will become more fully cognizant of the wide variety of sources available for historical analysis, and they will experiment with different types of written assignments that further hone their ability to select and interpret reliable evidence, to contextualize that evidence, and to build and support analytical arguments in written form.

IHIS majors complete a total of ten courses, the majority of which are taught by historians. All IHIS majors are required to take HIST 305, Global Perspectives on International History, which is a reading and writing-intensive colloquium that intensively highlights reading and analytical skills that are key to the study of history in general and the subfields of international, comparative, and global history in particular. Students are asked in various writing assignments to sort, arrange, and interpret what they read in ways to better make sense of the evidence. They must weigh the validity of the arguments of other scholars, assess the soundness of historical judgments and practice critical thinking. At least one of the assigned papers has typically allowed students to develop a research question, identify appropriate evidence, and outline a coherent and convincing thesis supported by evidence drawn from primary and secondary sources.

All IHIS majors take at least two courses numbered HIST 300+ but most take more than that. These discussion-based seminars require more substantial reading (in both primary and secondary sources) and more complex and substantial writing assignments, including those that require historical research and extensive use of the library. Many IHIS majors go on to complete the year-long Senior Honors Seminar, in which they research and write a significant and original historical thesis under the mentorship of the Seminar director and individual faculty members. In the Honors Seminar, students routinely review and comment on each other’s drafts. This feedback, combined with that provided by faculty, allows students to continually develop and revise their writing across the academic year.

International History at Georgetown

The major in International History draws on the resources of the School of Foreign Service, the Department of History, and other departments at Georgetown University to offer a program of study that focuses on historical changes that transcend national boundaries. One of the cornerstones of the major is the history of international relations, a field in which Georgetown is especially rich in resources. International history also addresses themes in social, economic, cultural, and intellectual history and draws on ideas and information from fields as varied as anthropology, philosophy, sociology, political science, economics, religious studies, and literature.

The History Department faculty at Georgetown is uniquely international in its research and teaching interests, and offers a rich choice of courses to undergraduate students. The Faculty includes specialists on virtually every major region in the world. There are courses at both the introductory and the advanced levels on all periods of history and most areas of the world as well as courses that present thematic, comparative, and global perspectives.