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Academic Program

Professor Brown teaching a seminar.

What is History?

The study of history is not limited to learning events, dates, and names. History is a method of analysis that focuses on the contexts in which people have lived, worked, and died. Historians seek to go beyond their descriptive abilities and wrestle with the essential questions of "how" and "why" change occurs over time. They interpret the past and are in constant dialogue with what other historians have written about it. For example, although there may be agreement that Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany in 1933, historians have and will continue to debate the origins of Nazism, the rise of Hitler to power, and the causes of World War II and the Holocaust. Historical scholarship enables us to not only know what occurred in the past but also to understand the thoughts and actions of people living in other times and places, allowing us to uncover the continuities and disruptions of patterns that characterized life before our time.

Overview of Curriculum

Professor Armus lectures students in his Latin American History.

Swarthmore's history curriculum introduces students to historical methods and the fundamentals of historical thinking, research, and writing. Faculty members expose students to the contested nature of the discipline, cultivating the skills historians employ to understand and interpret the past. Students learn to critically assess the evidence of the past through first-hand exposure to primary sources. They also develop the ability to evaluate the respective arguments of historians. In all courses and seminars, the department strives to involve students in the process of historical discovery and interpretation, emphasizing that all historians are engaged in the constant sifting of old and new evidence.

Each faculty member in the History Department has a regional focus as well as expertise in a particular kind of historical inquiry. Some study social, cultural, and political movements; others examine the impact of religion or explore the rise of capitalism. They all share a commitment to a global and comparative approach to the study of history and a common pedagogical concern for promoting a critical understanding of the past.

Students are encouraged to hone their skills as historians by using the rich collections of the Swarthmore College Peace Collection and Friends Historical Library, both located in McCabe Library. The Peace Collection is unparalleled as a depository of antiwar and disarmament materials, housing the papers of many leading social activists. The Friends Library possesses one of the richest collections of manuscripts and printed source material on Quaker history. The holdings of other institutions in the greater Philadelphia area, such as the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, the Hagley Museum and Library (Wilmington, Del.), the Library Company of Philadelphia, and the American Philosophical Society, are also accessible to the student-researcher. Students are also encouraged to broaden their cultural and intellectual horizons through study abroad.

Students are eligible to apply for grants that will enable them to spend a summer conducting research on a historical topic of their choosing. In the past, students have used these grants to immerse themselves in materials found in libraries and archives around the United States, Europe, and Latin America, collecting materials that formed the basis of their senior research papers. Topics of recent senior theses include he culture and politics of anti-tobacco campaigns in 21st Century Argentina; cross-dressing in early 20th Century San Francisco; the deep cultural history of the 20th Century civil rights movement in the United States; the interplay of baseball, masculinity, and American popular culture during the Reagan years; the memorialization of a catastrophic fire on board the USS Constellation in 1960; and the diplomatic and cultural reaction to the “Winter War” between the Soviet Union and Finland.

Courses and seminars offered by the History Department are integral to most interdisciplinary programs, such as Black Studies, Gender and Sexuality Studies, Interpretation Theory, Islamic Studies, and Latin American and Latino Studies, as well as to the majors in Asian Studies, German Studies, Global Studies, Medieval Studies, and Peace and Conflict Studies. Students interested in these programs should consult the appropriate statements of requirements and course offerings. In addition, we encourage students who wish to obtain teacher certification to major in history.

Students listen to a lecture in Professor Armus' class.

The Academic Program

First-Year Seminars

First-year seminars (HIST 001A-001Z; 1 credit) explore specific historical issues or periods in depth in a seminar setting; they are open to first-year students only and are limited to 12 students. Students who are not admitted to first-year seminars in the fall will receive priority for seminars in the spring.​​​​

Survey Courses

Survey courses provide broad chronological coverage of a particular field of history. Survey courses (002-010; 1 credit) are open to all students without prerequisites and are designed to offer a general education in the field as well as provide preparation for a range of upper-level courses. Although these entry-level courses vary somewhat in approach, they normally focus on major issues of interpretation, the analysis of primary sources, and historical methodology.

Upper-Division Courses

Upper-division courses (HIST 011-099; 1 credit) are specifically thematic and topical in nature and do not attempt to provide the broad coverage of surveys. They are generally open to students who have fulfilled one of the following: (1) successfully completed one of the courses numbered 001-010; (2) received an Advanced Placement score of 4 or 5 (or a 6 or 7 IB score) in any area of history; (3) successfully completed an Ancient History course; or (4) received the permission of the instructor.

Exceptions are courses designated "not open to first-year students" or where specific prerequisites are stated.

Double-Credit Seminars

Double-credit seminars are small classes in which students are expected to take substantial responsibility for the development of the discussion and learning. These seminars focus on the literature of a given field. Critical thinking about secondary sources and historiographical writing constitute their principle objectives. Seminars are limited to 10 students. Admission to these seminars is selective and based on the department's evaluation of the student's potential to do independent work and to contribute to seminar discussions. A minimum grade of B+ in at least two history courses taken at Swarthmore and a record of active and informed participation in class discussions are normally required of all students entering seminars. In addition, recommendations from department faculty members who have taught the student are solicited.

Language Attachment

Certain designated courses offer the option of a foreign language attachment, normally for 0.5 credit. Arrangements for this option should be made with the instructor at the time of registration.