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Academic Program

Professor Brown teaching a seminar.

What is History?

The discipline of history is a method of analysis that focuses on the contexts in which people have lived, worked, and died. Historians interpret the past based on the critical assessment of written, oral, visual, aural, and any other material evidence and are in constant dialogue with what other historians have written. Historical scholarship enables us to not only know what occurred in the past but also to understand the thoughts, cultures, institutions, and behaviors of people living in different times and places, thereby allowing us to uncover continuities and disruptions of patterns that characterized the human experience before our time. The study of history not only allows us to recover the details of individual lives and societies in the past, but it also provides the knowledge that allows us to be engaged citizens in a global context by fostering respect for other cultures and peoples.

Overview of Curriculum

Professor Armus lectures students in his Latin American History.

The History Department’s curriculum cultivates the understanding of historical methods and the fundamentals of historical thinking, research, and writing. All of our courses and seminars expose students to the contested nature of historical scholarship and provide the skills needed to understand and interpret the past. We believe it is critical to nurture students’ historical understanding of the past through first-hand exposure to primary sources and evaluation of the respective arguments of historians. In all courses and seminars, faculty members involve students in the process of historical discovery and interpretation and stress that all historians are engaged in the constant sifting of old and new evidence.

Each faculty member has a specific area of geographical and temporal expertise in a particular kind of historical inquiry. But each faculty member also focuses on broad and wide-ranging themes and topics that extend beyond any one region or time period. Some study social, cultural, and political movements; others explore the impact of race and ethnicity; still others examine the history of empires, material culture, ideas, sexuality, and gender. Despite these variations we 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.

History courses are an intrinsic element of many multidisciplinary programs such as Asian Studies, Black Studies, Gender and Sexuality Studies, German Studies, Global Studies, Interpretation Theory, Islamic Studies, Latin American and Latino Studies, Medieval Studies, and Peace and Conflict Studies. Students interested in these programs should consult the catalog for these programs’ requirements and course offerings.

Students listen to a lecture in Professor Armus' class.

Requirements for Majors in History

Class of 2024 and previous classes

All majors in history must take at least 9 credits in history that fulfill the following requirements:

  • They complete at least six of their nine credits at Swarthmore. Only one credit from AP/IB will count toward the nine credits required for the major. (Read more about our External Credit Policies.)
  • They take at least one course or seminar at Swarthmore from each of the following categories:
    1. before 1800 (including Ancient History courses) and
    2. outside Europe and the United States, specifically Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Near East. This distribution requirement encourages students to explore various fields of history and engage in comparative historical analysis. Students must use different courses or seminars to fulfill this requirement. (Find what courses meet our Distribution Requirement.)
  • They complete the culminating project, HIST 091 Senior Research Seminar. This course (which counts as one of the required nine credits) satisfies the College's requirement that all majors have a culminating exercise and is only offered during the fall semester. The department encourages students to consult faculty members about their topics by the end of their junior year and select their topic prior to taking the Senior Research Seminar. Juniors are also strongly encouraged to apply for summer research fellowships through the Division of Social Sciences.

Class of 2025 and following classes

All majors must take at least nine credits—six of which must be taken at Swarthmore—in History that fulfill the following requirements:

  • One introductory course (001-010; first-year seminar, survey)
  • One course in historical methodology and theory preferably taken before the senior year
  • Four courses in one Concentration that focus on more than one geographic region or time period
    • Concentrations: Capitalism, Culture & Identity, Domination & Resistance, Empire & Nations, and Science & Medicine
    • Geographic regions and time periods defined as
    1. before 1800 (including Ancient History courses) or
    2. outside Europe and the United States, specifically Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Near East (Find what courses meet our Distribution Requirement.)
  • Two other credits in History
  • HIST 091 Senior Research Seminar 

Requirements for Minors in History

Class of 2024 and previous classes

All minors must take at least five credits at Swarthmore (AP, IB, transfer credits, and foreign study courses do not count). At least two credits must be taken as upper-division courses or double-credit seminars. Only one can be an Ancient History course.

Class of 2025 and following classes

All minors must take at least five credits at Swarthmore. At least two credits must be taken as upper-division courses or double-credit seminars that fall within one of the Department’s concentrations. Only one can be an Ancient History course.

Course Types

Introductory Courses: Surveys and First-Year Seminars (001-010)

These courses serve as a gateway to the major by introducing students to the discipline of history and fostering their ability to think, read, and write historically. They prepare students for upper-division courses, which are predicated on prior exposure to the practice of history.

Surveys provide broad overviews of particular times and places in the historical past, but they all focus on major issues of interpretation, analysis of primary sources, and historical methodology. First-year seminars (History 001A-001Z) are limited to twelve students and explore specific historical issues or periods in depth in a seminar setting.

Historical Methodology and Theory Courses

These courses expose students to the diverse nature of history as an academic discipline. They explore the methodological and theoretical concerns of historians and focuses on how they conceive of their projects; how they develop questions that guide their research, writing, and analysis; how they use primary sources to guide their work; how they shape narrative accounts of their projects; and what are the merits and drawbacks of their respective approaches to history. All majors must take this course before the end of their junior year.

Upper-Division Courses (011-090)

Upper-division courses are categorized by concentrations that provide depth and breadth to the study of history and address key topics and themes that occupy the attention of historians. Cutting edge historical scholarship tends to fall into at least one of the following concentrations: capitalism; culture and identity; domination and resistance; empire and nations; science and medicine.

Please note that some upper-division courses also satisfy the requirement for a methodology or theory course.

Senior Research Seminar (History 91)

The History Department’s Senior Research Seminar (History 91) serves as the major’s capstone course and provides students with the opportunity to employ their skills as historians as they write an extended essay based on primary and secondary sources. This course satisfies the College’s requirement that all majors have a culminating exercise and is offered only in the fall semester. The Department encourages students to consult faculty members by the end of their junior year and select their topic prior to the first meeting of the Senior Research Seminar.

We encourage students to use the rich collections of the Swarthmore College Peace Collection and Friends Historical Library, both located in McCabe Library. The Peace Collection houses an unparalleled collection of antiwar and disarmament materials, including those of many prominent social activists. The Friends Historical 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 Hagley Museum and Library (Wilmington, DE), the Library Company of Philadelphia, and the American Philosophical Society are also accessible to the student-researcher. In addition, we encourage students to use on-line archival collections such as the National Security Archive.

Double-credit Seminars (100+)

Double-credit seminars are small courses in which students take responsibility for discussions and comprehensive understanding of the material. The instructor helps facilitate discussions but does not necessarily take a leading role in the learning process. These seminars tend to focus on specific fields of historical inquiry such as gender and sexuality in the United States; slavery; reform and revolution in Latin America; the Enlightenment and European intellectual history; political economy of the Modern Middle East; supranational institutions in Europe; colonialism in Africa; women and gender in China; and the Russian revolution.

Entry into double-credit, honors seminars must be requested through the Department Chair. Our honors seminars are open to students’ applications usually after they have taken two history courses and earned grades of B+ or higher.

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.

Students who intend to continue the study of history after graduation should bear in mind that a reading knowledge of one or two foreign languages is generally assumed for admission to graduate school.