Modern Classics of Historical Writing

An ‘advanced tutorial’ that facilitates deeper understanding

April 22, 2022

Grinnell is a unique place, where a passion for education and learning is supported and nurtured by innovative classes and devoted faculty.  

One example of this innovation is the Modern Classics of Historical Writing (HIS 382) course. Its unusual format and dynamic give students a glimpse into other ways of thinking.  

HIS 382 takes the form of an “advanced tutorial,” says Associate Professor Edward Cohn, and it is based on the system of tutorials at Oxford and Cambridge in the U.K. Instead of meeting as a full group, students in the class meet with Cohn in groups of two for intensive discussions of the great works of historical writing, covering themes such as environmental history, gender history, and orientalism. One student writes a paper on the weekly theme, and the other responds — helping them hone their close textual reading, analysis, and writing skills.    

Cohn says the result is a course that reflects the many reasons students come to Grinnell: it involves close collaboration and conversation with a professor, intense discussions of critical historical issues, and a focus on effective writing and debate.  

The course touches on big questions such as, “What created slavery in the Americas — racism or capitalism?” and “How was the English working-class created?” “What makes the class exciting is that students ask big questions about important books and have the freedom to shape where the discussion goes,” says Cohn. “I never know where our conversations will lead.”  

Cohn sees the course as a one-semester encapsulation of the liberal arts that helps students immerse themselves in classical works of historical writing while exposing them to other types of learning, communication, and ways of exploring the world.

According to Cohn, students who have taken HIS 382 are overwhelmingly enthusiastic about the course. Many second- and third-year students say it is excellent preparation for taking research seminars at Grinnell. Fourth-year students report that it is a great capstone to their Grinnell history education. Students who go on to grad school, to law school, or even to careers in other fields have found the skills they learned in HIS 382 to be invaluable.  

While introducing you to some of the most significant works in historical scholarship, HIS 382 will also give you the skills needed to make persuasive arguments and to join debates about important questions central to understanding history and society.

Learn more about the history major

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