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COURSE NAME: "Doing History"
SEMESTER & YEAR: Fall 2023

EMAIL: [email protected]
HOURS: MW 8:30 AM 9:45 AM
PREREQUISITES: Co-requisites: EN 110
OFFICE HOURS: MW 10:00-10:45 or by appointment

This course introduces students to the practice of history, that is, how professional historians investigate, reconstruct, and interpret the past. Students will examine a variety of methodological approaches and theoretical perspectives that historians have employed in studying a particular historical problem (the topic varies from semester to semester). Students will also engage directly in practicing history by analyzing a variety of primary and secondary sources and carrying out a significant research project related to the topic of the semester.

During this semester, we will explore slavery and slave trades as historical phenomena.  While much of the reading that I assign will focus on the Trans-Atlantic slave trade and African slavery in varied parts of the Americas, we will also explore broader problems associated with studying these phenomena across different cultures and time periods.  In doing so,  we will examine a variety of approaches and tools that historians have used to investigate these issues, such as macro-historical analyses that attempt to reconstruct the numbers, geographical contours, and demographic effects of slave trades; micro-historical studies of individual voyages and experiences; and ethno-historical and cultural history attempts to better understand what slavery and slave trades meant to various peoples affected by them in a broad range of cultural and historical settings.


There are no books to order for the course.  We will be using a variety of primary and secondary sources building upon the University library's holdings.


A Note on How We Should Approach this Semester


Most generally, I am committed to the principle that my aims as an undergraduate history instructor should be to push (and to help) you to develop the skills, capacities, and modes of interpretation and understanding that will allow you to engage critically with the human past, the traces it has left, the ever-renewing knowledge we have of it, and its meanings for our present.  My role is that of a ‘coach,’ not a performer playing a show or a talking head telling you what’s what (although sometimes I will suggest my understandings of that too).  With this approach, you will without doubt learn more and develop abilities that are useful in other settings more fully than if I simply lectured and asked you to repeat that material on exams, and you will likely find what we do more interesting too. However, for this approach to work, we all need to commit ourselves to meeting the following expectations:


1.  Do the course reading (and especially the discussion reading) on a timely basis. You absolutely must complete it before the class in which we are discussing it and (if relevant) the deadline for making a related forum post (if you can finish it even earlier and thus have a bit more time to think about it, that’s even better).  At times this course will involve a significant amount of out-of-class reading.  I know that this may be a challenge for some of you, but we collectively need an ample amount of solid material to work with to make our discussions meaningful.  Also, do know that with practice you will develop your abilities to deal with larger amounts of reading in limited time frames.  If you wish, we can talk more about how to do the reading and the kinds of things you should be looking for in doing it in class.


2.  When you are present, be present.  We should make the most of the 2 ½ hours we meet each week to engage with the course materials and learn together.  During that time, we should all be focused on that effort and not other things such as checking social media, catching up on e-mail, studying for other courses or whatever else may distract us from the matters at hand.  Doing otherwise is disrespectful to the other members of the class, including me.  As such, if you really, really need to be doing something else, just don’t come to class.


3.  Maintain a respectful, professional tone in your responses and posts, but don’t be afraid to experiment with ideas and interpretations out of fear that they may be controversial (just work on clearly expressing your reasoning).  On this note, I think our discussions will function best if we all work on the assumption that each of us is openly and forthrightly attempting to grapple with the complexities and ambiguities of our shared human past and its relationship to our present (and as such that the things we say and write are never intended to harm or to insult).  Engaging with that past often forces us to look at the many horrid and ugly things that humans have done to and thought about (and continue to do to and think about) one another, which can be a difficult and painful experience.  Frank and open discussion is the best way both to seek to understand that past and to forge civil and tolerant ways of interacting and living with it and one another in the present.


4.  Give credit where credit is due and be sure that all work you hand in is your own.  Not only does plagiarism or any other form of cheating defeat the whole purpose of going to university to learn and to improve one’s abilities, it undermines the basic trust any community needs to learn and work together.  The recent emergence of more effective forms of artificial intelligence (e.g., Chat GPT) presents new challenges in these regards.  Given the newness of this phenomenon and uncertainty regarding the implications it may present for students and teachers I would like for us to discuss it before establishing firm course policies—we’ll have that discussion by the end of the second week of classes.


5.  Try not to be too nervous about grades.  We learn through practice, we all fall short of our aims sometimes, and we sometimes learn more from falling short than anything else.  I purposefully keep many assignments fairly open in terms of the types of topics and arguments you may develop to give you the freedom to present your ideas and sharpen your abilities, and such freedom always entails risks.  Know that I put mechanisms in place to weigh the improvement that you make over the course into the calculation of your final course grade.


6.  Keep lines of communication open.  Please know that the ways in which I structure classroom sessions and other activities in this syllabus remain experimental and may change.  Please share your thoughts on them and feel free to suggest approaches, ways of organizing discussions (in-person or on-line), or other activities that you believe may help you and your classmates to better engage with the course material.  I cannot neglect my responsibility to set the rules for the game that is our course in ways that I believe best assure both academic rigor and fairness across the class, but you can be assured that I will value and carefully consider any suggestions you may make. More generally, if you have questions or concerns regarding any matters relating to the course, please do feel free to share them with me.



In successfully completing this course, students will further develop their abilities to:

  • Evaluate/analyze differing scholarly arguments/ interpretations of historical problems
  • Understand how context and audience contribute to shape historical interpretation/perspective
  • Formulate a research question about a historical topic
  • Assemble and critically evaluate primary and secondary sources
  • Be aware of the importance of finding, using and producing reliable information
  • Respect academic integrity and ethical standards
  • Effectively communicate information and ideas orally and in writing in accurate, polished, and persuasive English

In Class ParticipationThis course will primarily be run as a seminar and workshop in which we discuss the assigned readings and your research. As such, your active participation in our discussions is absolutely necessary to making the course work well. The high percentage of your grade that is based on your participation reflects that fact. You should bring a question based on the readings that you believe we should discuss to each class. On occasion, additional brief in class or out of class reaction papers, on-line Moodle forum activities, and/or in-class presentations may be assigned as components of your participation grade. Please note that behaving in ways that create distractions for other members of the class (including the professor) will lower your participation grade. Such behavior includes, but is not limited to: messaging, checking social media, catching up on e-mail, watching on-line videos, reading non-class related materials, studying for other courses, shopping on-line, and generally any activity that detracts from your or any other classmate's full participation in what we are doing in the classroom.20%
Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database Group PresentationFor the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database Group Presentation, you will collectively explore a major question or topic relating to the slave trade and present your findings and conclusions to the rest of the class. In preparing your presentations, you should use the appropriate course readings and the on-line Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database (http://www.slavevoyages.org). These presentations should be approximately 25-30 minutes in duration. 5%
Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database Paper (c. 5 pages/1200 words per group member) For the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database paper (c. 5 pages/1200 words), you will present a portion of your group's findings (please note that each group member 's paper should focus on a different aspect or component of your topic). Your grade on these two assignments will be determined by the strength of your analysis (and use of the database), the persuasiveness of your argument (including quality of writing and presentation), and the originality of your thought. You will be divided into groups and provided with further information about these assignments during the second week of classes.10%
Research Paper (including draft, revision, and presentation, c. 12 pages or c. 3000 words)For the research paper (c. 12 pages or c. 3000 words), you will explore a topic appropriate for the course chosen in consultation with me. Your paper should build on both primary and secondary sources, and in preparing it, I will guide you through the processes of preparing a first draft and revising that draft to produce a stronger final paper. You also will present this paper to the rest of the class for discussion. For these discussions, each of you will also review at least one of your colleagues’ papers, providing both a written review (for the author and for me) and an oral commentary during the discussion of her/his paper in class. The grade on this assignment will be determined by the strength of your analysis and research, the persuasiveness of your argument (including quality of writing), and the originality of your thought. 30%
Final ExamThe final exam will be composed of three sections. The first section will be one essay question building on the course as a whole (chosen from two options that you will be given the week before the exam). For the second, you will analyze an excerpt from a previously unseen secondary source, relating it to the historical approaches/methods that we have explored over the course of the semester. For the third, you will analyze a brief, previously unseen primary source, explaining what it can and cannot tell us about the Atlantic slave trade and explicitly discussing your reasoning and the tools you use to carry out your analysis. You may make use of two double-sided pages of notes during the exam, provided that you submit them for my review before starting the exam. Your grade on the exam will depend upon the analytical strength and persuasiveness of your arguments, your capacity to discuss the material we cover in the course as a whole, and the factual accuracy of your answers. 25%
Historiography Group Presentation and Reaction PaperIn these assignments, you will explore how Western historical scholarship has changed from the late nineteenth century forward in terms of topics, approaches, problems, concerns, etc.. The group presentations should be 12-15 minutes long, and the reaction paper should be 2-3 double-spaced pages long. Your grade on these two assignments will be determined by the strength of your analysis, the persuasiveness of your argument (including quality of writing and presentation), and the originality of your thought. For futher guidance, see "A Brief Dive into Historiography Preparation Presentation and Paper Guidelines" on Moodle.10% (5% for each component)

A Work of this quality directly addresses the question or problem raised and provides a coherent argument displaying an extensive knowledge of relevant information or content. This type of work demonstrates the ability to critically evaluate concepts and theory and has an element of novelty and originality. There is clear evidence of a significant, thorough, and insightful engagement with the course reading and other materials.
B This is a highly competent level of performance and directly addresses the question or problem raised. There is a demonstration of some ability to critically evaluate theory and concepts and relate them to practice. Discussions reflect the student’s own arguments and are not simply a repetition of standard lecture and reference material. The work does not suffer from any major errors or omissions and provides evidence of significant engagement with the course reading and other materials.
C This is an acceptable level of performance and provides answers that are clear but limited, reflecting the information offered in the lectures and reference readings.
D This level of performance demonstrates that the student lacks a coherent grasp of the material. Important information is omitted and irrelevant points included. In effect, the student has barely done enough to persuade the instructor that s/he should not fail.
F This work fails to show any knowledge or understanding of the issues raised in the question. Most of the material in the answer is irrelevant.

See above on participation.  To participate regularly, you have to be present regularly.
As stated in the university catalog, any student who commits an act of academic dishonesty will receive a failing grade on the work in which the dishonesty occurred. In addition, acts of academic dishonesty, irrespective of the weight of the assignment, may result in the student receiving a failing grade in the course. Instances of academic dishonesty will be reported to the Dean of Academic Affairs. A student who is reported twice for academic dishonesty is subject to summary dismissal from the University. In such a case, the Academic Council will then make a recommendation to the President, who will make the final decision.
John Cabot University does not discriminate on the basis of disability or handicap. Students with approved accommodations must inform their professors at the beginning of the term. Please see the website for the complete policy.




Course Readings


Course readings will be available from the Frohring Library via the course Moodle page.  All course readings provide the basis for our classroom  discussions. You must read and think about those assigned for a particular class period .  Otherwise, you will be unable to participate adequately and your participation grade will suffer. You should also bring this material to class on the days that we are discussing it.



Important Course Policies


All assignments should be submitted in both hard copy form and electronically through the Moodle portal for the assignment--I encourage you to double-check on the Moodle page to be sure that work has been submitted after you believe you have done so.  Hard copies are due at the beginning of class on the assignment's due date.


All late work will suffer a grade penalty. No late work will be accepted following the final examination.


Any documented case of academic dishonesty on any assignment will result in a failing grade for the assignment in question and may also result in a failing grade for the course as a whole, regardless of the assignment's weight in terms of the final course grade. Please remember that, as the University's policy states, "Plagiarism can be deliberate or negligent; students are responsible for ensuring that any work submitted with their name on it is properly referenced."  If you have questions about how to cite material properly, refer to the appropriate sections of the MLA Style Manual or Chicago Manual of Style--if you have questions as to whether particular pieces of material should be cited, ask me. Note that submitting work that you have previously submitted (or plan to submit) for credit in another course is also a form of academic dishonesty, unless you obtain explicit approval from both instructors to do so. For this course, no such double submission is allowed. Please note that your papers and take-home exams are to be submitted to turnitin.com to check their content for plagiarism. I am setting up the turintin submission options so that you can see the similarity reports the service generates and resubmit your papers up until the due date.


Academic Honesty Policy—Generative Artificial Intelligence Update

The University’s Academic Integrity policies were recently updated to include “[t]he unauthorized use of generative AI” as one of the forms that academic dishonesty can take.  In light of this change, here are the policies for this course regarding generative AI (e.g., ChatGPT).


The use of generative AI for the direct composition of course assignments (e.g., papers and exam essays) is not permitted.  Simply put, your papers and essays should not include text generated by Artificial Intelligence unless that text is placed in quotation marks and identified as such.


Other uses of AI (e.g., as “idea generators,” bibliographic or source-finding assistants, proof-readers) are discouraged as they may limit the fuller development of the skills, capacities, and habits of mind that constitute some of the primary aims and benefits of university education, but do not necessarily fall into the category of “unauthorized use.”  If you do use generative AI in any of these or other manners, however, you must identify that you have done so explicitly in the paper or exam essay in question.  




Office Hours, Scheduling Appointments, E-mail Guidance, etc.


My drop-in office hours are on Mondays and Wednesdays from 10 to 10:45 a.m..  I am also available by appointment--to set one up, simply e-mail me or ask me just after class.  Depending on your preference we can meet wither in person (my office is on the Frohring/ex-Tiber Roof) or via Teams using the link posted on the course Moodle page.


Please know that I do not normally respond to e-mails during the weekend or after 6:30 p.m. (but feel free to write me whenever you wish--I'll respond as soon as I can the next week or the next day).  We all need to set aside time to work on other things, disconnect, recharge, and 'stay human.'  I encourage you to do the same in ways that work with your schedule and try to do what I can to provide you with as much flexibility as possible in structuring out-of-class activities.



Recommended Reading on Historical Theory and Methodology


You may find the following books (all available in JCU's library) useful in furthering your understanding of historical methods and theory:


Joyce Appleby, Lynn Hunt, and Margaret Jacob, Telling the Truth About History

Richard J. Evans, In Defense of History

Mary Fullbrook, Historical Theory

Martha Howell and Walter Prevenier, From Reliable Sources: An Introduction to Historical Methods

Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History



Course Schedule (Please note that the following is subject to change and that any updates will be made directly to the weekly schedule on the course Moodle page.)


Part One:  Introductions—Historical Practice, Historiography and Slavery and Enslaving as Historical ‘Problems’




9/4. Introductions, Part I: What is 'History' as a Practice?


9/6. Introductions, Part II:  Perspectives, methodologies, theories?

Appleby, Hunt, and Jacob, "Truth and Objectivity," in Telling the Truth About History, 241-270

Fulbrook, Historical Theory, 3-11, 27-30





9/11. Approaches and 'Types' of History

Arnold, History: A Very Short Introduction, Chapters 5-6


9/13. A Brief Dive into Historiography (a.k.a. How has History as a Practice Changed?), Part I

Discussion of The American Historical Association's Guide to Historical Literature--First, Second, and Third Editions (See the course Moodle page for directions, and we'll also discuss this in class beforehand.)


During this week, we will hold individual meetings to start developing research topics.  At the beginning of the week, you will also be assigned to your group for next week’s Group Presentations on Major Historical Journal Contents.





9/18. A Brief Dive into Historiography (a.k.a. How has History as a Practice Changed?), Part II

Group Presentations on Major Historical Journal Contents, 1880s-2010s (See Moodle for how to prepare--we'll also discuss this in class beforehand.)


9/20. Conceptualizing Slavery as a Global Historical Phenomenon, Part I—A Sociologist’s Proposal

Patterson, Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study (excerpts)

Brief Dive into Historiography Reaction Paper Due


By the end of this week, you will be assigned to your group for the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database Project.





9/25. Conceptualizing Slavery as a Global Historical Phenomenon, Part I—A Historian’s Rethinking

Miller, The Problem of Slavery as History: A Global Approach (Excerpts)


Part Two: Closer Looks, I—Major Problems and Interpretations in the History of the Atlantic Slave Trade


9/27. Why Africans?--Marxist, Institutional, and Cultural History Approaches

Excerpts of Relevant Work by Eric Williams, David Eltis, David Brion Davis, Winthrop Jordan, and Linda Heywood and John Thornton

Paragraph Outlining Research Topic and Preliminary Bibliography Due





10/2. Thinking ahead Towards the Big Picture:  "The Numbers Game"

Excerpts of Relevant Work by Herbert Klein, David Eltis and David Richardson; Start Exploring "Slave Voyages" and the Associated Databases: https://www.slavevoyages.org


10/4. The Slave Trade in Africa—Interpreting the Relationship Between Trade, Warfare, and Enslavement

Excerpts of Relevant Work by P.E.H. Hair, Joseph Miller, Joseph Inikori, and John Thornton





10/9. More than Manpower—Ethnohistory and Environmental Science

Excerpts of Relevant Work by Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, Philip Morgan, Judith Carney and David Eltis, Philip Morgan, and David Richardson


10/11. The Big Picture:  Numbers, Mortality, Departures, Destinations

Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database Group Presentations





10/16. Effects in Africa—Underdevelopment Theory and Demographic History

Excerpts of Relevant Work by Walter Rodney, Patrick Manning and John Thornton


10/18. Sources and Resources, Part One—Making the Most of the Library (To Be Confirmed)


10/20. FRIDAY OFFICIAL UNIVERSITY MAKE-UP DAY, Sources and Resources, Part Two—The Promises and Perils of Primary Sources

Excerpts of Textual and Visual Primary Sources Relating to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade

Slave Trade Database Paper Due



Part Three: Closer Looks, II—Cases in the Global History of Slavery and Your Research




10/23. Topic and Readings TBA (I’ll choose the remaining topics and readings in consultation with you after the first few weeks of the semester)


10/25. Topic and Readings TBA

Updated Preliminary Bibliography Due





10/30. Topic and Readings TBA







11/6. Topic and Readings TBA


11/8. Topic and Readings TBA

Research Paper Drafts Due





11/13. Research Presentations


11/15. Research Presentations





11/20. Research Presentations


11/22. Research Presentations





11/27. Topic and Readings TBA


11/29. Topic and Readings TBA





12/4. Topic and Readings TBA


12/6. Topic and Readings TBA

Final Draft of Research Paper Due


FINAL EXAM--Date and Time TBA