All students are required to adopt a concentration within the History major. Students are responsible for designing their own concentration, in consultation with a faculty advisor, in the fall semester of their Junior year. Each student’s concentration will be formally approved by the Department’s Curriculum Committee. A concentration will consist of at least three courses linked by common themes, geography, or time period; only one of those courses can be a 100-level seminar while at least one must be a 300- or 400-level course. Courses in the concentration may be used to fulfill the group requirements. In the Concentration Proposal, the student must list a minimum total of six courses that could satisfy the requirements of the concentration, from which they can select three to fulfill the concentration requirement (recognizing that not all courses are offered every year); courses taken abroad may be included in the concentration with the approval of the chair.
Examples of Concentrations
Borderlands, Diaspora and Immigration Studies
In high school, I came across a copy of Jacob Riis’s How the Other Half Lives and I found in it a picture of the former tenement building where my family lived until I was six years old. I realized then that there is historicity, pattern, and evolution to the immigrant experience, a thread that connects my own family to the other families that have been washing ashore for generations. I became a student of history because I want to understand the stories that my parents and others like them tell. To this end, I aim to make a concentration in Borderlands, Diaspora and Immigration Studies—an investigation into historical processes of nation-building, border-crossing, and people-moving. I seek a sensibility for why things are the way they are so that I can understand also why they change the way they do. Professionally, I seek to devote my life to furthering this change, whether it is for a more just and humane immigration system in this country or for a radical vision of racial justice.
The courses that meet this concentration deal with issues of border formation and policing, migration patterns that challenge these borders, and the development of identity and consciousness within diaspora communities. Although the two classes I have already taken and the one I will take in the spring towards this concentration have distinct geographic and temporal focuses, they are united by their interest in persons and communities that occupy liminal positions within national identities.
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Race and Poverty in American Politics
As a student primarily interested in American history, I’m particularly drawn to the way poverty and race intertwine and put pressure on American politics. Whether openly stated or unspoken but understood, race and poverty have perennially shaped the way society handles — or fails to handle — our prejudice through political action and governmental program. As I’ve pursued my history major, I’ve explored this topic in a number of ways. In a senior seminar on 1950s America, I researched President Johnson’s “War on Poverty and his politically pragmatic decision to portray the ‘war’ as largely Appalachian instead of primarily African American. By choosing the far more white — and far less volatile — picture of poverty, I argued in my research Johnson convinced the country to get behind his programs and avoided a potentially negative association with the Civil Rights Movement in the meantime.
Likewise, in my junior seminar on American Westward Expansion, I studied the ways in which the West acted as an often violent meeting ground for different ethnic groups and socioeconomic classes during the frontier process. In my historiographical paper for the class, I explored the Mountain Meadows Massacre of 1857, researching how different authors treated the racially and religiously charged event in which Mormons attacked and killed a group of 120 emigrants and blamed in on the Paiute Indians.
As I go forward in the major, I envision taking courses like the History of the Old South as other means of exploring the nature of race and poverty in politics. As political rallying points, volatile scapegoats and flashpoints for change, I believe these three topics combine into compelling parts of history that will offer plenty to study.
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Religion and Kingship in Asia
I have decided to concentrate my studies on the historical significance of religion and kingship in Asia. The connection between institutionalized monarchy and religion, particularly in the premodern period, has been very strong. In particular, the worship of rulers and the rise of messianic movements have both given rise to major social shifts throughout the region. However, the influences of kingship and religion in the history of Asia are far from over. Ottoman sultans made a strong effort to portray themselves as caliphs, attempting to use Sunni Islam to unite their empire during its decline. More recently, the Saudi Arabian royal family has made an effort to use religion to justify their rule. This system of religious justification for rule has, and continues to play a major role in some Asian governments.
The tradition of kingship and religious justification for rule in Asia has also had major impacts in Eastern regions of the continent, especially in Japan and China, where the emperors were viewed as being divine or having a divine right to rule. While many of these systems of governance have formally ended, the effect they have had on societies in this region has been profound. I believe that this concentration will allow me to gain further insight into the evolution of politics and religion in two of the first areas of the world to have formalized rule through religious means. As such, I may take some classes on modern Asian history in order to see how the religion and politics in the region have changed in the modern era. Further, by examining the evolution of religious and political traditions in Asia, I feel that I can better understand the human tendency to mythologize leaders in areas of the world, even where the practice has been less pronounced, such as in Western Europe and the Americas, even during the present day.
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World War II: Treatment of Peoples in the Main Axis Powers
I decided to concentrate in World War II history because I would like to compare how people in the three main axis powers, Germany, Japan and Italy, were affected by the war — whether they were combatants or prisoners of war or regular civilians, or perpetrators, victim, or bystanders. I would like to compare the three powers because in my education I have only learned about each of the places separately. I am interested in investigating how the governments of each country treated the people they considered to be part of their national communities, and how this treatment changed over the course of the war. I also am interested in looking at how the governments of Germany, Japan, and Italy treated people who were excluded from these defined national communities, and how this treatment transformed over the course of the war as well.
In the History of the Holocaust last fall, I learned about the gross abuse and murder of those people that the Third Reich considered to be outside of the Volksgemeinschaft. The brutality came on suddenly — Hitler and his army used the element of surprise to catch victims and enemies unaware — and became more brutal as the war went on and as Germany’s hope of winning dwindled. This fall, in Germany in the Twentieth Century, I have learned how those in Volksgemeinschaft were affected by the war, as they took on the psyche of National Socialism, or attempted to keep the Nazi mindset at bay. In the spring of last year, I took History of Japan Since 1945, which focused on the final months of World War II and how the Japanese citizens were affected by the war. The human rights of Japanese civilians appear to have been disregarded in the final months of war, like when the United States was firebombing Tokyo and the Japanese government still would not surrender. The Japanese who were not part of the military were not made aware of the happenings of the war. Treatment of prisoners of war worsened as the war neared an end. This class made me realize that I had never before considered that World War II in Europe and the World War II in East Asia were occurring simultaneously. Obviously, I knew this, but I was now able to recognize the similarities between civilians of the Third Reich and the civilians of Japan, as well as prisoners of war in Japan and those targeted by Nazis in the Third Reich. This spring, I am planning on taking Twentieth Century Italy at the Trinity College Rome Campus, and will study how World War II and fascism affected the civilians in Italy.
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Constructing the European: Histories of Orientalism and Colonialism
Since my first semester at Williams, I have selected History courses that promise to tell the other side of the story. If the writing of history is an assertion of power, we must be concerned with who is left out of the dominant narrative and who has the agency to erase the experiences of the Other. In wondering which voices are excluded from the crafting of history, we are able to question the told — and untold — story.
By examining diasporic movements and European colonialism(s), with a specific focus on visual and cultural histories, I have been able to interrogate and refashion my own understanding of prevailing historical narratives. Looking at history through the lens of colonialism and Orientalism, the European emerges. And this interest — in understanding what the European is by observing what he says he is not — brought me to the terrain of the Other. Histories of colonialism and Orientalism illuminate the European’s preoccupation with defining the Other as a feminized, darkened, distanced, and inferior figure. The writing of colonial power and Orientalist discourse is creation of the identity of the European.
I have taken courses that transcend national and temporal boundaries to draw comparisons across different iterations of the Other, always juxtaposed with the European. My primary focus has been on the African colonizing project and the African diaspora, and Orientalist discourses and Jewish communities in Europe and Russia. I have striven to avoid re-enacting the same problem that has consumed me by selecting courses that rely on the materials of cultural history and visual-documentary artifacts, as well as balancing Western academic texts with non-Western perspectives. I have also augmented by program of study within the history department with other course offerings designed to provide a different perspective on these concerns, including COMP 307: Voice and Sexuality: Afrodiasporic Women’s Literature and COMP 370: Displaying, Collecting and Preserving the Other: Museums and French Imperialism.
Out of my concentration, certain questions arise. What links the African Other and the Jewish Other? What can cultural history and visual history tell us that other modes of methodological inquiry cannot? What does the Third World historian have to contribute to the crafting of these histories? And ultimately, how is the European constructed on the terrain of the Other?
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In History 228: Europe in the Twentieth Century, Mark Mazower’s Dark Continent led me to believe that the twentieth century, the epoch that left us reeling less than a decade ago, saw man’s capacities for both empathy and apathy stretched to their outermost limits. Should we view the twentieth century — particularly in Europe, the once-revered haven of reason, bastion of civility, home of enlightenment — as exceptional in its violence? Should the World Wars and the Holocaust revolutionize the way we think about history? Is the twentieth century the “century of atrocity?” I am interested in probing these kinds of questions in my continued study of Europe from 1900 to Soviet Communism’s fall in 1989. The industrialization of war and genocide (a word defined in Europe in 1948), the success of a Communist revolution, and the shifting of power from Europe to the US represent massive breaks with the historical continuum of pre-twentieth century Europe. Meanwhile, colonialism, nationalism, and militarism, ideologies with sixteenth-century roots, live on. As an American, I wonder whether my outlook has been shaped by uniquely American trends or whether my education has, in fact, been Euro-centric.
The courses that meet the requirements of this major deal with these questions; I have explored what it means to wage a modern war, how the creation of a community often necessitates, the delineation of ‘other-ness’ even outside the colonial context, and the true definition of ’empathy’ — is it the attempt to place oneself in the mind of another or is it a recognition that one can never fully understand the experiences of another? My study of Europe in the twentieth century has shown me that as far as we may come, as well-reasoned and civilized as we think ourselves to be, there will always be more work to be done. Many of the courses deal with German history; I have learned that many of the greater social, cultural, economic and military developments of Europe’s twentieth century have radiated from a German center and spread across a relatively small continent.
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Latin America and the Caribbean in the 20th Century
I decided to concentrate in the Caribbean and Latin America because the countries of this geographical area share a common culture as victims of European colonization and U.S. imperialism. The twentieth century clearly illustrates these nations’ struggle to set up stable governments under the shadow of the hegemonic interests of the United States. A historical survey of the region reveals that certain attitudes, like sentiments of anti-Americanism and nationalist fervor, were and are not localized occurrences. U.S. interference in Latin America and the Caribbean have ranged from Cuba, only 90 miles away from the coast of Florida, to Chile, at the southernmost tip of the continent. From the very beginning of European colonization in the American continent, diverse cultural groups of Amerindians were subject to the same horrors under a Spanish yoke. This explicit political subjection has given way in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to a less explicit, but no less pernicious, imperialist influence from the hegemonic neighbor to the north.
The Latin American continent has always been dubbed a land of hope. Misery, however, continues to engulf most of its residents and economic development has followed a slow pace in most countries. Research into the roots of this phenomenon interests me, because I am convinced that the land of hope can become the land of real, positive change. Extreme poverty has facilitated the rise of leftist movements, causing Latin Americans to develop their own definitions of democracy and social justice. It is clear that mere exportation of the American democratic model has failed in improving the standard of living in the south. The twentieth century has witnessed Latin American governments adapting the model to their country’s context. This concentration allows me to engage in comparative analysis across countries sharing similar value systems and social norms.
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