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History Department Goals and Objectives

The History Department emphasizes close examination of original sources and historical interpretations. Our primary goal is to teach students to research primary and secondary materials independently, analyze the information they find, and synthesize it imaginatively. For the most part, introductory courses are not traditional surveys. Rather than simply cover a particular area or period, they introduce students to the historian's craft by presenting them with primary sources that highlight the challenges of studying the past.The department seeks to fulfill the goals outlined in Vassar's Mission Statement by teaching students to read and interpret historical sources; independently locate and evaluate such sources; frame research questions; think critically about historical arguments; write clearly; and speak and listen effectively in the classroom. Further, all courses in the department fulfill the College's mission of teaching students to "understand the relationships between the past, the present, and the future as well as those between people and their social and physical environments."The department strives to help majors and non-majors alike to encounter radically different ways of living and thinking, a perspective that can liberate them from the constraints of the present. To achieve this goal, we insist that majors undertake extensive primary research. The department's courses enable students to engage periods ranging from the Middle Ages to the present; to explore the Americas, Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East; and to consider sources ranging from literature, art, and scientific texts to economic data and works of philosophy and religion. We encourage majors to study at least one foreign language throughout their Vassar careers, since language study is essential to the study of history and to a well-rounded liberal arts education.

The culminating experience of the history major is the Senior Thesis, a yearlong project that calls upon the skills majors have developed through their first three years at Vassar. History majors choose their own topics and then develop and focus them with faculty guidance. Through the thesis, majors must demonstrate their ability to conduct independent research, use and cite sources, frame an argument, organize a substantial piece of scholarship (roughly forty pages), and write clearly and effectively.  Standards for evaluation of the thesis are attached.

Thesis Evaluation

‘A’ range theses excel in every category.

  • Research reflects a clear understanding of the sources that exist on the topic and makes the most of what is obtainable (in a language the writer can read).
    • Availability of sources will vary according to topic and period. Excellent theses have been written using relatively few primary sources, and poor theses with a wealth of sources. The effort in finding the sources and the way they are used are more important than number.
    • An ‘A’ range thesis adapts its focus to the riches or limits of the sources, showing that the writer is careful in defining her topic and approach.
    • The writer shows a careful and critical reading of the sources.
    • Content/ Argument. An ‘A’ thesis goes far beyond the question of “what happened.” It addresses deeper questions such as: Why did it happen? Why is it historically significant? The reader is not only edified, but also engaged and invited to grapple with the subject. In some way, the writer has made this topic his/her own.
    • Assertions are convincingly supported by primary and secondary source citations. An ‘A’ thesis is especially good with primary source evidence.
    • Close and careful readings of cited primary source passages appear frequently. The writer does not simply tell the reader what has been said, but how he/she reads it and views its significance. An explanation of each primary source is also important. Who wrote this work? When? Why? For whom?
    • An excellent thesis discusses what other historians have said on the subject, but it also shows the writer in a dialogue with these authorities. The writer questions the historians he/she uses and shows some mastery of the subject.
    • An awareness of historical context is also key. How does an event, person, development fit into the general history of the period?
  • Style and Form. To quote John Trimble, the expert writer is “socially conscious” or eager to engage and intellectually stimulate the reader.
    • First and foremost, this means writing as clearly and precisely as one can. The ‘A’ thesis gets the message across without making the reader struggle! By the same token, some readers will be non-specialists. Do not take too much prior knowledge for granted in setting the stage.
    • Coherent structure is a must. The narrative is usually divided into discreet, but related sections. Each section and paragraph flow well from one to another, and smaller arguments and examples keep coming back to the central thesis.
    • Presentation or the “nuts and bolts” of good style are all in order. This means that the final draft is clean and carefully edited. Typographical errors and misspellings have been eliminated. Citations follow a consistent, accepted style, such as Chicago or MLA. Quotations are woven seamlessly into the narrative.

‘B’ range theses

  • Research is competent but not exhaustive. It may rely more heavily on secondary sources than primary sources, or there may be a gross imbalance in the other direction.
  • Content/ Argument. The writer presents a clear argument and succeeds in drawing deeper connections and points from the sources. The text is quoted to support assertions, and quotes are often analyzed or interpreted. ‘B’ theses usually, however, only scratch the surface of interesting points without probing them in a satisfying way.
    • Primary source analysis is often more descriptive than analytical.
    • Arguments are not always well supported by evidence (textual, oral, visual, etc.).
    • The writer defers too much to secondary sources without venturing his or her own opinions. There may be insufficient originality or no spark in the arguments.
  • Style and Form. ‘B’ theses may be fairly well written in terms of clarity and style; they may also be lacking in this regard and slightly self indulgent, or inattentive to the interests and questions of the reader. Good research and ideas that are not well organized or presented can also result in a ‘B’ range thesis.
    • Presentation of ‘B’ theses may also show more than a handful of errors such as typographical errors and problems with citations. The prose may also be clumsy or unclear on more than a few occasions.

‘C’ range theses

  • Research tends to be unimpressive. Few up to date studies and articles are featured, or few sources of any kind, for that matter. Primary sources are either scarce or are pushed to the background.
  • Content/ Argument
    • Analysis is superficial, showing only a vague grasp of the sources and few insights into their complexities.
    • Close reading of and engagement in primary sources are lacking. Instead, the writer’s approach to the sources is overwhelmingly descriptive.
    • The writer neither exhibits a strong argument nor attempts to put his/her stamp on the topic. She or he repeats the conclusions of other scholars.
  • Style and Form are generally deficient, showing signs of haste. There is generally a lack of clarity in presentation and the overall organization is weak. Writing style tends to be lifeless and mechanical.
    • Presentation tends to be sloppy, showing little effort to redraft and edit. Typographical errors, misspellings, grammatical errors, and/or citation problems are frequent. The writer’s prose is awkward and short on clarity.

‘D’ range theses are incomplete on some fundamental level. They show minimal research, little to no analysis, and are wholly or mostly descriptive. Secondary sources heavily dominate the narrative. The arguments are weak or hard to follow, and the prose is rough and full of errors. There is little to no evidence of redrafting or editing.

Failing theses. Theses usually fail for a combination of reasons: they show little or no comprehension of the sources, the arguments are either missing or ill conceived, and the writing is poor. In essence, there is minimal effort here. A writer found guilty of plagiarism by the Academic Panel also receives an ‘F’ on the thesis.