Course: HIS281
Instructor: Yair Mintzker
F 2020

Description of Course Goals and Curriculum

HIS281’s primary stated goal is to help sophomore prospective history majors decide whether they want to enter the History department. Because the bulk of History majors’ independent work centers around developing arguments from primary sources, the course consists of readings, discussions, and writing assignments to help students develop this skill. The curriculum comprises three historical units, each focused on a major event in European history (e.g. Luther’s Protestant Reformation, or the French Revolution). A collection of primary sources (~100 pages worth) is assigned each week, with no supplemental material. The student is expected to come to class each week having researched the documents’ author, original language, date and location of publication, as well as any important people, places, or things mentioned in the text. A short response (with a strict word limit of 150 words), in which the student is free to make a brief argument about some aspect of the readings or develop discussion questions which arose from the reading, is due 24 hours prior to each week’s class meeting. Students do not receive grades on these responses (performance is included in the overall participation grade for the course), but the professor provides a few sentences of feedback on this response immediately prior to each weekly meeting. Though the number of pages assigned may seem light, when combined with research and weekly responses, HIS281 has a significant workload on par with other weekly seminars in the department. Students are assigned a 5-page paper at the end of each unit, which taken together make up 75% of the student’s grade. For each paper, students are given two to three primary documents, not unlike those assigned in weekly reading assignments, and asked to develop an argument based on an analysis of these sources. Aside from the specifics of the primary sources themselves, the three paper assignments are identical, and student improvement over the course of the semester is emphasized.

Learning From Classroom Instruction

Students in the seminar meet for an hour and half discussion once a week. Two 50 minute “tutorials” of 5-6 students meet separately later the same day. The discussion format of seminar and tutorial is roughly the same, though students are sometimes introduced to new types of evidence in tutorial, like video recordings. All discussions are led by Prof. Mintzker, and there are no formal lectures. Students are expected to be reader to contribute from the start of class each week. Each class begins with students collecting basic facts about the assigned primary sources, such as authorship, language, and date and place of publication. Once this baseline has been established, Prof. Mintzker poses questions to the class like: “Why did Luther wait a day before responding at the Diet of Worms?” Relatively freewheeling discussion ensues, though Prof. Mintzker will often interject to remind students of the course’s larger historiographical themes. For instance: “Interesting argument, but what’s really at stake for Historians who study Marie Antionette’s trial?” After the first few weeks of the course, students will be able to anticipate the questions that will be posed in discussion. The two most important things a student can do to prepare for seminars and tutorials (other than doing the reading, of course) is look up the basic facts about the primary sources, and start to consider the types of questions that Prof. Mintzker will ask while reading. Students should view the seminars and tutorials as opportunities to think through new types of historical questions, many of which few students in the class have considered before. A good method for checking your understanding of the material is to attempt to define key terms like “discourse analysis” or “stakes” on your own after class, and consider the ways in which you can apply them to certain historical events. Prof. Mintzker does not expect students to grasp these terms right away, so you should feel completely comfortable asking for clarification weeks after a new concept has been introduced.

Learning For and From Assignments

As mentioned above, all graded assignments in the course are papers, which reflects the fact that students are meant to develop their historical thinking as a skill, rather than recall specific facts. The course trains students to follow a specific process when studying history: (1) Collect basic information about primary sources. (2) Generate questions about the sources based on this information. (3) Consider which modes of historical analysis are most suitable for answering these questions. (4) Make an argument based on the sources using one of these analytical modes. Students are expected to do (1) and (2) while reading primary sources each week. The 150 word responses due before each class meeting are opportunities to practice (2) and (3). During seminars and precepts, Prof. Mintzker will lead students’ discussion through (1), (2), (3), and sometimes (4). The three 5-page papers assigned at the end of each unit challenge students to complete the entire process on their own, and produce their resulting argument in written form. While the course represents a novel form of thinking for many students, the written assignments are merely a formalized version of the strategies which students will have plenty of time to practice during other components of the course. Prof. Mintzker is always available during office hours assist students in the writing process, and his feedback on papers is quite thorough. In assessing student work, Prof. Mintzker will give high marks for effective use of historical analysis, even if he disagrees with the students broader argument. Prof. Mintzker also believes that history should be widely accessible, so he places emphasis on writing concisely and avoiding jargon. Students should use feedback from the weekly response papers to assist them in revising their longer assignments. One rule of thumb that Prof. Mintzker encourages students to use is cutting their first draft word count by 15% for their final draft.   It should be mentioned that on weeks when a paper is due, the rest of the reading load remains the same, so for the first two papers, students have a 5-page paper, 150-word response, and 100+ pages of reading due in a single week. This is not the case for the final paper, which is due on Dean’s Date.  

External Resources

This course is pretty casual when it comes to online research. As long as students cite their sources, Prof. Mintzker encourages the use of Wikipedia for background knowledge on historical figures and events. The best resource available to students for their writing is Prof. Mintzker himself. Because the course is meant to teach students how to think, there are not any online resources that will be more helpful than attending office hours.

What Students Should Know About This Course For Purposes Of Course Selection

HIS281 has no prerequisites, and does not assume any background knowledge of the historical events which are covered. The course is especially valuable for students considering majoring in History. That being said, insofar as all academic disciplines require scholars to ask questions of sources and build arguments from evidence, the skills developed in 281 are likely to be useful for Princeton students from a wide range of disciplines.
Approaches to European History

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