What is History?
Everything has a past: humans and other living beings, objects, ideas, nations, institutions, places, practices, and words all have histories and participate in creating histories. And those sharing in the disciplinary work of History, with a capital 'H,' come together to understand and ascribe meaning to the topics they deem worthy of study. Applicable to any imaginable time, space, and topic, History is one of the most wide-ranging and diverse disciplines in the academy.
History is an ongoing conversation about how we, humankind, can and have leaned on the past to make sense of the world around us. This process is inherently subjective. One must make choices about what to examine and what to leave out, in addition to which questions to ask of topics, and which sources and methods to deploy in answering them. History nowadays is about more than the search for causation, or the attempt to find definitive explanations for why change occurred. It is equally concerned with assessment, reflection, and forging reasonable interpretations for these changes, and with debate about what each of these acts entails.
What do we share in common with those who came before our time, and what is distinctive about the age in which we live? How does the past inform the present, and which new questions must we ask of the past in light of our contemporary concerns? Why are there silences in the historical record, and how do we overcome them? What does the historical record constitute? Explore these questions and others by bringing your interests, experiences, and skills together to craft your own assessment of the past.
Studying History at UMass Amherst
History majors work closely with our large and accomplished faculty. Our faculty’s specialities span nearly every part of the globe from ancient times to the present, offering courses that range from Our faculty have won hundreds of grants and fellowships to support their research, and their publications have been honored with many awards, including the Cundill, the largest international prize for a work of history. Our department has strengths in digital and public history, reflected in one of our professors serving as the current president of the National Council on Public History, our faculty’s contributions to many museums and sites, from the Statue of Liberty National Monument to the National Park Service’s initiative on LGBTQ historic sites. At no additional cost, our students can also take classes at any of the area’s four colleges (Amherst, Hampshire, Mount Holyoke, and Smith), providing access to world-class expertise at not one, but five institutions. Using our extensive research resources, including multiple local archives and special collections, our students gain hands-on experience and produce original scholarship.
Through internships, independent research, an honors thesis option, and study abroad opportunities, history students extend their learning beyond the classroom. Our majors build a close-knit community and the department sponsors a History Club, a chapter of the Phi Alpha Theta national history honor society, and peer mentors. We award prizes for outstanding undergraduate research and writing, and the UMass History Journal provides an opportunity for undergraduates to publish their scholarship. Our Undergraduate Internship & Career Office connects history majors with internship opportunities and provides career direction and practical advice. The department's Law and History Advisor provides guidance to students interested in a legal career.
The Value of a History Degree
Students of history develop an array of skills and competencies that are invaluable for future employment and for becoming proactive and critically engaged national and global citizens. Undergraduates in our history program build valuable research skills in locating, organizing, and interpreting sources in rigorous and compelling ways. Students are exposed to a variety of challenges including organization, problem solving, critical thinking, as well as prioritization of tasks and meeting deadlines. By means of this training our students develop a deep and nuanced understanding of the world around them, and complete their program of study well-equipped to contribute to confronting contemporary challenges with well-founded ideas and insights.
Students of history acquire a deep understanding of human experiences of the past and the present, which is essential in an increasingly complex and interconnected society. Thinking about history fosters a strong awareness of the importance of culture, of how cultural differences influence how people act, perceive, and portray the world around them, and what they expect. In doing history, meanwhile, historians also acquire interpersonal skills. Doing oral history, for example, allows students to develop invaluable interpersonal skills through collaboration, which include interviewing, engaging, and interacting with potential students, customers, and visitors to historic sites.
The development of strong writing skills is also a central component of the history program. History students learn how to present complex information clearly and elegantly and to make persuasive arguments in a variety of forms that range from the traditional essay to podcasts and digital storytelling. Course offerings provide multiple opportunities for producing original research and communicating their questions, findings, and conclusions to diverse audiences.
These varied skills are vital for an array of history-specific careers, such as archive management or historic preservation, and for professions in law, government, or consulting. Indeed, they are highly applicable to every type of career. Recent studies indicate that college graduates who possess strongly developed skills in research and organization, in writing, presentation, and interpersonal communication are all especially sought after by employers.
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