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Seminars (History, specifically) outside your discipline.


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I went back and forth about whether or not to post this in the History sub forum, or here--I eventually decided on here, but just by a hair. I really wish I could cross post it, but since I can't, any historians about who'd like to share their thoughts and opinions are very, very welcome!

 

I'll be beginning my PhD program in English and Medieval Studies in the fall, and one of the classes I'm probably going to be taking is a history seminar that's meant to act as a general overview of the historiography of the Middle Ages for history PhD students who have medieval history as one of their exam fields. I'm a bit nervous--let's not say quite "terrified"--about the class, because my historical/historiographical knowledge isn't probably what it really should be, because I've heard about how very hardcore graduate seminars in history are (which also, I should add, makes me very excited to take it!), and also because I'm a bit concerned about differences in methodology. While the nature of my field means I read a fair bit of historical scholarship and some of the papers I've written have been, in some ways, more historical than they were strictly literary, I've never taken an advanced history course and worry a bit about being a fish entirely out of his water.

 

Maybe I'm worried for no good reason; maybe this is just proleptic Impostor Syndrome. Still, a series of questions, in no particular order, for current or past graduate students: What has your experience been taking high level courses outside of your discipline? For people with experience in history and/or lit, what are some differences in methodology or approach I should be cognizant of? Any advice/thoughts/things I should consider doing or keeping in mind?

 

Thanks all in advance!

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Have you considered taking a more general survey/overview of the historical period (either at the advanced undergraduate level or the introductory graduate level) first and then taking the historiography seminar next semester or next year instead? That might help you feel more prepared for both the content and the writing style required in advanced history seminars. 

 

I took graduate level courses outside my discipline as both a master's and a PhD student. I enjoyed all of them and found them to be an enriching experience and a good complement to the coursework in my discipline. Yes, they sometimes require a different writing style but you may also be able to work with the professor to tailor the final paper toward your interests and skill set. 

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Have you considered taking a more general survey/overview of the historical period (either at the advanced undergraduate level or the introductory graduate level) first and then taking the historiography seminar next semester or next year instead? That might help you feel more prepared for both the content and the writing style required in advanced history seminars. 

 

I took graduate level courses outside my discipline as both a master's and a PhD student. I enjoyed all of them and found them to be an enriching experience and a good complement to the coursework in my discipline. Yes, they sometimes require a different writing style but you may also be able to work with the professor to tailor the final paper toward your interests and skill set. 

 

I have indeed considered it! There are a couple of reasons for taking the history course immediately in the fall (which the faculty I've spoken to also think I should definitely do), when otherwise I might wait to take it next year. One is precisely the fact that this version of the course is the most "general" of the medieval offerings at the graduate level; my program requires a graduate course in medieval history, and I'd rather take it when it's the broad historiographical survey than when it's on a narrow, focused topic that may not have a ton to do with my research interests. (In part precisely because I don't have that background--everyone says this is a really, really useful version of the course.) Another reason is that this fall it's being taught by the department's early medievalist, whom (just because of my own period) I'd rather take the course with than the department's late medievalist. Neither of those things will be true about the course in my second year of coursework, and I really don't want to carry the req over into the third year.

 

I've had this talk with some of the English students in the program, and they say the same thing about talking with the professor and talking with the prof and tailoring the final paper to my strengths--thanks!

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I am a historian, and a medievalist, and I have even taken seminars. To the rescue!

 

Your level of difficulty will depend on the structure of the seminar. If the seminar is structured around the creation of a research paper, there will be some significant differences in the type of work you'll be expected to put out. Let me know if this is the case, and we can talk pointers. If it really is a heavy-duty lit review class with maybe a paper on some theme in the secondary literature at the end, then relax. Properly designed, it will go from egg to apple because that's what a lot of the history students in the class will need, too. Even second and third years in the history departments will have pretty substantial historiographic gaps. You may even find yourself more prepared than some of your classmates.

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Excellent! I appreciate your rushing in on your charger, especially since it seems to be the second sort of class--our written assignments are two book reviews, followed by a paper where we apply "core readings to a small set of supplementary readings." Definitely more lit review than not. That's lovely to hear; thanks much!

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It's really just Patsy with some coconut halves.

 

I forgot to mention in my previous post that this is the sort of seminar which sees the most crossover from other disciplines, so the proper historians might actually be outnumbered.

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Neither strictly a medievalist nor a historian (15th/16th c. diss topic), but I've taken history seminars and have a very interdisciplinary project (one heavily influenced by history), and I definitely recommend taking the history methods seminar and doing it out of the gate.  Getting the methods down will help you develop your project more organically over the period of your coursework.  Also, this (at least at my university) is the kind of class that draws from several disciplines, so you probably won't be the sole lit person (as telkanuru pointed out).  Best of luck!

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I'm hoping to take some philosophy seminars throughout my PhD, as epistemology is pretty important to the stuff I want to study. Would love to hear if anyone has had experience on that front (taking philosophy seminars as an English grad student). I'm comfortable with philosophy overall, but epistemology tends to get more mathy/analytic once you get up high enough, which isn't exactly my bag.

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I'm hoping to take some philosophy seminars throughout my PhD, as epistemology is pretty important to the stuff I want to study. Would love to hear if anyone has had experience on that front (taking philosophy seminars as an English grad student). I'm comfortable with philosophy overall, but epistemology tends to get more mathy/analytic once you get up high enough, which isn't exactly my bag.

 

I know 1Q84 took a Marx seminar that was housed in the English department but was chock full of philosophers, and while it wasn't an epistemology course, it generated some interesting discussion in the philosophy forum on differences between the disciplines. I think the thread is called "How to Talk to Philosophers" or some such?

 

But maybe he, or some philosophers, or others with relevant experience, can chime in!

Edited by unræd
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I can speak to this! I did my undergrad at a school with a top 5 philosophy department (according to the philosopher's gourmet rankings), and had the opportunity to take a graduate course in political philosophy. My take, buttressed a little bit by following along with blogs covering academic analytic philosophy, is that the atmosphere in philosophy seminars can be much more aggressive than in other humanities disciplines. This isn't a good thing or a bad thing--just that while in English you find ways of disagreeing without out-and-out calling someone else in the room wrong, in a philosophy seminar people feel much more comfortable just looking you in the eye and saying that you have completely misunderstood a text. Now, it could be that I was at a place with a particularly combative philosophy department and a relatively chill English department, but I think that there is a cultural difference between how each department deals with disagreement, and that is worth keeping in mind. 

Austin is also a relatively analytic place, right? If so, then it is worth knowing that they just talk differently in those sorts of settings than a continental background might prepare you for. Specifically, I would say that there is a decent amount of jargon that we just don't use in english with the kind of disciplinary-specificity that they might expect you to be familiar with in an analytic philosophy department. If you need some more background, I've seen this list recommended before: http://www.sinandogramaci.net/Site/Teaching_files/Reading%20List%20for%20Ph.D%20students.pdf.

Regardless, I think that the space between English and analytic philosophy leaves a lot of room for innovative work, so the extra effort may pay off in the long run even if you have to become fluent in two very different philosophical vocabularies!   

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I can speak to this! I did my undergrad at a school with a top 5 philosophy department (according to the philosopher's gourmet rankings), and had the opportunity to take a graduate course in political philosophy. My take, buttressed a little bit by following along with blogs covering academic analytic philosophy, is that the atmosphere in philosophy seminars can be much more aggressive than in other humanities disciplines. This isn't a good thing or a bad thing--just that while in English you find ways of disagreeing without out-and-out calling someone else in the room wrong, in a philosophy seminar people feel much more comfortable just looking you in the eye and saying that you have completely misunderstood a text. Now, it could be that I was at a place with a particularly combative philosophy department and a relatively chill English department, but I think that there is a cultural difference between how each department deals with disagreement, and that is worth keeping in mind. 

Austin is also a relatively analytic place, right? If so, then it is worth knowing that they just talk differently in those sorts of settings than a continental background might prepare you for. Specifically, I would say that there is a decent amount of jargon that we just don't use in english with the kind of disciplinary-specificity that they might expect you to be familiar with in an analytic philosophy department. If you need some more background, I've seen this list recommended before: http://www.sinandogramaci.net/Site/Teaching_files/Reading%20List%20for%20Ph.D%20students.pdf.

Regardless, I think that the space between English and analytic philosophy leaves a lot of room for innovative work, so the extra effort may pay off in the long run even if you have to become fluent in two very different philosophical vocabularies!   

 

Thanks to you and to unraed for your replies!

 

Austin is indeed analytic by a strong margin, but I'm actually not particularly averse to that; in fact, part of what I want to do in grad school is to find the cross-sections of analytic philosophy and literary studies. As a field literature is definitely continental, and appropriately so, but I think there's something to be said for more integration of analytic thought. Simply put, I don't think analytic philosophy is as bone-dry as many might believe it to be. So you are right, echo, I'm really hoping to do some good work in bringing those together.

 

Fortunately, since high school, analytic philosophy has been what I've primarily read, even though in practice (that is, in my literary scholarship and poetry/fiction writing) I appear to be a continental-type person. So I'm not worried about jumping into a new kind of language without any sort of reference; I do have some familiarity with it, though I know I'd be definitely thrown into the flames in an advanced seminar. Luckily epistemology doesn't always play out in the mathematic, formula-driven way that, say, philosophy of language often does, particularly the kind of epistemology I'm interested in.

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Ace! Well, in that case, you'll definitely enjoy it as a change of pace! I was idly looking at the course offerings there for philosophy and that department seems like it has a great range too. Enjoy!

Edited by echo449
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I think you've gotten great advice, and as the resident Medieval historian telkanuru is a great resource. I just want to say that you're going to bring a really interesting perspective to the course. In my historical methodology MA course, my professor had us analyze texts and film sources using methods from different disciplines. It provided a broader and deeper understanding that we otherwise would not have gotten. Your perspective will be of value to your classmates--you may notice things they don't because they haven't been trained to look at things the way you do.

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It depends on the department. Rutgers limits me to two outside the department over my entire time in the program. Which makes sense--they offer a lot of seminars at Rutgers and certain enrollment restrictions have to be dealt with. Where I did my undergrad, conversely, the requirements for grad students were a lot lighter in terms of required coursework, and there was a lot more flexibility allowed. 

Edited by echo449
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I guess this hadn't occurred to me -- do most Ph.D. students take most or all of their courses within their department?  I've been planning on taking like half of my classes outside of English; is that unusual/often unacceptable?

 

Funnily enough, it never occurred to me to take courses outside of my department... I'm in an M.A. program, mind you, so have reqs to fill, but regardless, it's nice to know that I can take that graduate seminar in Mongolian tap-dancing if I so choose.

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Funnily enough, it never occurred to me to take courses outside of my department... I'm in an M.A. program, mind you, so have reqs to fill, but regardless, it's nice to know that I can take that graduate seminar in Mongolian tap-dancing if I so choose.

lol.  Yeah, well it is very likely that my "project" will in some way be dealing with poetics and/or religious texts in a period of England that happens to have been profoundly trilingual, so I kind of need to take classes outside of English.

 

But yeah, you might not expect it to be the case, but Mongolian tap dancing is very much entwined in that culture... :P

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Yeah--it's not that it's unusual, I don't think. Cal, for example, only requires that a little over half your courses be in English (seven of twelve) and I know I'll be using everyone of those allowed classes (and probably auditing some, too)to fulfill my interdisciplinary Medieval Studies reqs. And in the English (and one Gender Studies) grad seminars I've been in thus far, there've usually been students from other departments. But the differences in methodology and approach can sometimes be striking, and I've never been the one doing it from the other side, so to speak!

Edited by unræd
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My program requires me to have an "outside field" in another department, but we only have to take one course in it - although a professor from that department has to be on our orals committee too, so you have to be careful about when and with whom you choose to take the class ... I signed up for one last semester, but ultimately had to drop it because of workload issues, sigh. I want to get back into German literature, it was such a sturm-y place!

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Really? I found it kind of a drang.

 

!!!

 

ETA: Seriously, they do not give me nearly enough upvotes.

Edited by unræd
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