Damon Mayrl, Colby College
Robert Braun, University of California, Berkeley
As graduate students, comparative-historical sociologists are trained in how to conceive, design, and carry out historical research in a wide range of spatial-temporal contexts. Far fewer of us are trained in how to conceive, design, or lead a course on comparative-historical sociology. In this, we are not alone—graduate education in sociology more generally emphasizes research over teaching. Yet at the same time, the sprawling character of comparative-historical sociology makes teaching it particularly challenging. Should we foreground method or substance? Which methods? Which substantive foci? Which regions? For many, it can be easier to teach required introductory or theory courses, or courses in our other subdisciplinary foci, where syllabi of friends and colleagues are more readily available as templates. As a result, comparative-historical sociology is often conspicuous by its absence in the curriculum—especially at the undergraduate level.
This pedagogical deficit impacts comparative-historical sociologists’ job market prospects. Why should a department hire a historical sociologist or a comparativist? For us, the answer may be obvious: studying historical change in different societies is an essential means of denaturalizing the social world, decentering the present, contextualizing the United States, and—perhaps most importantly—revealing threads and patterns that help us understand the here and now. Lessons from different times and places acquired through historical inquiry, are essential to understanding current events, from pandemics to police violence and beyond.
But for hiring committees, especially outside of research-intensive graduate programs, this rationale is not always so obvious. What will comparative-historical sociologists teach? Will students take such a course? And what is comparative-historical sociology, anyway? These answers are often not clear to search committees and deans, and the results are visible in the low number of job searches targeting historical sociologists, and in the persistent sense among many of our colleagues that historical sociology is like a Panerai watch or Prada bag—prestigious and elegant, but ultimately only a luxurious accessory for the most elite departments (Adams et al. 2005; Prasad 2006).
We think it is time to take the teaching of historical sociology more seriously, at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. We seek to find out how comparative-historical sociologists are teaching our subdiscipline, and to share that knowledge amongst ourselves. What kinds of courses and assignments work well to inspire undergraduates to undertake their own comparative-historical sociological projects? How can we teach our rich and plural methodological options to graduate students in ways that foster rigor and creativity simultaneously? What obstacles may present themselves along the way? And if they do, how can we overcome them, to make historical sociology a more central substantive and methodological component of both undergraduate and graduate curricula?
With this in mind, we plan to inaugurate a new teaching initiative this summer under the auspices of the ASA Section on Comparative and Historical Sociology. This initiative has two main goals: (1) to develop a database of sample syllabi and assignments, and (2) to create a space for exchange around strategies for teaching historical sociology. We aim to include a wide range of epistemological, methodological and theoretical approaches, and to develop an account of comparative-historical sociology that adequately captures racial, gender, and class diversity:
- Graduate syllabus database. Our first goal is to create a database of syllabi and assignments for both graduate and undergraduate courses. At the graduate level, historical sociology has a more robust presence, and historical sociologists have developed a wide array of approaches to teaching the field—from guiding students through hands-on practice in archives, to centering questions of logic of inquiry and causal inference, to closely analyzing classic texts in the field, and beyond. We aim to gather these, to better highlight the diversity of texts and approaches being taught in graduate departments, and place them in an accessible forum for section members, so that they may learn about and share ways of structuring graduate courses. Doing so, moreover, will create a space for us as a community to reflect and re-envision how historical sociology might be taught with a greater diversity of traditions and positions, an expanded canon, and a more global vision.
- Undergraduate syllabus database. At the undergraduate level, we similarly seek to gather as many syllabi and assignments as possible and make them available to section members. Historical sociology qua historical sociology is infrequently taught at the undergraduate level, although it may often be taught through more topical courses on war, revolutions, policy change, and other topics. We are interested in casting a wide net. We are also interested in thinking through the best ways to teach courses in “social change” more specifically. Social change is a topic with an illustrious history in sociology, and historical sociologists—with their sensitivity to temporality and knowledge of the mechanisms of historical change—are uniquely positioned to teach such a course. Yet there are few available models for how to teach it that center historical sociology, especially at the undergraduate level. We hope to pool our brainpower to develop one or more model syllabi for undergraduate courses on “social change” that faculty and graduate students could incorporate into their teaching portfolios or use as inspiration as they develop their own courses.
- Assignment database. A related goal is to create a database of assignments for teaching aspects of historical sociology. How can we introduce students to historical research in the compressed space of a single semester? What kinds of assignments work best? What should our learning outcomes be, at the undergraduate and at the graduate level? As part of that, what aspects of our subdiscipline should we emphasize through our assignments—substantive aspects, methodological training, or something else? And what kinds of assignments best enable us to achieve our objectives? Again, by pooling our resources and knowledge, we can allow for the diffusion of successful and innovative assignments that bring historical sociology to life for our students.
- A pedagogical community. Finally, we hope to create a virtual (and, when conditions again permit, in-person) forum for interested historical sociologists to come together and discuss strategies for teaching historical sociology. Such a community might meet regularly at ASA and SSHA, and maintain a virtual community for exchange of syllabi, assignments, reflections, and other materials and ideas throughout the calendar year.
We invite all interested members of the Section on Comparative and Historical Sociology to join us in this initiative. If you are interested in sharing your syllabi (undergraduate or graduate), assignments, and ideas about how to improve how we teach historical sociology, we want to hear from you. Please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org if you are interested or have materials to share.
Thanks, and we hope to hear from many of you!
* This essay is from Trajectories, Spring-Summer 2020, pp.47-49