“Introduction to Contemporary Issues in Historical Theory”, my elective course for 2019

My current postdoc position does not have teaching duties. Nevertheless, I have talked to my supervisor and we decided it would be nice for me to offer an elective for undergrads this semester. So I drafted a syllabus and started working on a course that I think I would have liked to have during my time as an undergrad. You can check the final syllabus by clicking here (in Portuguese only, though). 44 students have enrolled in my course.

Sure, understanding most of the “contemporary issues” in historical theory/philosophy of history requires some background knowledge on “perennial issues” that most certainly these students have never read about. But I believe I have structured the course so that I can address these during the lectures. As an introductory course, I do not expect any groundbreaking insight to emerge from it; the goal is to give students a glimpse into some of the questions philosophers of history have been thinking about more recently. “A glimpse” and “some” because there is a limit to what you can teach in a single semester (which, by the way, is actually a quadrimester, but let us leave administrative naming problems aside). There are many issues I would like to have included, such as gender and racial bias in the disciplinary field, or the geopolitics of knowledge production. I hope I can work with these issues in the future.

Another important aspect is that many “theory courses”, which are mandatory in most History undergrad programs I know, are not taught by researches who specialize in theory. Thankfully this seems to be changing, but it sure was true when I was an undergrad myself, not so long ago. What this means is that many theory courses privilege questions that I consider to be better classified under the label of “methodology”, or “theory-methodology” – questions and concepts which are instrumental for historical research. Think of concepts such as “social representation”, in Roger Chartier, or “class experience”, in E. P. Thompson. As a consequence, abstract questions on how historical texts work, how can they convey knowledge, and how can we know anything about the past at all go all under the rug. Those are supposed to be either well-solved, already-dealt-with presuppositions in the history workshop, or questions that only philosophers and literary theorists who know nothing about “actual history” could ask. Again, this scenario does seem to be changing in the last few years. But in the end, not all students have the privilege of being in a department that takes theory seriously, like the Federal University of Ouro Preto (UFOP), or the Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro (PUC-Rio).

Finally, I have structured the course in a way that I can also study more about those issues with my students. Not only because I am writing a paper on the history of historical theory in History departments in Brazil, but also because there is always something new to be learned even from texts you have already read.