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History Major Guide for 2015-2016

Why Study History?


Because we like Big Questions

History can certainly make you more knowledgeable and interesting to talk to and can lead to all sorts of brilliant vocations, explorations, and careers; just take a look at all these former history majors, for example. But even more important, studying history helps us ask and answer humanity’s Big Questions. In fact, we faculty often tell our students that history is all about questions.

If you want to know why something is happening in the present, you might ask a sociologist, an anthropologist, an economist. But if you want deep background, you ask a historian. We are the people who know and understand the past and can explain its complex interrelationships with the present.

Our faculty approach their work, “that is, their research and their teaching,”in this spirit of inquiry. We want to know how things happened, why, and what it meant. Some of our Big Questions are quite specific, and indeed specificity  “of time and of place“ is at the heart of what we do. For example, for our historian of late antique Europe, Jacob Latham, the Big Question is: “What difference did Christianity make to the Roman world after Constantine?” Chris Magra, scholar of the early American Atlantic, asks: “To what extent were colonial Americans capitalists?”

Meanwhile, our historian of US/Mexican relations and of the US in the World, Tore Olsson, wants to know: “Why are the societies of the Global North so much wealthier today than the societies of the Global South, and what about their historical relationship has caused this?” Shannen Williams, who teaches on the Civil Rights movement, asks, “Why wasn’t the U.S. Catholic Church a major proponent of the Civil Rights movement and the black freedom struggle in the twentieth century?,” while Charles Sanft, our early China specialist, is interested in “how people in China have formed and maintained their society, and what they wrote about those processes.”

Some of our faculty pose Big Questions that are more broadly anthropological or philosophical, but such questions become historical when situated, again, in particular places and moments in time: Lynn Sacco, who writes about the history of sexuality in America, asks: “How do we reconcile the contradictions between what we observe and what we believe?” Jay Rubenstein, our Crusades historian, wants to know, “What makes people kill in the name of their god?” Laura Nenzi, who works on early modern Japan, asks, “How do the big ‘textbook moments’ in History look when seen from the viewpoint of the single individual who observed them from the sidelines?” Vejas Liulevicius, who writes about Europe in the era of the World Wars, poses this question: “How have people in the past envisioned their relations with neighboring or foreign peoples?” Meanwhile, Monica Black, a historian of modern Germany asks, “Why do the dead matter to the living?,” and Denise Phillips, our historian of the life sciences, poses the mind-blowing, “Why does knowledge matter?”

History is also all about Big Answers. In fact, history could be described as a mode not only of asking but also of answering questions. Historians’ answers are never one-dimensional: in fact, for us it is often a point of pride to say that there is no single answer to any question about the past. Our goal, instead, is to seek out as many different clues about why something turned out the way it did as we are able to uncover and to offer multifaceted explanations for all kinds of historical phenomena.

Career Opportunities in History

The analytical skills you acquire as a history major translate well into many fields that require problem solving, imagination, and the ability to express yourself clearly.  History majors go on to specialized training in graduate or professional schools (in history or law for example), or move directly into private business (banking, public relations, general business, communications), or government service (State Department, National Parks Service, Congress). They pursue courses of study that will lead to high school teaching; research, teaching, and management in higher education; or historical editing. Others have entered the growing field of public history, serving as historians for government agencies, private corporations, museums, and other organizations devoted to historical preservation and restoration.

Salary Trends in History

An Arts and Sciences degree can propel you in limitless directions. Majors are not always the deciding factor as to what career path you follow. As with any degree, your pre-professional experiences (volunteerism, work experience, internships, etc) enhance your chances at obtaining desired employment and further guide where you fall on the salary continuum.

High School Preparation

In order to prepare for a history major, the best things you can do are read and write. That may sound simple, but the average high school student does not read or write enough. Hence, college can be something of a shock. Reading a variety of types of literature helps you to build your vocabulary and to understand complex ideas and how to communicate them. You can read biographies, science fiction, poetry, non-fiction, natural histories, or historical novels; the type of material is less critical than the ability of the material to push you to think in ways that you are not used to thinking. Choose classes in which you have to write essays and research papers. No one is born with the ability to write well; it takes practice. If you have some choice when you are given a writing assignment, choose one that makes you shape and defend an argument. When selecting research topics, look for a topic in which there are different types of evidence and more than one version of “the facts.” Visit museums and historical sites, look at old photo albums, read newspapers, and carefully examine your history textbooks. Ask yourself the questions: “How are these different sources telling the story of the past.” “What is left out?” “What are the biases, points of view, or agendas of those who are ‘remembering’ history?” Nations, groups, and individuals are inventing their own histories as we speak. In order to understand that process of creating and remembering you need to hone your analytical skills. Take advanced history and science classes; join the debate team; play chess or other games that emphasize concentration and attention to detail. Learn languages.  Volunteer to work on an archaeological dig.

How to Major in History

Stating a history interest during the application and orientation processes at UT is a good first step, but to declare a history major officially, you must first earn a C or higher in ANY TWO of the following history courses: 221, 222, 227, 228, 241, 242, 247, 248, 261, or 262. A sequence is not necessary to declare. All Advanced Placement (AP) with a credit score of 4 or 5 is acceptable to fulfill these progression requirements.

To declare, you will need to make an appointment with the Advising Specialist for the History Department. To do so, simply log on to your MyUTK account and click the “Grades First” link found in the advising section of your home page. Once in the Grades First system, click the “Appointments for Advising or Other Academic Help” button and follow the prompts from there. You will need to select the “Change of Major to History” option. Please bring along to your appointment a completed copy of the History Major Declaration Form. An official transcript is not necessary.

Upon declaring your major, you will be assigned an advisor in the department. You may set up appointments with your history advisor via e-mail during fall and spring semesters, whether you wish to discuss your program of study in history or if you need to be cleared for semester registration. Please note that you should no longer go to the College of Arts and Sciences Advising Center to be advised. Only your faculty advisor (or on some occasions, another staff or faculty member within the History Department) can clear your advising hold once you declare the major.

Requirements for History

Ordinarily you will begin taking the two required historical survey courses in your sophomore year, although students who have already received AP credit for history courses may begin earlier. History surveys give you an introduction to big historical issues, cross-cultural exchange, and the puzzles of historiography (the critical analysis of historical sources — in other words, how and why history is written). You will learn how to write historical essays, critique primary source materials, and explore the ways that peoples in very different times and places imagined themselves, their land, their gods, their dead, their gender relations, and the peoples beyond their “boundaries.”

In the second semester of your Sophomore year, you should take History 299: Thinking Historically. This course will teach you the fundamental research skills necessary to conduct historical research in primary and secondary sources, as well as the broad outlines of history as a form of academic inquiry. It is also a prerequisite for History 499: Senior Research Seminar, your capstone course as a History major.

In your junior and senior years you will take upper level classes that explore some aspect of the historical experience in depth. These classes are designed to hone your analytical skills and your abilities to communicate effectively. In these classes you may assess, for example, the ideals of the “60s” in America, the ways in which revolutions occur in comparative context, the cross-cultural encounters generated by the Crusades, or the social history of the Civil War. Some of these classes are seminar-style, 400 level classes; they aim at provoking energetic discussion and allowing you to practice the historian’s craft. In order to ensure that you experience the historical perspectives of a diverse range of peoples, the Department requires that six of the eight upper division courses for the major include: 1 course on the period before 1750, 1 course in European history, 1 in American history, 2 in the histories of Asia, Africa, and Latin America, and 1 senior research seminar (HIST 499). You may find yourself writing a research paper on the diary of a samurai warrior, interviewing veterans of WWII, or comparing the participation of women in the nationalist movements of India and Egypt. You will choose the remaining two upper division history courses to suit your own particular interests.

Special Programs, Co-ops, and Internships

Majors in history may apply for a variety of summer internships nationwide in venues such as museums, archaeological digs, and historical societies. They are also eligible to apply for study abroad programs such as those offered by the Fulbright Foundation. Within the UT system, history majors who have completed their junior year may apply for McClure scholarships for study abroad. Students have used these scholarships for formal language and culture programs, independent research, and humanitarian projects. Internships are also available at the Department’s Center for the Study of War and Society. These internships provide course credit and hands-on research experience in an archive which documents modern U.S. military history and the experiences of those who served in the U.S. military. Students engage in a variety of special projects including interviewing veterans of World War II, the Korean War, and Vietnam.

Highlights of History

Eligible students may enroll in designated honors courses offered by the Department.  These allow students to develop research skills and to participate in the intensive discussions provided by the seminar.

A student can earn an Honors Major in history by completing the history honors sequence in the junior and senior year. Honors majors take a special seminar course (History 307) on historical methods in their junior year. In their senior year they take History 407-408, a year-long honors seminar in which each student selects a research topic and, working intensively with a faculty member, produces an honors paper.  Participants in this seminar share their research experiences in weekly discussions and help critique each other’s projects. At the end of the year they present the results of their research to the honors seminar. Each year the History Department selects one of these research papers for a special award. Recent honors students have researched papers on such topics as women’s role in the civil rights movement, American response to the rise of European fascism, and race relations in East Tennessee during the Civil War.  Students planning to pursue graduate or professional school may use these honors theses as writing samples for their graduate applications.

Ready for the World logo

“Ready for the World” is part of a long-range plan to transform the UTK campus into a culture of diversity that best prepares students for working and competing in the 21st century.  Thus students are encouraged to actively participate in the diverse cultural programs offered on campus.  Some of these events include the guest lecture series, cultural nights at the International House, and international film screenings.  Visit the Center for International Education web site ( or the Ready for the World web site ( for more information on upcoming cultural programs and activities. Learn more about UT’s Ready for the World initiative to help students gain the international and intercultural knowledge they need to succeed in today’s world.

Students are also encouraged to develop a global perspective within their academic program through study abroad. The University of Tennessee, Knoxville, offers study abroad programs in Asia, Europe, Africa, Australia, South America, and North America. Program lengths vary from mini-term trips to the entire academic year, and students may choose to fulfill general education requirements, study a foreign language, or take courses within their majors. In addition, UTK offers students opportunities for international internships.

Students are highly encouraged to begin planning early in their academic career and to consult with an academic advisor about the best time to study abroad as well as what courses to take abroad. For more information about program options, the application process, and how to finance study abroad, please visit the Programs Abroad Office website.

Academic Plan and Milestones

Following an academic plan will help students stay on track to graduate in four years. For first-time, first-year, full-time, degree-seeking students, UT has implemented Universal Tracking (uTrack), an academic monitoring system designed to help students stay on track for timely graduation. In order to remain on track, students must complete the minimum requirements for each tracking semester, known as milestones. Milestones may include successful completion of specified courses and/or attainment of a minimum GPA.

To see a sample academic plan and milestones for this major, please visit the undergraduate catalog.

For More Information

Department of History
915 Volunteer Boulevard
Knoxville, TN 37996
(865) 974-5421


The information on this page should be considered general information only. For more specific information on this and other programs refer to the UT catalog or contact the department and/or college directly.

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