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Unit information: Reading the Past in 2017/18

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Unit name Reading the Past
Unit code AFAC20004
Credit points 20
Level of study I/5
Teaching block(s) Teaching Block 2 (weeks 13 - 24)
Unit director Professor. Hilary Carey
Open unit status Not open




School/department Arts Faculty Office
Faculty Faculty of Arts


This unit aims to introduce students to the issues and problems involved in gaining access to and interpreting the past, which is an activity fundamental to all of the arts and humanities. The unit will take a single historical event, theme, or phenomenon, related to the research interests of the unit leader, and ask how it has been understood. There are hundreds of possible topics: examples could include the French Revolution, slavery, the global upheavals of 1968, witchcraft, Ancient Rome, or early American settler society. The unit will be divided into two parts. The first part will consider evidence and objects (methodological issues and debates; conceptual frameworks and questions to be asked). Examples of objects/evidence include archaeological finds, newspapers, oral history, photographs, literary sources, archives etc. In the second part interpretations are examined (who is reading the past? what affects their reading? how do they seek to persuade us of their validity?); a range of scholarly and popular readings of the chosen theme will come under scrutiny (professional historians; museums; heritage and tourism industry; art, literature, film; radical and alternative histories, etc.). Weekly lectures will consider the wider methodological/conceptual framework, while the weekly seminars will focus on particular sources / case studies.

The unit aims:

  • To instruct students in fundamental issues involved in gaining access to and interpreting the past
  • To develop students’ understanding of historical evidence, sources, and argument
  • To enhance students’ critical attitude and self-awareness with respect to engagement with the past and its intepretation
  • To develop skills of critical analysis that can be applied to a range of texts and objects in different contexts of production and consumption

Intended learning outcomes

By the end of the unit, successful students will be able to demonstrate:

  1. an understanding of the range of sources that inform our study of the past
  2. in-depth knowledge of the chosen topic
  3. an ability to discuss the issues, problems, and epistemological questions associated with each kind of source
  4. the ability to present their ideas orally and in written form to a level of sophistication appropriate to level C
  5. an understanding of the reasons why scholars disagree about the past, or interpret it differently
  6. an ability to interpret critically and contextualise popular and cultural interpretations of the past
  7. an ability to construct coherent, relevant and persuasive arguments on different aspects of the subject, showing critical thought and displaying full understanding of academic conventions

Teaching details

Two 1-hour lectures per week, plus one 1-hour seminars per week (on readings done in advance).

Assessment Details

1. Critical reflection exercise (50%). Each student will submit at the end of the module a notebook (1500 words) containing critical reflections either on two different sources pertaining to the same historical problem, or on two different historical problems relating to the same methodological issue. These should be case studies that reflect class discussion. Students will be encouraged to incorporate a case study using materials available in the community (e.g. City of Bristol Museum). Summary comment in the notebook should address the principles raised by the two cases.

2. Summative essay (50%). An essay (3,000 words) on a topic related to the module, from a designated list.

[Both assesments will assess ILOs 1-7.]

Reading and References

John Arnold, History: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000)

Ludmilla Jordanova, History In Practice (2nd edn, London: Hodder Arnold, 2006) Peter Burke, Eyewitnessing: The Uses of Images as Historical Evidence (London: Reaktion, 2001)

Miriam Dobson and Benjamin Ziemann, Reading Primary Sources: The Interpretation of Texts from Nineteenth- and Twentieth-century History (London: Routledge, 2008)