History Lesson: “Seminar on Historical Evidence”

Considered pioneering when it was created, one history class was unparalleled in exposing majors to hands-on work in historical research. Nowadays, this work has been incorporated in students’ senior theses.

For nearly 40 years, part of the degree requirements for every Haverford history major was a course, taken in the junior year, called “Seminar on Historical Evidence.” The legendary class, which laid claim to being the only undergraduate course of its kind in the country, was established in 1969, “in part in response to a student revolt against the traditional comprehensive examinations,” according to one source. According to another, “students complained they wanted to do history, not just study it.”

In some 1980s press materials about the seminar, whose intriguing detective-work aspect inspired an impressive number of newspaper articles over the years, Professor of History Roger Lane described the course as a way “to show students the gap between the original sources of history and the confident statements that get into history textbooks.” To do that, the first part of the two-part course required students to choose one object from a collection of mystery artifacts and identify and analyze its use and history—which was often a highly challenging project, requiring many phone calls, faxed photographs, visits to museums, and the close perusal of old catalogs of tools or household objects. Among the obscure items researched: a hand tool for repairing saws, a corn-husking device, a doctored photograph of Vladimir Lenin, a whale-bone corset stay, and an Amish grain flail.

In the second part of the course, students transcribed and analyzed original manuscripts, letters, and documents culled from Special Collections’ vast store by Haverford’s history professors. (In one dramatic case, a student proved that a letter in the collection that was supposedly written by Gulliver’s Travels author Jonathan Swift was in fact a forgery.)

While he can’t say for certain that the “Seminar on Historical Evidence” was unique among American colleges, “it was certainly innovative and unusual,” says Darin Hayton, associate professor of the history of science and chair of the history department. “More importantly, the course’s innovation centered on students’ intimate engagement with primary source material—real stuff from the real past. In the late 1960s, such engagement was unusual.”

But by 2005, when Hayton joined the College, what had been innovative had become an expected part of most advanced college history coursework. “Faculty increasingly integrated such engagement with primary sources into our courses,” he says. (For an example, see the article on Hayton’s “Madness” seminar, which examined the 19th-century records of a Quaker-run psychiatric hospital, in the winter 2016 issue of Haverford.)

Acknowledging this change in how history was being taught, in 2005 the department replaced the “Seminar on Historical Evidence” with a mandatory thesis based on original research.

-Eils Lotozo


Photo: A series of photos taken in 2002 of students with their “Seminar on Historical Evidence” mystery artifact included (right) Rebecca Harris ’03 (now an advertising strategist in Denver), holding a 19th-century pocket watch shipping tin, and Arunabh Ghosh ’03 (now an assistant professor of history at Harvard University), holding a cheek block made in the Thousand Islands region of New York that was used to control the rigging and sails on a small sailing vessel.