Graduate Thematic Areas

Coursework in the thematic areas outlined below are offered on a rotating basis under the direction of one history department faculty member.  The courses are typically structured around guest visits by other history faculty who are asked to introduce a book of their choice within their own fields of interest.  As a result, these courses are inherently comparative, transnational, and comprehensive in scope.

Borders, Boundaries, and Frontiers

Borders, boundaries, and frontiers are different kinds of spaces characterized by particularly rich and conflict-ridden human interaction. Some borders are political or legal, and thus somewhat abstract. Others are bluntly physical, etched into the landscape: a river, a mountain chain, a wall. Often vigorously monitored or militarized, borders are nonetheless transgressed and permeable. People migrate past them, escape over them, or try to rewrite them; goods are exchanged (or smuggled) over them. Boundaries, in contrast, are generally more symbolic or figurative: the cultural or linguistic perimeters that define a people or a nation. They may be “ethnic,” economic, cultural, even professional. Whenever groups compete over resources or professional and/or cultural interests, boundaries are threatened. Finally, frontiers are imprecisely defined regions where interaction, conflict, adaptation, and mixing (mestizaje) take place. Frontiers can be real sites (as the hinterland of a colonial settlement, or Eastern Europe) or imagined (as the Seven Cities of Gold).

The theme of Borders, Boundaries and Frontiers helps us to conceptualize how groups come into contact with one another through, and identities form out of, colonialism, imperialism, migration, globalization, and cultural interaction. In other words, understanding the representation of borders and the people on both sides – whether portrayed as savages/barbarians or as their “civilizers” – are integral to this theme.

In analyzing this theme, we hope to gain:

  • an understanding of the major theoretical issues surrounding borders, boundaries, and frontiers, such as:
    • how and why borders are created or destroyed
    • noting moments of relative porosity/transparency vs. ossification
    • are borders, boundaries, and frontiers places or processes?
    • how borders, boundaries, and frontiers contribute to perceptions of difference among peoples
    • how borders, boundaries, and frontiers feed into divergences between centers and peripheral regions
  • an appreciation for the historically specific issues and differences emerging at different times and at different border/lands
  • an understanding of the different ways “our own border” – the US-México border near Las Cruces, Mesilla, El Paso, and Ciudad Juárez – has been envisioned and represented.

Nature and Society

The Nature and Society theme looks at human culture in relation to the biosphere.  It considers how humans and natural environments have interacted and reshaped each other in the past.  It studies the ecological and environmental niches where humans have succeeded and failed and the reasons for these successes and failures.  It is concerned with how humans have altered the environments of the places they have inhabited through irrigation systems, agricultural and pastoral practices, and industry; and it studies the social, political and technological systems that have sustained these economic activities.  Nature and Society asks such questions as:  How has the natural environment influenced human actions, decisions, and cultural and social development?  How have people perceived or imagined the natural world?  How have they reshaped and even reordered the natural environment?  How have they struggled with each other over ways the environment should be treated and understood?  And what have been the intended and unintended consequences of their actions?

The Nature and Society theme also studies how weather patterns and climate changes have affected the development of cultures.  It looks at the history of foods and at the social systems and cultural practices that have developed around the domestication and production of foodstuffs.  It sees globalization in terms of the spread of biotas and pathogens as well as the spread of social and political systems.  It incorporates parasites and diseases into history, and looks at the religious, political and medical systems that humans have designed to control and manage disease.  Finally, as cultural and intellectual history, it examines how different cultures have understood nature and their relationship to nature.

Myth, Memory, and History

The Myth, Memory, and History theme is concerned with the ways in which culture shapes people’s perception of themselves as well as how self-identity shapes the culture around us.  It looks at how the concept of identity is linked to questions of historical tradition, culture, and representation, as well as to such issues such as ethnicity, gender, class and region. While society and culture often shapes identity in hegemonic ways, boundaries, “resistance” and “affirmation” can also be vital in shaping identities and cultures.

The Myth, Memory, and History theme encourages the comparative study of cultural influences on identity formation, including the rise of allegiances to states, ethnic groups, and other identities. Students may use this multidisciplinary approach to interpret culture and identity in relation to larger global issues, or they may concentrate on micro- identities and cultures such as those shaped by professional or sectarian concerns.  Identities and cultures as subjects of study includes religious, artistic and scientific cultures as well as ethnic, national and global cultures.

Modernity and Its Discontents

Modernity and Its Discontents are themes that encourage a transnational perspective and tend to break the barriers of time that normally divide and define us as historians.

The study of industrialization calls into being what came before, and what will come after.  Feudalism and post-industrial systems are both part of the theme, as industrialization is not a static process but has occurred in a combined and uneven way in almost all parts of the globe.  Industrialization involves the study of class in all times and periods, but also for the study of management, capitalism, and competing economic systems.  Industrialization calls into being not only the history of the (man, woman, and child) worker, but also of the family and the larger society – their attitudes and beliefs as well as their modes of living.  Industrialization is more than just the tale of the factory worker.  The Peruvian artisan and the Southern slave, the Chinese peasant, the South African gold miner, the Market Revolution religious evangelist, the eighteenth-century pirate, the American housewife and the Brazilian slum dweller are all encompassed by the theme of industrialization.

Related to industrialization is the study of modernity, which, again, involves a very long time span.  The study of modernity crosses not only time periods and countries but also disciplines.  Students may study the rise of the modern nation state, the evolution of modern science, the history of the philosophical consideration of “the modern,” the modern military machine or the aesthetics of modern art, architecture, and film.  One may also study the many times and events in which people attempted to escape the implications of modernity, as a theme always invites its opposite.