HIST 4900: Senior Synthesis – History and Narrative

Dr. William Kangas

At its broadest level the Senior Synthesis is intended to be a culmination to your education at Seattle University.  In particular, as a capstone course for the History Department, it is intended to aid you in thinking about and integrating what you have learned over the course of your time in the department.  In this manner, we will be completing your education in the major in the manner in which we began it: with a keen attention to questions of historical methodology and theory.

The manner in which we are going to approach this is by trying to come to some understanding about certain contemporary issues confronting historiography as a type of cultural knowledge and practice.  In particular, we are going to be concerned with the theoretical implications that are raised for historiography in relation to questions surrounding the type of truth that is generated by historical thinking and writing in relation to the past.  While there are a number of complex ways in which historiography as a type of critical thinking can be defined, at its simplest and most reductionistic one could argue that what history is, is a narrative about the past - that is, that history is an account of the facts of some past event, events, person, people, phenomenon, or phenomena that claims to be both realistic and accurate.

While such a narrative or account may resemble a fictional story, historians have long sought to clearly distinguish their true narratives from the fictional narratives that are produced by literature, theater, movies, reality television or other forms of (re)presenting the past.  Given, however, the increasing claims for truth status that are put forth by these other genres, the historian’s insistent claim that his or her narratives are really true - as opposed to basically true, or based on truth, or inspired by the truth - have been brought into question.  While one can point to a number of factors at work here, one of the primary issue of confusion has mostly to do with the fact that the form that historical understanding comes in, its structure as story-like, is entirely undifferentiated from the forms and structures that these other manners of (re)presenting the past come in.  This is true even when an historical analysis is not explicitly structured as a story or narrative, for even here there is an implicit story or narrative that is at work that frames even analytically oriented historical writing and thinking.

As such, what will be of central importance to us is the question of narrative: what it is, how it is structured, how it functions, how historians use it, and the type of truth that it produces or makes possible.  Even more central will be the question of how to distinguish, if possible, between the type of narratives that historians produce from the type of narratives that these other genres produce.   Put most generally, what, if anything, separates or distinguishes an historical narrative from a fictional narrative?