The 2020-2021 academic year has presented unprecedented challenges, from a global pandemic to social turmoil, for faculty and students alike. Yet, despite these disruptions and disturbances, six History majors were able to successfully complete Senior Honors Theses. For most students this is the largest and most in-depth project they undertake in their college careers. The rigor of the Honors thesis program is demonstrated by students’ commitment to conducting original research to produce a paper that is, on average, 75 pages long. The students who embark on their thesis projects are supported by a faculty adviser and the instructor of the thesis two-course sequence, led this year by Professor Marcus Bull. This year’s thesis cohort is unique from cohorts of the past in that the exceptional challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic affected these projects from start to finish. Professor Bull remarked that the fact that these thesis students “confronted and dealt with these challenges does all of them great credit.”
This year’s Honors students worked on an impressive range of projects which relate not only to the field of U.S. history, but also to modern European, South African, colonial and gender history. Patrick Clinch and Flannery Fitch worked on nineteenth-century U.S. history. Clinch investigated how the life and career of P.T. Barnum, exemplified through his popular human exhibits, reflected and influenced the racial politics of the Reconstruction Era. Fitch offered a comparative analysis of the diaries of two female spies on opposite sides of the American Civil War. Josh Howard’s and Kasha Seltzer’s theses focus on two important developments of the U.S. twentieth century. Howard researched evangelism and identity in the Orthodox Church in the U.S., while Seltzer’s work unpacks the social, political and institutional consequences of ABSCAM, an FBI investigation in the late 1970s that led to the conviction of six members of the House of Representatives and a senator. Kimathi Muiruri and Jona Boçari, coincidentally the cohort’s only international students, worked on South African history and Italian history respectively. Muiruri analyzed the livelihood and political strategies of African migrant laborers in Durban from 1874 to 1906. Boçari’s work explores the intersection of gender, memory and politics in post-1945 Italy by focusing on the analysis of four autobiographical accounts.
Kimathi Muiruri and Kasha Seltzer shared with me their experiences conducting research and writing an Honors thesis in an academic year as tumultuous as 2020-21. The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted both their plans to conduct research over the summer. Seltzer said that her initial topic idea was to focus on the one person, Senator Harrison Williams Jr., and to consult archive papers held at Rutgers University in New Jersey. Because she was unable to go on her research trip, Seltzer had to pivot to working with any digitized documents that were available online. This challenge forced Seltzer to modify her topic, which was discouraging at first but proved far more enjoyable for her later on. Similarly, Muiruri’s plans to travel were also disrupted by the pandemic, causing him to lose access to many sources and to work with online sources instead. For Seltzer, Muiruri and their cohort peers, the ability to think creatively around these challenges proved essential to their work. These strategies included relying on the UNC Library and the loan system, HathiTrust temporary access, digitized primary sources and purchasing books whenever unavoidable and necessary.
Beyond the limited access to primary sources, the remote-learning environment placed an additional burden on the students working on their honors theses. “The fatigue of Zoom classes was worse than previous years of in-person class — no moving around throughout the day, no punctuation with natural breaks, and little social interaction made work exhausting,” Muiruri stated. Seltzer added that the lack of in-person support and limited opportunities to connect with other thesis classmates made this endeavor especially hard. The support provided by faculty advisors helped mitigate some of these challenges. For Muiruri, working with his advisor, Dr. Lauren Jarvis, was one of the best parts: “Her approval and criticisms let me know when I was on the right track and how I could get better. Without that guiding light I would have been overwhelmed.”
Despite the challenges and the toll of isolation and a public health crisis, the experience of starting and finishing an Honors thesis proved extremely rewarding. Seltzer added that she greatly appreciated the opportunity to meticulously research a fascinating topic and the autonomy over the entirety of her project. The successful defense of her year-long work in front of a committee of faculty members was, for Seltzer, “the best feeling. It made it all worth it, because I knew that all my time had been spent in doing good work.”
History majors who complete senior Honors theses showcase their work in the department’s Honors Symposium. This year’s Symposium was held virtually on May 6, 2021 and featured two panels: Conflict Within and Without, and Cultural Adaptations and Resistances. While the Symposium is always an opportunity to celebrate the accomplishments of the thesis writers, this year’s Symposium was especially meaningful not just because of the pandemic’s challenges, but mainly because of the determination, creativity and fortitude that we all have shown.
Working Group on Equity and Inclusion Hosts “Courageous Conversations about Race in the Academy: A Roundtable with UNC History PhDs”
This Spring semester, the department’s Working Group on Equity and Inclusion hosted a virtual roundtable featuring six alumni from the Ph.D. program who all engage in diversity, equity and inclusion work in their scholarship, teaching and service. The panel featured Jessica Dixon-McKnight (Assistant Professor at Winthrop University), Bonnie Lucero (Associate Professor at the University of Houston), Julie Reed (Associate Professor at Pennsylvania State University), Devyn Spence Benson (Chair and Associate Professor of Africana Studies at Davidson College), Carlton Wilson (Dean of the College of Arts, Sciences and Humanities at North Carolina Central University), and Brandon Winford (Associate Professor at The University of Tennessee, Knoxville). The event took place on March 23, and was open to all students, faculty and staff in the UNC History department.
The roundtable provided an open space for panelists to talk about their experiences as Black, Indigenous and other People of Color in academia. A common theme was the need to find a supportive community, which proved critical in helping them navigate the difficulties of the academy, whether as graduate students or professional historians. These positive relationships to family members, friends and mentors helped them combat the sense of loneliness and isolation they felt throughout their studies. In particular, Julie Reed highlighted the American Indian and Indigenous Studies program at UNC where she found a supportive community consisting not only of professors such as Theda Perdue and Kathleen DuVal, but also of First Nations graduate students in other departments.
Panelists also commented on the importance of having a strong sense of self. Winford remarked on the need to separate one’s identity from work because “academia forces you to set aside who you are to meet some expectation.” Along a similar vein, Benson reminded the audience, predominantly composed of graduate students, that meritocracy is often illusory and that many factors outside their control go into decisions regarding hiring, grants and awards. All panelists encouraged current graduate students to not doubt the worth of their work and their own selves as they continue their journeys in the history profession.
The roundtable was organized by the department’s Working Group on Equity and Inclusion, which includes professors Genna Rae McNeil, Malinda Maynor Lowery, Susan Pennybacker and Miguel La Serna, graduate students Patricia Dawson, Cristian Walk and Laura Woods, and staff member Jennifer Parker. Following the event, I interviewed Professor Miguel La Serna, who moderated of the roundtable. La Serna expressed his gratitude to the panelists for their willingness to come back and speak candidly to the Carolina community because these are “the conversations that we really need to be having right now. They’re difficult to have, but they ultimately become really enlightening.” Additionally, the alumni roundtable was a step in building a greater community and a greater support network for underrepresented people who come from diverse backgrounds in the History department.
The Working Group on Equity and Inclusion resulted from the initiative of several faculty who wanted to start a meaningful dialogue about issues of equity, diversity and inclusion and anti-racism within the History department, curriculum and degree programs. Prior to the formation of the Working Group in the Fall 2020, the responsibility and burden of this work had fallen upon graduate students and several faculty members on an ad hoc basis. The establishment of this Working Group represents the department’s direct recognition of the fact that the work to identify and dismantle structural issues requires more deliberate, organized and concerted efforts. The Working Group has issued multiple statements responding to real world events and developments, and for most of this academic year, it has focused on identifying areas for growth and improvement in the department. These findings, obtained through the collection of data on the department and university level and through the peer-reviewed research, will inform strategic plans, both short-term and long-term, to start making strides in these areas.
On July 9, 2020, the academic units housed at 102 Emerson Drive—the Departments of History, Political Science, and Sociology, and the Curriculum on Peace, War, and Defense–submitted a request to UNC’s Commission on History, Race and a Way Forward to rename Hamilton Hall as Pauli Murray Hall. A poet, lawyer, writer, activist, priest, professor and intellectual whose work inspired several generations of cultural, political and social figures, Murray’s commitment to critical thinking, creativity, historical research, and above all to justice, epitomizes the ideals that the UNC History Department believes the historical profession should uphold. The department’s faculty, students and staff are committed to ensuring that the work taking place in Pauli Murray Hall reflects the remarkable legacy of this important luminary.
Department chair Professor Lisa Lindsay, an early advocate for renaming the building, emphasizes the contrast between Murray–whose legal research was foundational both for Thurgood Marshall’s challenge to “separate but equal” and for Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s challenge to job segregation by sex–and Hamilton, whose research was shaped by and contributed to white supremacy. As Lindsay explains: “It is fitting that we replace the one name with the other, because both reflect linkages between historical scholarship and public citizenship–one in a way we repudiate and another in a way we hope to emulate.”
Murray’s own experience of discrimination here on campus closely illustrates the connection between the research conducted at UNC and the broader mission of the university. When she applied to Carolina for graduate studies in sociology in 1938, she was denied admission on the basis of her race despite her impeccable credentials. Murray’s personal rejection came from none other than UNC President Frank Porter Graham. Then, in 1978, she was offered an honorary degree from UNC, which she turned down because North Carolina was at that time tied up in a legal case in which it was resisting desegregation in all parts of the state university system. “In these two instances,” Lindsay explains, “if not for official racism, Pauli Murray would be both an alumna of UNC (from a department now housed in the building we hope to name after her) and the holder of an honorary degree from the university.”
Despite her application’s rejection from UNC, Murray earned advanced degrees, including a PhD, in law. Her research underwrote the legal tactic that Thurgood Marshall used in Brown v. Board, and she co-authored the arguments in Reed v. Reed, a case argued by Ruth Bader Ginsburg that overturned sex discrimination in estate disputes. Later in her life, she was ordained as a minister, preaching her first service at the Episcopal Chapel of the Cross near UNC’s campus.
The renaming decision also rests on lesser known connections between Murray and the university that can be unearthed in her writings. Published posthumously in 1987, Murray’s memoir, Song in a Weary Throat, won the Robert F. Kennedy and Lillian Smith Book Awards, among numerous other distinctions. Praised as “visionary” by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and upheld as “a model for a new understanding of the pursuit of social justice” by Drew Gilpin Faust, Song in a Weary Throat also underscores the strong connection between Chapel Hill and the author’s personal and family history.
The first such connection is that Murray’s maternal grandmother, Cornelia Smith, was the daughter of an enslaved black woman whom Pauli describes as “part-Cherokee” who was sexually assaulted by a plantation owner/lawyer named Sidney Smith. Cornelia was born in the 1840s and she married Pauli’s grandfather in 1869. The white Smiths owned extensive plantation lands in southern Orange County and northern Chatham County; and a big Smith house still stands on Smith Level Road, a thoroughfare which leads from Carrboro to North Chatham County that is well known to everyone on campus.
Second, as a child growing up in Durham, Murray met Julian Carr, shortly after he dedicated UNC’s (now removed) Confederate “Silent Sam” Statue with a speech whose violent racism has earned Carr notoriety in the annals of Chapel Hill history. The meeting took place because Murray became an avid reader while living with an aunt in Durham. By the age of ten, she had read so many books at the “Colored Durham Library” that she received a prize. As Murray recounts in her memoir: “One year I won first prize among the colored children for having read the most books in the library. The prize, a fountain pen, was presented to me by General Julian S. Carr, a man my folks called a ‘true southern aristocrat.’ The presentation ceremony and General Carr’s words of praise made me feel very proud of my achievement.”
Commenting on the irony of this award coming from an avowed defender of the Confederacy, Professor Lloyd Kramer notes “the strangeness of history: The man who spoke so belligerently about white supremacy and the Confederacy at the dedication of Silent Sam later gave a pen to Pauli Murray to honor her reading achievements at a ceremony in Durham.” Carr could not then have imagined that the gifted child before him would play a pivotal role in creating a new landscape that would eventually make the removal of the “Silent Sam” statue possible (albeit with much difficulty) in 2019. Kramer continues: “She took that ‘pen’ (if I may speak metaphorically here) and went on to write her own story and to challenge the racist system and University policies that Carr had so strongly defended. Little did he know that he was giving a pen to someone who would assault—with lifelong determination–the whole racist system he sought to defend.”
The community of faculty, students and staff in Pauli Murray Hall views the process of renaming the building not as an end in itself, but as the beginning of the significant work that remains to be done on campus in achieving Murray’s vision of a just and fair society, whose contours are so brilliantly captured in the concluding lines of her poem, “Prophecy”:
I have been cast aside, but I sparkle in the darkness.
I have been slain but live on in the rivers of history.
I seek no conquest, no wealth, no power, no revenge;
I seek only discovery
Of the illimitable heights and depths of my own being.
Reflection from John A. Britton ’65 on time at Carolina and motivation for recent gift to support student research in the department of historyDr. John Britton ’65, has made a generous gift to the history department in support of undergraduate and graduate research.
Britton, a Professor Emeritus of Latin American History at Francis Marion University who majored in history at UNC, attributes his success at the university to a scholarship he received while on campus, covering one third of his tuition. Calling the financial assistance “a very positive factor in my persistence at the University,” Britton has always wanted to give something back to Carolina.
“For the last fifty years, I have thought about reimbursing the University for the amount of money that the scholarship provided to me.”
When asked about his motivation for making this commitment to current students, Dr. Britton had an immediate response: “I think one of the serious problems in higher education today is a lack of emphasis on the humanities and the relevant social sciences in trying to deal with social and political problems, and in understanding how media play a role in dividing our nation.”
While underscoring the “captivating” academic experiences he enjoyed in the classroom, Britton is also eager to “convey an aspect of academic life at Chapel Hill that most people don’t even think about,” namely, his three years clearing the tables of wealthier classmates at Lenoir Dining Hall to pay for tuition.
Although his grandfather attended UNC briefly from 1860-1861, Britton lacked the family support and personal connections that he says many of his classmates enjoyed. As a graduate of a rural high school with 100 students, he had not taken many of the rigorous math and science courses that more privileged students from preparatory schools or large high schools in Charlotte and Winston-Salem were able to bypass in their first year.
“I worked part time as a bus boy in Lenoir Hall,” Britton recalls, “which meant that I cleared tables after people had eaten and carried a trayload of dirty dishes to the old conveyor belt.”
Unsurprisingly for the early 1960s, racism and segregation pervaded the UNC campus, and Lenoir Hall furnished no exception. While less affluent White students worked as bus boys in the main dining hall, employees of color were forced to remain in the kitchen. Britton recalls gratefully that the hustle and bustle of the dining hall afforded him some opportunity, however limited, to interact with his non-White colleagues. “During rush hour, the administration would send African Americans from the kitchen to help pick up the dishes. It was a temporarily integrated workforce, and quickly the old lines of separation would dissipate. We were able to talk.”
Britton remembers the early 1960s as an exciting time to be a student on campus: Radicalism was in the air. Fidel Castro’s name frequently came up in an upper division course on Latin America he took with Professor Lee Woodward. Britton recalls the Speaker Ban Law prohibiting communists from giving talks on campus during his sophomore year. Though Britton attributes his later scholarly interest in the Mexican Revolution to these and other events, he insists that the life lessons he learned as a bus boy were just as important.
“About a third of the bus boys were graduate students in philosophy, sociology, and library science. There were men in their mid-20s; some were 40 and some were veterans.” Interacting with these older graduate students “was like taking another course.” Britton fondly remembers the “informal, unstructured discussions with these older fellows who were very frank: They didn’t hold anything back. They leveled devastating critiques of their professors, which I later found out stemmed from frustration over their high standards and the pressure to do a good job.” He counts this “transformative experience that would never show up on a resume” as one of the highlights of his UNC experience. “I was fortunate to meet people who could be frank with you.”
Britton is grateful for the lessons, intellectual and otherwise, he learned at UNC, and the department of history is grateful for his generosity toward today’s students.
In March 2020, Kaela Thuney was in the middle of her second semester as a graduate student, and beginning to develop plans for her MA thesis. She hoped to spend her summer break at the National Archives in Senegal, looking into the themes she planned to explore in her work: the slave trade, empire, and gender in nineteenth-century West Africa. “I thought if I could just go over and find some document no one had ever worked with before, I could tie all of those things together in this incredible and cutting-edge way,” she said. Marlon Londoño had received an award from the Institute for the Study of the Americas at UNC and was beginning to plan his visit to the Colombian national archives in Bogotá. Traveling to Colombia, he believed, was the necessary first step towards completing his project, which focused on soldiers’ experiences of the Thousand Days’ War between 1899 and 1902. “I wasn’t sure what to expect,” he recalled, “but I knew that I was going to go to Colombia, and that this would be the first and most important step.”
Even as UNCChapel Hill shifted to online instruction and governments across the world began closing their borders, Thuney tried to remain optimistic. “I remember thinking, ‘Oh, we’ll shut down for two weeks, and then I’ll be able to continue on to West Africa for the summer,” she said. In the end, however, Thuney, Londoño, and the other members of their cohort would research, write, and defend their MA theses mostly at home.
The coronavirus pandemic has required all students, faculty, and staff to adapt to new methods of working, studying, researching, and teaching. Archive and library closures, travel restrictions, and administrative uncertainty particularly affected graduate students who planned to research and write their MA theses in 2020. These students, who had little time to develop and complete their projects to begin with, often had to find new source bases, reconsider their methodology, and reformulate their arguments. Furthermore, the summer of 2020 would have provided many of them with their first opportunity to conduct archival research and work directly with historical documents.Many of the archival sources that Glenn Callihan planned to use for his MA thesis are written in a German script very difficult for untrained contemporary readers. In the summer of 2020, he planned to spend two weeks at a paleography course at Moravian College in Pennsylvania before traveling to Germany, where he would apply his new skills to examine the records of local magistrates from the early seventeenth century. In his research, Callihan intended to explore the relationship between Cologne’s Catholic magistrates and the local Protestant community during a period of religious tension and war, hoping to compare it to other cities in the region. Although he was able to completed the paleography course online, he did not have access to the undigitized documents in German archives. While documents produced by the Protestants were easily available, having been transcribed and published in the early twentieth century, he had to rely largely on secondary sources to reconstruct the position of the Cologne magistrates.
The pandemic did not present a dramatic disruption in Pasuth Thothaveesansuk’s research plans. Although he initially planned to conduct research in the US National Archives and the Nixon Presidential Library, and also considered applying for a visa to visit the Political Archives of the German Foreign Office, he found that he was able to draw on the information available in published collections and online archives. As he noted, his global history project, examining West GermanChinese relations between 1968 and 1972, was ironically well-suited to a period of restricted travel. However, Thothaveesansuk was hardly unaffected by the restrictions associated with the pandemic. He defended his thesis at 2 AM local time while under mandatory hotel quarantine in Thailand, where he had returned to visit his family. “At least I got a good pandemic story out of it,” he said.
For both Thuney and Callihan, conducting research during the coronavirus pandemic meant narrowing their focus. Thuney took a microhistorical approach, using Emory University’s Voyages Database to identify a French slave-trading ship intercepted by the British Navy in 1830, which she traced through records available in French and British online archives. Through the example of this individual ship, she examined issues of slavery, abolition, and forced labor in the emerging nineteenth-century imperial order. Callihan jettisoned his initial plan to add a comparative dimension to his project. Paradoxically, he said, focusing on Cologne itself made him more aware of the transnational networks in which the local Protestant community was embedded. In his dissertation, he intends to investigate the political dimensions of these religious networks and the challenges they posed to the consolidation of absolutist states.Completing their theses under lockdown revealed both the possibilities and limitations of remote research. Like many of his fellow students, Londoño found that there were far more resources available online than he had initially assumed. The Colombian Central Bank and Academy of History, Vanderbilt’s online Colombian Collection, and public domain books easily accessible through Google provided him with more than enough material to complete his project. Callihan received help from a fellow student in his paleography class in locating some important published sources. However, relying on published rather than archival sources made him dependent on other scholars’ transcriptions, which he was unable to verify. Similarly, Thothaveesansuk said that while he found valuable information in the memoirs of historical actors, he regretted that he was not able to corroborate it with archival evidence. He looked forward to conducting archival research after restrictions are lifted: “Now that I know the many options I have to do research remotely, hopefully once I do get to work in archives I can do so more efficiently and purposefully,” he said.
For some students, this experience provided them with a new perspective on the process of historical research. For Londoño, conducting research online revealed that there were many possible ways of doing history. “I felt really insecure about myself as a researcher and as a scholar and graduate student because I hadn’t gone into the archive in person,” he said. But after completing his project and discussing his experience with professors and fellow students, he came to realize that the work he did from his kitchen table was no less authentic than the work he would have done at the archive in Bogotá. Similarly, Thuney was occasionally frustrated at her dependence on online resources and the Interlibrary Loan system, wishing that she had the opportunity to examine less commonly used physical sources located in the archives in Senegal. However, this experience demonstrated to her the importance of flexibility and creativity in the research process. “Nothing went the way I wanted it to this year, but I stayed the course best I could, and got something done,” she said. These four students, as well as the other members of their cohort, completed their projects successfully under very difficult circumstances — while also dealing with the other disruptions, disturbances, and stresses of the pandemic.
The Digital History Lab’s second year has been a productive and rewarding one. With a staff of four, the DHL has continued one podcast and started another, offered tutorials and workshops, produced a weekly newsletter highlighting tools and events relevant to digital history, and conducted regular consultations as we continue to deal with the implications of teaching in the time of COVID-19.
In Summer 2020, the lab created and edited the blog, Teaching History Online. This blog contains posts by educators and students about their experiences during remote instruction in the Spring 2020 term. It is designed as a resource for teachers at all levels as they continue to be ready for online or hybrid instruction.
DHL staff assisted several faculty members and graduate students implementing digital tools into their teaching. The directors worked with students and Professor Katherine Turk in HIST 179H, “Women in the History of UNC Chapel Hill” on the creation of a map and podcast to accompany their digital exhibition, “Climbing the Hill: Women in the History of UNC.” The DHL also continued their support of Dr. John Sweet’s “Historic Chapel Hill” project and collaborated with Dr. Daniel Cobb and his undergraduate research team on a story-map, “More Than a Trip,” documenting the travels of Native American author D’Arcy McNickle.
The DHL continued and finished its work on its inaugural podcast, The Lens: Historians and Popular Media. The lab produced eleven total episodes of The Lens. The DHL has also launched its new podcast, “The Cutting Room Floor,” which allows historians to share engaging, entertaining, or even puzzling stories found during research that did not make the cut for larger projects. Episodes are produced with professional recording quality and an immersive audio experience.
The DHL also redesigned the History Department Website. Emma Rothberg and Craig Gill worked in consultation with faculty to make sure all pages were accurate, inviting, and accessible. Part of this website update project was the creation of a History of the Department timeline, by Joshua Michael O’Brien (Class of 2022).
The Digital History Lab organized several events for undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty across the university in the academic year. Over Summer 2020, Gabriel Moss held two short, introductory courses to GIS. In these hands-on, online workshops each participant produced an original mapping project and shared it with other participants. In total, the courses taught fifteen graduate students in multiple departments the fundamentals of Google Earth, QGIS, and ArcGIS Online. Everyone who participated was greatly supportive and enthusiastic about the class, and plans are underway for continued courses in historical GIS in the next academic year.
In Fall 2020, the lab also hosted two major workshops. The first, in coordination with Wilson Library staff, discussed the classroom and personal uses of Omeka, a free, flexible, and open-source web-publishing platform for the display of library, museum, archives, and scholarly collections. The second was led by Craig Gill and focused on Zotero as a research resource and a bibliography database. These workshops focused on exposing faculty and students to new technologies and ways to use them in their teaching and research. Both workshops provided easy-to-follow tutorials and recordings were made available to those who could not attend the live webinar.
The DHL started its Working Group in Fall 2020. Meeting roughly every two weeks, the Working Group was both a resource and a workshop for those in who are interested in learning more about and collaborating on digital humanities projects. The DHL Working Group had consistent attendance by both faculty and graduate student members. Meetings in the Fall consisted of short technology tutorials, while meetings in the Spring focused on sharing and getting feedback on personal digital humanities projects.
Finally, the DHL has major plans for Fall 2021. We plan to host a workshop on “Podcasting for the Classroom,” which will be led by Ash Curry (Class of 2022). The DHL will continue to record and produce episodes of “The Cutting Room Floor” as well as hold workshops and Transcribe-A-Thons as COVID-19 protocols allow. The DHL has also begun plans for a Triangle public and digital history website that will showcase the work being done by faculty, students, and community partners. As a first step, the DHL created a blog page on our website where UNC students and faculty can share and discuss completed and ongoing digital projects.
The DHL was co-directed by Emma Rothberg, Craig Gill for 2020-2021. Ash Curry was an invaluable contributor as an undergraduate research assistant and podcast guru. Gabriel Moss was an indispensable consultant to the lab.
Thanks for reading!
Emma Rothberg and Craig Gill
UNC-Chapel Hill ranked eleventh among all graduate programs in history in US News and World Report’s most recent rankings, published in March 2021. It also received high rankings in a number of individual subfields, reaching tenth in African-American history, twelfth in European history, tenth in Latin American history, seventh in modern US history, eighth in US colonial history, and ninth in women’s history, and coming behind only three other public universities in the overall history rankings.
While US News and World Report’s rankings of undergraduate programs and professional schools use a complex methodology, including statistical indicators such as acceptance and graduation rates, student test scores, student-faculty ratio, and graduate employment, its ranking of humanities and social science graduate programs is based exclusively on surveys of senior faculty members at peer institutions. These faculty members rated individual departments according to their academic quality on a 5-point scale. UNC-Chapel Hill and four other universities — Cornell University, the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Texas-Austin, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison — received an average score of 4.4. Respondents are also asked to identify up to fifteen programs with particular strengths in specific subfields, which are then ranked according to their number of nominations. Unfortunately, some of the subfields in which UNC-Chapel Hill’s history department is especially strong — including military history, global history, and Russian, East European, and Eurasian history — are not ranked by US News and World Report.
For those applying to doctoral programs in history, a department’s overall US News and World Report ranking is far less important than its individual faculty members and academic resources. Both students and faculty express skepticism about the significance of such subjective impressions, even when presented in quantitative form. A numerical rating based on survey data can hardly convey the quality of the work done in the department by students, faculty, and staff. “While rankings only imperfectly capture the many virtues of our department,” said Department Chair Lisa Lindsay, “this recognition is gratifying nonetheless.” Its consistent position among the top doctoral programs in history confirms our department’s excellent reputation among historians and demonstrates it to those outside the field, both within the university and in the broader public.
Professor Suzanne E. Barbour, Dean of the Graduate School, echoed widespread sentiment within Pauli Murray Hall that the ranking reflects the faculty’s commitment to excellence in graduate education, and on the superior scholarship of doctoral students enrolled in the program. “The Department of History has an international reputation for excellence in research, scholarship and training of the next generation of historians. It is wonderful that this excellence has been recognized by U.S. News and World Report.” Dean Barbour adds that the ranking also represents a validation of the significant effort the department has invested in recent years into implementing feedback graduate students have provided about their experience on campus. “The Graduate School looks forward to working with the department as it builds on its excellent foundations.” It is wonderful that this excellence has been recognized by U.S. News and World Report.