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Option Courses

Students are required to select two options, normally one in Michaelmas Term and one in Lent Term. All options are taught as two-hour weekly discussion seminars over eight weeks and attendance is compulsory.

For each option, students will be required to write a 3–4,000 word essay which will count towards 10% of the overall mark.

Please note that this list of options changes from year to year and options may not run depending on demand and staff availability.  

At the discretion of the MPhil Director and Course Convener, students may be able to take options from the Faculty's other MPhil courses in place of an option on their home MPhil, or they may be able to audit additional classes. 

Options for 2018-19

Frontiers and Borderlands in American History

Convenor: Dr Bobby Lee

American Progress by John Gast
Historians have been arguing about the edges of the American past for over a century. As spaces of both myth and reality, frontiers and borderlands conjure visions of freedom and adventure that co-mingle with legacies of bloodshed, resource competition, ethnogenesis, and contested governmental authority. This MPhil option will examine zones of contact, conquest, and colonization in North America from 1600 to 1900, a period that witnessed the unlikely growth of a continental nation from a handful of coastal enclaves, the rapid spread of booming settler communities, and the decline of the indigenous population to its lowest levels on record. These sweeping changes have served as a backdrop for numerous studies investigating issues ranging from the structure of power to environmental change, the production of cultural memory, the history of violence, the nature of economic growth and political development, the varieties of slavery in North America, the roles of race, gender, and class in shaping the lives of individuals and communities, and more. Readings will sample classic works but will focus on cutting-edge scholarship as we survey where the field has been and where it’s going. Our goals will be to assess how historians have grounded the study of American frontiers and borderlands, trace how their findings have altered broader narratives about the American past, grapple with the relationship between place and process in history, and think through the implications of these lessons for future research.

Democracy and American Historiography

Convenor: Dr Tom Arnold Forster

Historians of the United States argue about few political ideas more intensively than “democracy.” In this course students will examine what democracy has meant and might mean as a category of historical analysis. By exploring the recent historiography of American democracy from the early nineteenth to the late twentieth century, this course focuses on how historians understand and explain democratic life in the United States. How do they account for issues like participation and representation, or equality and exclusion, or activism and apathy? Which historical sources suit which issues? What kinds of democratic theory are most useful for historical analysis? How have historians integrated the dynamics of race and gender into their accounts of democratic politics? Is the American history of democracy exceptional in a global context? And can this history shed light on the present state of American democracy?

Rooted in close readings of the latest scholarship, this course will help students acquire the skills necessary to pursue advanced (PhD) research in the field of American history, especially topics in political, cultural, and intellectual history. 

American Capitalism

Convenor: Dr Bronwen Everill

This course will examine the development of "capitalism" in American history. A currently fashionable topic, the history of capitalism is expanding in new and exciting ways, but it has also faced a lot of recent criticism and many wonder about the "newness" of this field. Students will be invited to think critically about the "new history of capitalism", older labor histories, anthropological and financial approaches to American history, and the development of political economic thought in American life to understand better to what extent the 'chief business of the American people is business'.

The weekly seminars will cover the topics of labor, debt, taxes, corporatism, consumerism, organized crime, and welfare, as well as an introductory seminar focused on the history of capitalism itself. This MPhil option will allow students to think about the broader themes of American history (slavery, race, immigration, gender, the state, democracy) as they interacted with the nation's economic development.

Varieties of American Empire

Convenor: Prof Andrew Preston

Columbia (the American people) reaches out to help oppressed Cuba in 1897 while Uncle Sam (the U.S. government) is blind and does not use its great firepower. Judge magazine, Feb. 6, 1897
Thomas Jefferson once proclaimed the United States to be an “empire of liberty.” For the next century, Americans moved westward in one of the great continual mass migrations in modern history. In doing so, these settlers, aided by the U.S. military, displaced older empires on the North American continent, be they Spanish, French, British, or Native American. In 1898, the United States occupied or annexed territories off its own shores, either nearby (Cuba) or far away (the Philippines); five years later, it acquired sovereignty over the Panama Canal Zone. And over the course of the twentieth century, the United States evolved from a continental hegemon into a great power, and then again into a global superpower of unprecedented reach and power. To paraphrase the historian William Appleman Williams, to a great extent empire has been an American way of life.

But is the United States in fact an empire? Has it ever been one? If so, what kind? Was the seizure of the Philippines a “great aberration,” as the historian Samuel Flagg Bemis once put it? The terms “empire” and “imperialism” are politically loaded, but is it possible to examine U.S. foreign policy through an imperialist lens that is more neutral and scholarly? These are not easy questions, but scholars have offered a wide variety of answers nonetheless. This MPhil option will focus on how historians have considered empire when interpreting the history of American foreign relations, predominantly but not exclusively between 1898 and the present day. It will begin with the definitional problem—how should we define empire in an American context?—before turning to a variety of imperial interpretations of U.S. history, including those that explicitly deny the existence of an American empire.

The USA and Cold War Europe

Convenor: Prof David Reynolds

This option addresses two interrelated themes – how Europe was shaped by the superpowers during Cold War and how Europeans shaped the Cold War – over the half-century from 1941 to 1991.

Major topics will include: the emergence of bipolarity, the German question, European integration, the Atlantic Alliance, Détente, the Eastern European revoluitions, and the Soviet collapse. The central focus will be inter-state relations and their domestic ramifications. Attention will be given to the changing political economy, both within states and in the world at large, and to the tensions between and within alliance blocs. The course will also explore the role of political leaders within the larger structures of international relations and the influence of ideology on both states and leaders.

The two-hour seminars will take the form of an introductory overview each week, followed by student presentations on selected readings and group discussion.

This information is provided for illustrative purposes only.