Is it possible to form a history thesis around art or literature without making it an art history or English thesis?

by wishfulthinkingwv

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about getting a doctorate in history and spending some time trying to understand the process. I decided when I went to college to major in education both for my bachelor and master degrees. Convincing myself that as a first generation college student in my family that a job in a public school was a more realistic and achievable goal. I don’t regret my decision and enjoy teaching high school world history but recently the thought of getting my doctorate has been weighing on me. I always told myself that if I ever settled on a thesis or topic I’d enjoy researching, I’d go back to school, but after ten years I still haven’t settled on anything. So I’ve been trying to narrow down the topics and eras I enjoy the most and decided I appreciate 18th and 19th c. European / British history the most, in particular the Belle Epoque/Gilded Age/ Late Victorian era. The topics I most enjoy during this time focus on art and literature and I’m struggling to focus those interests into a History thesis rather than an English or Art History thesis. Can anyone help give me some guidance or suggestions?

Side note. One of my other questions was if anyone had book suggestions and there is already an awesome list curated here. Very much appreciate that and plan on getting started reading a few of them and give myself a head start to comprehensive exams.


My experience is in a different area of history than yours (ancient Mediterranean), but I wrote my doctoral dissertation on the history of the Roman northern frontier using artworks and archaeological finds as evidence. The process required me to think seriously, as you are doing, about why my research was history rather than archaeology or art history. When I was applying for academic jobs, I always had to answer the question: "Why should we hire you for a History Department position? Why are you not applying for Art History or Archaeology positions?" I hope my thoughts are helpful to you.

The questions that I addressed in my research were historical questions: Why did people on either side of the Roman frontier make the choices they did about diplomatic, economic, and personal relationships with people on the other side, and what were the consequences of those choices? These are the same kinds of questions that historians using textual sources ask, but I was asking them using material and visual culture as my evidence. They are different from the kinds of questions that art historians or archaeologists have asked using the same body of evidence. Even though my research methods and sources overlap with those of other fields, my approach to this area of study is grounded in the methodologies and practices of a historian.

These are the questions you should ask yourself and be prepared to answer for others: How are your research questions historical questions? How are your methods a historian's methods? How is your approach to artistic or literary evidence different from the way an art historian or literary scholar would approach the same set of evidence? If you can articulate good answers to those questions, then you have a history thesis, and you can pursue that thesis in a history program.

There is a lot of good historical scholarship that uses literary and artistic evidence to approach the kind of questions about the past that concern historians. It sounds like you have some good examples to look at to help frame your thinking, but ultimately only you know if your research interests fall in that category or not.

(Also, one practical note: the word "interdisciplinary" is your friend. Use it a lot. It makes it sound like all the time you spent looking at old cooking pots and door hinges makes you a Very Smart Person.)