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Life Writing as Political History


Admission requirements

This course is part of the (Res)MA History Programme. It is not accessible for BA students.
Students should have excellent knowledge of the Dutch language.


Biography is a popular genre. During the last two decades, a substantial number of political biographies has been published in the Netherlands. Lives of kings and queens, diplomats, Prime Ministers, activists, Members of Parliament, policy makers, ministers as well political thinkers have been documented. This enables us to start asking new questions about the added value of life writing for political historians.
In the seminar we discuss developments in life writing and confront these with recent debates among political historians. For instance, political culture as well as the meaning of the national framework and transnational life writing will be topics of discussion. We will also consider the impact of ‘the personal’ on public life. What is the added value of knowledge about for instance family life, gender or religious beliefs for political historians?
In the seminar we make use of the rapidly increasing number of digital sources and recent developments within digital humanities. We will focus on Dutch history (19th and 20th centuries) and will work with Dutch sources, including visual material. We will analyze texts written by and about both prominent as well as less well known politicians. These include the socialist Pieter Jelles Troelstra, Juliana and Bernhard, Prime Minister Hendrik Colijn, activist Aletta Jacobs, sociologist Hilda Verwey-Jonker and populist Pim Fortuyn. Excellent knowledge of the Dutch language is imperative for students who wish to participate in the seminar. We will however try to accommodate foreign students with an interest in life writing.
Students may write a paper on the historiography of political biography, or analyze a specific aspect of a biography or write a scholarly biography of a person of their interest.

Course objectives

General learning objectives

The student has acquired:

  • 1) The ability to independently identify and select literature, using traditional and modern techniques;

  • 2) The ability to independently identify and select sources, using traditional and modern techniques;

    1. The ability to analyse and evaluate a corpus of sources with a view to addressing a particular historical pr)blem;
  • 4) The ability to analyse and evaluate literature with a view to addressing a particular historical problem;

  • 5) The ability to independently formulate a clear and well-argued research question, taking into account the theory and method of the field and to reduce this question to accessible and manageable sub-questions;

  • 6) The ability to independently set up and carry out an original research project that can make a contribution to existing scholarly debates;

  • 7) The ability to give a clear and well-founded oral and written report on research results in correct English, when required, or Dutch, meeting the criteria of the discipline;

  • 8) The ability to participate in current debates in the specialisation;

  • 9) The ability to provide constructive feedback to and formulate criticism of the work of others and the ability to evaluate the value of such criticism and feedback on one’s own work and incorporate it;

  • 10) (ResMA only:) The ability to participate in a discussion of the theoretical foundations of the discipline.

Learning objectives, pertaining to the specialisation

  • 11) Thorough knowledge and comprehension of one of the specialisations or subspecialisations as well as of the historiography of the specialisation, focusing particularly on the following; in the specialisation Political Culture and National Identities: political practices, symbols and perceptions, nationalism, and national identities in a cultural and societal context from 1800.

  • 12) Thorough knowledge and comprehension of the theoretical, conceptual and methodological aspects of the specialisation or subspecialisation in question, with a particular focus on the following: in the specialisation Political Culture and National Identities: international comparison and
    transfer; the analysis of the specific perspectives of secondary studies; a cultural-historical approach of politics and a political-historical approach of culture.

Learning objectives, pertaining to this Research Seminar

The student:

  • 13) is familiar with debates among life writers

  • 14) is able to approach political history from a biographical perspective

  • 15) has gained knowledge about the added value of life writing for understanding (Dutch) political history

  • 16) ResMA only – The paper for ResMA students is based on a larger number of primary sources as well as wider reading of secondary literature than for students on the regular MA. Details will be provided at the beginning of the course.


The timetable is available on the MA History website

Mode of instruction

  • Seminar (compulsory attendance)
    This means that students have to attend every session of the course. If a student is not able to attend, he is required to notify the teacher beforehand. The teacher will determine if and how the missed session can be compensated by an additional assignment. If specific restrictions apply to a particular course, the teacher will notify the students at the beginning of the semester. If a student does not comply with the aforementioned requirements, he will be excluded from the seminar.

Course Load

Total course load 10 EC x 28 hours = 280 hours

  • Seminars: 13x2=26

  • Presentation: 20

  • Study of compulsory literature: 65

  • Written paper: 169

Assessment method


  • Written paper (6500-7500 words, based on research in primary sources, excluding title page, table of contents, footnotes and bibliography)
    measured learning objectives: 1-16

  • Oral presentation
    measured learning objectives: 4, 7-10

  • Class participation
    measured learning objectives: 4, 7-10


  • Written paper: 70%

  • Oral presentation: 10%

  • Class participation: 20%

The final grade for the course is established by determining the weighted average with the additional requirement that the written paper must always be sufficent.


Assignments and written papers should be handed in within the deadline as provided in the relevant course outline on Blackboard.


Should the overall mark be unsatisfactory, the paper is to be revised after consultation with the instructor.

Exam review

How and when a review of the written paper will take place will be disclosed together with the publication of the results at the latest. If a student requests a review within 30 days after publication of the results, a review of the written paper will have to be organised.


Blackboard will be used for:

  • publication course outline

  • communication of deadlines

  • announcement of key readings

Reading list

To be announced


Enrolment through uSis is mandatory.
General information about uSis is available in English and Dutch

Registration Studeren à la carte and Contractonderwijs

Not applicable


Dr. Margit van der Steen