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Writing in History


Like any other discipline, the field of history requires students to think critically and write effectively. Writing assignments allow students to “re-see” history as less a compendium of names, dates, and events, and more of a conversation among people interested in knowing the who, what, where, when, and why of particular events.

Historians typically want to place events within larger contexts to explore further how politics, economics, science, race, class and gender and/ or popular culture are involved. They write for various audiences, publishing articles for their peers’ review; writing books that offer fresh interpretations of past events; presenting conference papers and research from their studies; and, as college professors, preparing lectures and course plans.

The challenge for students is to think like historians and learn how to examine primary and secondary sources to formulate their own THESES and arguments about the past.

The Kinds of Questions Historians Ask

In addition to the who, what, where, when, and why, historians ask questions guided by their own areas of expertise or interest. They are typically concerned with new angles or new perspectives on topics and are interested in what the conversations they can evoke with new points of view. Often, historians form communities within communities, based on interests and views, as in the Organization of American Historians:

Writing Conventions in History

Historians proposed informed views of the past; in other words, historians are knowledgeable about counter arguments or opposing points of view and acknowledge the work of others as they present their own. As they draw conclusions, they will take into consideration what has already been proposed or suggested in relation to their subject.

Historians survey the field and conduct research; they look at what is available as evidence – primary documents such as speeches, diaries, journals, letters, maps, government documents, quantitative or numerical data – and secondary sources.
Historians credit the work and scholarship of others and do not emotionally discredit views contrary to their own.

Historians rely on the CMS system of documentation on their writing. The Chicago Manual of Style is the professional guideline for formatting and citing work.

Types of Writing Assignments


Critical Essays:

These assignments typically ask the student to compose a short analytical essay that examines a primary document or a secondary document written by a scholar of history.

For example, a short paper that examines a primary source will describe and explain a document or narrative (or portion of the narrative). If a student selects Mary Rowlandson, The Narrative of the Captivity and the Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson (1682), the paper would likely focus on the event of the captivity as the described by the author AND would likely pose some questions about WHAT Rowlandson wanted to achieve in her “going public” with such a chronicle.

If a student selects a secondary source, The Chosen People of God: Mary Rowlandson’s Captivity Narrative by Caroline Gleason [ ], the paper would likely focus on Gleason’s interpretation of Rowlandson’s narrative and describe Gleason’s THESIS that Rowlandson’s account reinforced commonly held perceptions of belief in the “divine.” The paper would also explain HOW Gleason supports her claim; in other words, the paper would offer adequate support to make Gleason’s thesis reasonable and credible.

Book Reviews:

These assignments typically ask the student to look at the logic and organization of a scholar’s text while also making some judgments, assessments, about the author’s conclusions and the accuracy of the evidence. Book reviews can be complex without a context to situate them in and instructors’ lectures often assist with providing larger pictures.

For example, a review of Chris Matthews’s Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero would likely describe and explain the narrative of JFK’s life as Matthews interprets Kennedy’s life in light of other biographies. Other reviews are often helpful in offering a model to frame such a paper. The Nurturing of JFK by Jacob Heilbrunn [New York Times; Nov 3, 2011] summarizes and explains Matthews’s perspective and what the book offers that others may not. In other words, Heilbrunn assessment, calling the book, “engaging” and “valuable” assumes a comparison to previously written biographies on JFK and allows the reader some insight to the book without necessarily having to read it in full.

Research Papers:

These assignments typically ask the student to select a manageable topic, form a THESIS and support it throughout. The student is expected to pose a question (a why and/ or a how) and survey evidence that helps answer the questions. Depending on the topic, either primary or secondary materials will be required, or a combination of both primary and secondary materials may be needed.

For example, if a student is interested in learning how immigration policies at the turn of the twentieth century may have been based on main stream assumptions about particular ethnic groups, he might look at specific materials that describe how immigrants were treated when they arrived. What questions, exactly, were posed to determine mental/ psychological status? What public health concerns were predominate? What, exactly, was the “inspection” process like? Archival web sites supported by government agencies (e.g. the Dept of Immigration and Naturalization), museums, universities [ ], and documents from Ellis Island would all prove helpful. The paper would then address the why of the how: in other words, why were immigrants treated in the manner they were? Did that treatment reinforce or challenge some ways of thinking about them?

Historiographic Essays:

These essays are studies in the how of writing, actually composing the story of history. An historian writing a historiographic essay carefully examines the methods other historians used to make their claims about a why or how behind the scenes of a particular event -- how others have interpreted the past, how their assumptions or ways of thinking may have influenced their claims or their publications.

For example, a student writing a historigraphic essay about how laws evolved to enable United States women to legally hold property in their own names, would be likely to examine materials that prohibited women from holding property, and she would most likely ask why such prohibitions existed in the first place. She could examine primary sources that promoted biases and/ or assumptions about women’s intellectual abilities, and she could learn about the why of such prohibitions in secondary sources. Theoretically, she could then ask questions about the beliefs of the authors of those secondary sources.