Writing Hist.doc

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Women's and Gender Studies
Malcolm Mac Kinnon

HISTORY 3620 DEPARTMENT OF HISTORY, FACULTY OF ARTS, YORK UNIVERSITY Writing History Author: Marc Stein Writing history is challenging and exciting because it presents opportunities to develop interpretations of the past based on evidence and analysis. Many students come to university with the assumption that writing history consists of presenting a set of straightforward facts and dramatic stories about the past. Most university history instructors expect students to go well beyond this. Writing history involves the creative process of using the best available evidence, the strongest possible analysis, and the most interesting forms of presentation to offer convincing and compelling arguments about the past. History writing, like all forms of writing, follows certain conventions that practitioners are expected to know, even if they choose to violate them. Some of these conventions express the fundamental assumptions of the discipline. Historians, for example, usually use the past tense when referring to the past, and the present tense when referring to the present. (An example: Historian John D’Emilio discusses the fact that civil rights activist Bayard Rustin was both African American and gay.) Most historians believe that things change over time and that individuals, groups, ideologies, discourses, economics, and technologies are among the key factors that affect change. Most historians are particularistic in that they are interested in specific time- and space-bound circumstances rather than universal truths. And most historians believe that the past has some relationship to the present, which is one of the things that makes writing history socially, culturally, and politically relevant. Types of Papers The three most common types of history papers that university students are asked to write are primary research papers, secondary research papers, and book/article reviews. In primary research papers, students use material from the historical period under study (for example, private letters, public speeches, media articles, and government documents) and develop arguments based on that material. Secondary material (scholarship about the past) may also be used and often helps provide context and a starting point for argumentation. But the main work of primary research papers interprets texts from the historical period in question. In secondary research papers, students use materials that have been produced after the period under study. Usually these materials will be books and articles written by historians. The goal here is to synthesize, analyze, criticize, and further develop the arguments that historians have made. One type of secondary research paper is called the historiographic essay, which considers the “history of history,” or the history of arguments that historians have offered on the subject at hand. Usually historiography focuses on comparing and contrasting different schools of thought on the same historical subject. In book or article reviews, the goal is to summarize the main arguments and assess the strengths and weaknesses of scholarly work. Oftentimes successful reviews devote approximately equal attention to summary, praise, and criticism. Comparative reviews, in addition to summarizing, praising, and criticizing works of scholarship, also analyze their similarities and differences. Audience Because all forms of writing are addressed to particular audiences, it is important that students think about the audiences intended or expected for their history papers. History writing can be intended for a relatively limited audience of professional specialists or a relatively wide and even international audience of non-specialists. Most of the time the real audience for university history papers is the instructor, but the instructor usually has an idea of what type of audience the student should assume in her or his writing style. For example, if the audience is international and the subject the U.S. Civil War, the writer may have to provide more detail than she or he would if the audience was strictly from the United States. If the audience is made up of specialists, this kind of detail would seem unnecessary. Most commonly, history instructors expect students to assume an intelligent but uninformed reader who is not participating in the class. That means, among other things, that students must identify and describe their sources; students should not assume that the reader is familiar with the texts that the student is discussing. Subfields As in many fields, the discipline of history has grown so large that it has fragmented into subfields, many of which have developed unique writing conventions. In addition to defining themselves by period and place, most historians will also define themselves as cultural, diplomatic, economic, environmental, family, intellectual, labor, political, sexual, social, and/or urban specialists. Many will also specify the groups and analytic categories that they study, often defined in terms of age, class, ethnicity, gender, nationality, race, religion, and sexuality. And because of interdisciplinary contact, different subfields will be influenced by different disciplines, some by anthropology, some by sociology, and some by literary studies, to name just a few. History writing can thus range from hard social science employing advanced statistics to narrative story-telling to postmodern critique. Use of Evidence/Citing sources Perhaps the most elaborated conventions in history writing concern the use of primary and secondary evidence. (To repeat, primary evidence generally comes from the period under study; secondary evidence generally comes from the writings of scholars after the period under study.) Most commonly, evidence is presented in history papers in four forms: paraphrases; short quotations, which do not require margin and line spacing adjustments; long quotations, which do require margin and line spacing adjustments; and data presented in statistical tables. Paraphrasing involves putting into one’s own words ideas that have been expressed by others. Many students do not realize that paraphrases should be accompanied by footnotes or endnotes in history papers and that the source should be indicated in the main body of the paper as well. The following is an example: According to George Chauncey, New York in the 1920s featured a vibrant and dynamic gay world.[1] Note that the reader encounters the source in two ways. In the main body of the paper, the reader learns the name of the author or the text whose ideas are being paraphrased. In the footnote, the reader is shown how she or he might find the original source should she or he want to do so. Shorter quotations must also be footnoted or endnoted and the source must also be indicated in the body of the paper. Another example: Elizabeth Kennedy and Madeline Davis observe that “all commentators on twentieth- century lesbian life have noted the prominence of butch-fem roles.” Or an alternative: Elizabeth Kennedy and Madeline Davis observe, “All commentators on twentieth-century lesbian life have noted the prominence of butch- fem roles.”[2] The reference in the sentence allows readers to know the basic source while the footnote allows readers to find the original text. Quotations that are not complete sentences in and of themselves must not disrupt the grammar of sentences. For example, I am not disrupting what I just called “the grammar of the sentence” by using the short quotation in this way. Longer quotations (block quotations) are also footnoted or endnoted but the quotations are set off from the paragraph with larger margins (usually 1.5 inches instead of standard 1 inch margins) and smaller linespacing (usually single-spacing instead of standard double-spacing). Quotation marks are not necessary at the beginning and end of block quotations. Block quotations must consist of grammatically correct sentences, and they should be preceded by grammatically correct sentences. For example, according to Marc Stein, reading well-written papers is a pleasure: When students write well, I can respond to their ideas, rather than their mistakes. That’s what I most enjoy about reading student papers. But writing well requires work. Good writers are made, not born. And most of us become good writers only with practice and only with revision after revision after revision.[3] Three of the most common types of sources that you will need to footnote or endnote are books, journal articles, and popular magazine/newspaper articles. Books should be footnoted or endnoted as i
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