Defining History

This page suggests some general principles that differentiate history from other disciplines, which should ideally be reflected in History 190:

    • The distinction between primary sources (evidence) and secondary sources (historiography) tends to be more important to the undergraduate teaching of history than it is in other fields. Hist190 should include specific attention paid to the difference between the two, and how this difference is reflected in writing (primary sources as evidence, interpreted through close reading or other methods, versus secondary sources used to frame a motivation for research).
    • Since the core genre of historical scholarship remains the monograph, Hist190 instructors are encouraged to introduce students to monographs as readings, in whole or part. One particularly effective way would be to choose one monograph to be the core reading for the course, and then add related primary and secondary sources. Of course, for some content themes this may not be workable.
    • The distinguishing nature of historical questions (centering on cause/effect and change/continuity over time) should be made explicit to students and be structured into the course. It may be helpful to discuss the difference in content and methods between scholarly history and, for example, popular history, historical fiction, history journalism, or historical documentary film (the centrality of argument, original/primary sources, rules of evidence and peer review).
    • That said, since we study the past, history can encompass any other discipline — as each discipline has a history — and many historians borrow methodologies from other disciplines. The degree to which you address this may depend on your theme for the course and your own experience as a working historian – it’s up to you.
    • Historians often use sources that are less familiar to undergraduates and less likely to be covered in Eng110, such as (older) monographs, non-digitized or obscure periodicals, and archival collections. Instructors can ask the history librarian, Rolf Swensen, for a class session at the library, but with or without a formal library session, students should get at least a review of how to find sources, with emphasis on the particular databases and other finding aids historians use.
    • Students should be required to use the Chicago/Turabian citation style, which will not have been emphasized in Eng110.
    • Mechanical ways that historical writing tends to differ from related disciplines include:
      1. we tend to favor context and complex narrative explanations over models or theory-driven argument (we’re “splitters, not lumpers”)
      2. historical writing tends to be less regimented (less broken down into set sections such as methodology, lit review, etc), and uses less jargon, as a rule (of course you should feel free to introduce exceptions)

Refer to the AHA Tuning Project for extended exploration of common principles of historical scholarship, writing, and teaching.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Comments are closed.