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❶Reading the past principally in terms of your own present experience can also create problems in your arguments. Is it a response to a particular idea?

Writing Historical Essays: A Guide for Undergraduates

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In what follows we will briefly discuss the nature of historical writing, lay out a step by step model for constructing an essay, and provide a set of useful observations from our experience as instructors regarding problems that most frequently crop up in student writing.

The basic elements of academic essay writing are two: All scholarly writing, from the most concise paper to the longest book, follows these basic guidlines. Historical essay writing is based upon the thesis. A thesis is a statement, an argument which will be presented by the writer. The thesis is in effect, your position, your particular interpretation, your way of seeing a problem. Resist the temptation, which many students have, to think of a thesis as simply "restating" an instructor's question.

The writer should demonstrate originality and critical thinking by showing what the question is asking, and why it is important rather than merely repeating it. Your own informed perspective is what matters. Many first-year students ask whether the "thesis" is not just their "opinion" of a historical question. A thesis is indeed a "point of view," or "perspective," but of a particular sort: The truism that we each have "our own" opinions misses the point. A good critical essay acknowledges that many perspectives are possible on any question, yet demonstrates the validity or correctness of the writer's own view.

To make a good argument you must have both a strong central thesis and plausible evidence; the two are interdependent and support each other. Some historians have compared the historian's craft to assembling and presenting a case before a jury. A strong statement of thesis needs evidence or it will convince no one.

Equally, quotes, dates, and lists of details mean nothing by themselves. Your task is both to select the important "facts" and to present them in a reasonable, persuasive, and systematic manner which defends your position. To support your argument, you should also be competent in using footnotes and creating bibliographies for your work; neither is difficult, and both are requirements for truly professional scholarship.

The footnote is a way of demonstrating the author's thesis against the evidence. In effect, it is a way of saying: By keeping your notes accurate your argument will always be rooted in concrete evidence of the past which the reader can verify. See below for standard footnote forms. Be aware also that "historical" writing is not exactly the same as writing in other social sciences, in literature, or in the natural sciences. Though all follow the general thesis and evidence model, historical writing also depends a great deal on situating evidence and arguments correctly in time and space in narratives about the past.

Historians are particularly sensitive to errors of anachronism—that is, putting events in an "incorrect" order, or having historical characters speak, think, and act in ways inappropriate for the time in which they were living. Reading the past principally in terms of your own present experience can also create problems in your arguments.

Avoid grand statements about humanity in general, and be careful of theories which fit all cases. Make a point of using evidence with attention to specificity of time and place, i. Pay attention to the way it is worded and presented. Can you properly define them? What sort of evidence is required to respond effectively? If you are developing your own topic, what are the important issues and what questions can you pose yourself?

Begin reading or re-reading your texts or documents. Remember however that merely "reading everything" doesn't guarantee you'll do good writing. Some students rush through assignments, others highlight every line, both thinking that by counting pages or words they are doing well.

As you read the important point is to identify critical arguments in the texts. Don't just read for "information. What is the author saying? What are his or her stated and unstated assumptions? What kind of evidence supports the arguments and how is it used? What do particular documents or texts tell you about the time in which they were written?

Your questions will be the beginning of your own thesis. As noted above, all serious writing is done in drafts, and not the night before. Even if you are pressed for time as, of course, you will be give yourself enough time to review and revise your own writing.

Students will sometimes turn in papers they have never actually read themselves; this is a mistake which shows. Think of the first or "preliminary" draft as a detailed outline. Establish your thesis and see how it looks in writing. Is it too general or specific? Does it address the questions asked by the instructor? Because the thesis is so critical, small changes in it will have a big impact. Don't be afraid to refine it as often as necessary as you continue reading and writing.

Now you have completed your draft. Return to your introduction. Is the thesis clearly stated? Have you established the argument and evidence you will present? Rephrase your thesis if necessary. You may not even be clear about the final thesis until you have written much of the paper itself and seen how the argument holds together. Add examples or delete non-relevant materials and make sure paragraphs connect with transitions and topic sentences. Some classes, such as the History Seminar, have students critique each others' research drafts, often several times.

Such exercises are invaluable opportunities to learn how other people read you, and how to be fair, judicious, and helpful in your own critiques. Whenever possible try to have someone else read your work and comment on it.

Finally, check for sense, grammar, spelling, and mechanical and typographical errors. Show respect for your reader by not making him or her wade through a sloppy manuscript.

Details may not make or break a work, but they make a definite impression about how much you care. Every professor or instructor has his or her own standards for excellent, good, average, and unacceptable work.

A common grading misunderstanding arises from a student belief that answering a question "correctly" in essay form means an automatic "A. This is only "competent" work. Likewise, Carr charged that historians are always influenced by the present when writing about the past. As an example, he used the changing viewpoints about the German past expressed by the German historian Friedrich Meinecke during the Imperial, Weimar, Nazi and post-war periods to support his contention.

Mommsen's History of Rome is similarly dismissed as a product and illustration of pre-Bismarckian Germany. Sir Lewis Namier's choice of subject and treatment of it simply show the predictable prejudices of a Polish conservative". In general, Carr held to a deterministic outlook in history.

Carr claimed that when examining causation in history, historians should seek to find "rational" causes of historical occurrences, that is causes that can be generalized across time to explain other occurrences in other times and places. As an example of his attack on the role of accidents in history, Carr mocked the hypothesis of "Cleopatra's nose" Pascal's thought that, but for the magnetism exerted by the nose of Cleopatra on Mark Anthony , there would have been no affair between the two, and hence the Second Triumvirate would not have broken up, and therefore the Roman Republic would have continued.

In Carr's opinion, historical works that serve to broaden society's understanding of the past via generalizations are more "right" and "socially acceptable" than works that do not. Carr emphatically contended that history was a social science , not an art , [47] because historians, like scientists, seek generalizations that help to broaden the understanding of one's subject. Carr was well known for his assertions in What Is History?

Thus, Carr argued that within the context of the Soviet Union, Stalin was a force for the good. Yet his achievement in borrowing from the West, in forcing on primitive Russia the material foundations of modern civilisation, and in giving Russia a place among the European powers, obliged them to concede, however reluctantly his title to greatness.

Stalin was the most ruthless despot Russia had known since Peter, and also a great westerniser". Though Carr made it clear that he preferred that historians refrain from expressing moral opinions, he did argue that if the historian should find it necessary then such views should best be restricted to institutions rather than individuals.

Finally, Carr argued that historians can be "objective" if they are capable of moving beyond their narrow view of the situation both in the past and in the present, and can write historical works which helped to contribute to progress of society. In his notes for a second edition of What Is History? Carr wrote about the rise of social history that:. Indeed, one might say that all serious historical work done in this period has been moulded by its influence. The symptom of this change has been the replacement, in general esteem, of battles, diplomatic manoeuvres, constitutional arguments and political intrigues as the main topics of history—'political history' in the broad sense—by the study of economic factors, of social conditions, of statistics of population, of the rise and fall of classes.

The increasing popularity of sociology has been another feature of the same development; the attempt has sometimes been made to treat history as a branch of sociology. To study the bedrock alone is not enough; and becomes tedious; perhaps this is what happened to Annales.

But you can't dispense with it". Through Carr himself had insisted that history was a social science, he regretted the decline of history as a discipline relative to the other social sciences, which he saw as a part of a conservative trend. If you are allergic to these processes, you abandon history and take cover in the social sciences. Today anthropology, sociology, etc, flourish. But then our society too is sick". Carr deplored the rise of Structuralism.

This depends partly, no doubt, on his temperament, but largely on the environment in which he works. We live in a society which thinks of change chiefly as change for the worse, dreads it and prefers the "horizontal" view which calls only for minor adjustments".

Repeating his attack on the empirical approach to history, Carr claimed that those historians who claimed to be strict empiricists like Captain Stephen Roskill who took a just-the-facts approach would resemble a character named Funes in a short story by Jorge Luis Borges who never forgot anything he had seen or heard, so his memory was a "garbage heap". The delayed economic crisis has set in with a vengeance, ravaging the industrial countries and spreading the cancer of unemployment throughout the Western world [Carr is referring to the recession of the early s ].

Scarcely a country is now free from the antagonism of violence and terrorism. The revolt of the oil-producing states of the Middle East has brought a significant shift in power to the disadvantage of the Western industrial nations [a reference to the Arab oil shock of and the Iranian oil shock of ].

The "third world" has been transformed from a passive into a positive and disturbing factor in world affairs. In these conditions any expression of optimism has come to seem absurd". Carr went on to declare his belief that the world was in fact getting better and wrote that it was only the West in decline, not the world, writing that:. Carr's opinions about the nature of historical work in What Is History?

In his book The Practice of History , Sir Geoffrey Elton criticized Carr for his "whimsical" distinction between the "historical facts" and the "facts of the past", saying that it reflected "an extraordinarily arrogant attitude both to the past and to the place of the historian studying it". British historian Hugh Trevor-Roper said Carr's dismissal of the "might-have-beens of history" reflected a fundamental lack of interest in examining historical causation. In a review in in Historische Zeitschrift , Andreas Hillgruber wrote favourably of Carr's geistvoll-ironischer ironically spirited criticism of conservative, liberal and positivist historians.

Walsh said in a review that it is not a "fact of history" that he had toast for breakfast that day. British historian Richard J.

Evans said What Is History? From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Redirected from What Is History. This article may require cleanup to meet Wikipedia's quality standards.

The specific problem is: Relies far too heavily on one primary source—the book that is the subject of the article. Needs comprehensively gutting, per NOR. Please help improve this article if you can. October Learn how and when to remove this template message. This is, after all, not very abstruse. It is what is already done by the intelligent undergraduate who, when recommended to read a work by that great scholar Jones of St.

Jude's, goes round to a friend at St. Jude's to ask what sort of chap Jones is, and what bees he has in his bonnet. When you read a work of history, always listen out for the buzzing.

If you can detect none, either you are tone deaf or your historian is a dull dog. The facts are really not at all like fish on the fishmonger's slab. They are like fish swimming about in a vast and sometimes inaccessible ocean; and what the historian catches will depend, partly on chance, but mainly on what part of the ocean he chooses to fish in and what tackle he chooses to use — these two factors being, of course, determined by the kind of fish he wants to catch.

By and large, the historian will get the kind of facts he wants. Archived from the original PDF on Penguin, , p. Carr A Critical Appraisal ed. The English Historical Review. Archived from the original on


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History is naught but stories, changed and molded to fit the current society, which are passed down through generations. The study of history is not the answer, but the means of finding the answer for our times. The most important object to historians and their field of study are facts.

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First of all we ought to ask, What constitutes a good history essay? Probably no two people will completely agree, if only for the very good reason that quality is in the eye – and reflects the intellectual state – of the reader. What is history? Essay. What is history? History is much more than just past events. History is all things that man knows about, that has been recorded. It is past events, past people, and everything that is been recorded that we know to this day. John F. Kennedy said “History is a relentless master.

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