“DOING” HISTORICAL WRITING

Bob Bain
Big Historian, Professor of History & Educational Studies, University of Michigan
Michigan, USA

Lee Shulman, former head of the Carnegie Foundation, tells a story about how his University of Chicago mentor, Joseph Schwab, shocked him into being a better reader and writer. Early in his undergraduate career, Schulman was explaining what he had read for class and Professor Schwab halted him by saying, “Mr. Shulman, I did not ask you what the author said. I can read what he said. Everyone can see what he said. Rather, I asked you what was the author doing in the essay? So, let’s start over and let’s begin with first paragraph: What is the author doing in this paragraph?”

This is a powerful question and one I have appropriated in my teaching and writing. It pushes readers and writers past summary to uncover purpose.

I use “doing” language to help my students, whether in high school or at the university, think about their writing. This turns out to be valuable in two critical stages of writing: First, in deciding on the overall purpose of the essay; and second, in determining the purpose of the sections of a paper.

Establishing the Overall Purpose: Story, Explanation, or Argument

What do you want to do? Historians typically can “do” one of three things when they write: Tell a story, make an explanation, or construct an argument.

Telling a story: Do you want to tell a story about how something happened? That is, do you want to string together events and actors in such a way to provide the reader (or listener or viewer) a chronological tale of an occurrence? If so, you are constructing a historical narrative. Historian J. H. Hexter once wrote that history is a “patterned, coherent account of the human past intended to be true.” His patterned and coherent accounts were historical narratives. When “doing” a narrative, a historian essentially uses chronology to tell a story, typically about cause and/or effect. Narrative history connects events, showing how one thing led to another. For example, a historian might tell a story of the major events and figures that moved the United States along the road to Civil War between 1848 and 1860. Or a world historian might tell a story about the settling of a new frontier, say Australia, from a few different points of view. Or a Big Historian might tell a story about how the cosmos became more complex over 13.8 billion years, in just 18 minutes. That is what narrative history does.

Making an explanation: Or do you want to tell, describe, clarify, or illuminate why something happened? Is your purpose to enlighten the reader about either the causes or consequences of a historical phenomenon? If so, you are constructing a historical explanation. Explanations are related to historical narratives, though they typically are not in a story form nor must they have a chronological sequence to them, as narratives do. That is, to describe what caused the Civil War, a historian might group events by political, economic, domestic, or international reasons.

Constructing an argument: Or do you want to justify, defend, or support a particular claim about a historical event or actor? Is your purpose to attack the veracity or plausibility of someone else’s claim? If so, you’re making or developing a historical argument. Arguments consist of claims, evidence, and then reasons or warrants why the evidence offered encourages the reader to accept the claim. Again, historical arguments are related to historical explanations since most explanations consist of others’ arguments. And an explanation might be incorrect or partially correct as it depends essentially upon the quality of the claims and arguments it uses.

Explanations and arguments: same or different? Some people argue that explanation and argument in history (and science) are the same. I do think explanation and argument are different. For example, explanation and argument have different discourse “rules.” Historians rarely use their own voice when writing historical explanations (for example, “The major causes of the war were . . .”); however, the author is clearly present when historians make an argument (“Some historians claim that the major cause was this, but I think it was this . . .,” for example).

By the way, if you took a quick look back at the last four paragraphs you would see three paragraphs of description and one of argument. For three paragraphs, I wanted to explicate the three genres of historical writing; in the fourth paragraph, I began an argument by disagreeing with others and was beginning to make an explicit claim using “I.” Much as I would love to continue making the argument, offering supportive claims, evidence, and reasons, I want to spend the remainder of the essay explaining what historians do in the different sections of a historical argument (smile).

What Do Historians Do When Writing an Argument?

The BHP courses ask students to regularly make historical arguments. In most of the Investigations, students must take a stance, make claims to support their stance, provide evidence and reasons for those claims, consider opposing claims, and close their argument. Essentially, this is what historians do when making an argument. That is, historians introduce a position, make and warrant claims to support the position, and close the argument with discussion of implications and significance.

Let’s look more carefully at these three features of historical arguments.

I. Introducing the position: The first thing a historian does is introduce the historical problem and their central claim, position, or thesis. This is what the historian should be doing in an introduction to the paper or book. Historians do this at the beginning of their argument. In a book, this typically is in the preface or introduction. In a paper, it usually is the first or second paragraph.

What does the introduction do?

The introduction establishes the historical problem or question, and states the author’s position or thesis. The introduction tells the reader about the issue, why it’s important, and why it matters. Often, a historian will open with a startling quote or statistic to capture the reader’s attention, or to set up the central theme, or to show why the reader should care about the issue.

However, the most important thing the historian does in the introduction is to clearly state the author’s position or stance. Every good historical book or argumentative essay presents the historian’s position, claim, or thesis on the issue or question. This should be one or two statements that capture or summarize the historian’s argument. It is not vague. What does the thesis statement do? It conveys the stance that the historian is taking on the problem, and states what the paper will try to prove.

Finally, most historians try to do one more thing. They try to cue the reader in a sentence or two into where they are going. They often offer a brief map of where they’re going in the rest of the book or paper.

II. Making claims, offering evidence, and giving reasons: The next thing the historian does is support the position or thesis with lots of claims, evidence, and reasons. This is what the historian does in the body of the paper or book.

Supporting the thesis with claims, evidence, and reasoning: Historians follow the introduction with support for their position or thesis. Since historians want to persuade others that their position is correct or the best position, they offer as much support for the position as they can. Called the body of an argument, this is usually several pages (or even chapters) or paragraphs. What do historians do in this section?

First, they make a number of claims to support their thesis. Each claim is a statement the historian wants the reader to accept as true and is offered to support the historian’s overall position or thesis. In many ways, these claims are like a “mini-thesis.”

How does the historian show that the claim is credible? Typically, they provide some evidence or external authority from a credible source to encourage the reader to accept the claim. This is something all good historians do. They always name the source for the claim so the reader is able to test the claim themselves. In short, they cite the sources for their claims.

Merely naming a source is, however, not all that the historian does in writing an argument. They never just drop the name of a source in and assume the reader will be convinced. Rather, they analyze or explain how the evidence supports the paragraph’s claim.

Organize the supporting claims into logically flowing paragraphs: Historians organize or structure the claims, evidence, and reasons using paragraphs and transitions to logically take the reader to the conclusion. There are many ways to organize or structure the paragraphs. Some historians use categories (for example, political, economic, domestic, international) to structure the paragraphs. Others use importance (for example, the most significant, the underlying cause, the immediate cause) to structure their points. Some frame the argument from the most general supporting claim, to the most specific.

However, good arguments always have a structure that reveals the author’s reasoning for their position. They use each paragraph to build a strong foundation for their position or thesis. In a sense, the paragraphs are the bricks on which the thesis rests. The strongest thesis will collapse if the following paragraphs aren’t strong. Each paragraph should flow into the next and this is done through the effective use of transitions.

Considering other positions: Historians often consider other positions, explaining to the reader why those positions are not as credible. How do they do that? They might challenge a counterclaim by showing it isn’t true or they may criticize their own claim, and then show why the criticism isn’t significant.

To summarize, historians do three things in the body of their papers or books. They make their strongest supporting claims, name the evidence or facts that led them to make the claims, and then explain how the evidence connects to the claims. They organize their argument into paragraphs, and organize the paragraphs to make the most persuasive case. Finally, they acknowledge other positions or the limitations in their position, but then explain why these do not shift their major position or their thesis.

III. Closing the argument: The final thing the historian does is wraps up the argument by restating the position or thesis and suggests why it is significant or suggests implications. This is what the historian does in the conclusion to the argument.

The conclusion is not very long, certainly when compared to the body of the argument. What does the conclusion do? It should restate the position clearly and strongly. Many historians use the conclusion to essentially summarize, but some of the strongest historical writing does more in the conclusion. The historian often raises bigger issues that lead from their position, claims, and evidence. They might discuss implications for the position in other settings, or in the future, even draw some parallels to other historical situations in other times or places. Some offer speculations or conjectures that they would never offer in the body of their argument, as if demonstrating that they have earned the right to speculate or extend their argument into other areas.

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