U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Historians Need to Learn How to Write

The Historical Society blog posted selections from a roundtable in the January edition of Historically Speaking on “Teaching the Writing of History.” In the lead article, Stephen J. Pyne questions why we are variously trained in a multitude of methodologies we consider legitimate–“statistics, geographic information systems, languages, oral history techniques, paleography,” to name but a few–yet not in how to write a book. The forum includes responses from Michael Kammen, Jill Lepore, and John Demos.

The following passage from Demos relates to our discussion below on Louis Menand and popular history:

“Time was when writers of history held a solid stake within the larger domain of serious literature: Gibbon, Macaulay, Parkman, Prescott are the first, most obvious, names to come to mind. No doubt the change, the downgrading, has had much to do with professionalization; as the discipline became, in fact, a discipline, priorities shifted. Perhaps there was something of a seesaw effect: when concern with research and interpretive technique went up, prose composition went correspondingly down.”

How would a graduate program that took the teaching of writing seriously look different? What are solid pedagogies for teaching the writing of history?

5 Thoughts on this Post

  1. mmmm…i guess i don’t immediately accept the premise that historians write less well than those in other disciplines. sociology? political science? even, to sharpen the point, english and other literarily-oriented departments? is there any evidence that this is the case? i would rather have supposed that many (not all) historians spend a great deal more time than those in most other departments thinking about how best to construct a narrative.

    perhaps this point was made in the roundtable?

  2. Historians do need to learn how to write. But they’re scarcely alone. The ability to write well precedes the ability to write history well. Gibbon, Macaulay, et al. were not only great historians, but great writers. As Pyne notes, the discipline does not emphasize writing in its pedagogy. Consequently, what is emphasized may actually inhibit literary accomplishment. Perhaps we ought to ask whether, when one thinks what makes a “great historian,” being a great writer is one of the qualities.

    I’m not sure there is much positive that can be done by the time professional training starts. There are some negative things, e.g., not using jargon and theory babble. The positive stuff, though, you either have by the time you become a historian or you don’t. That means doing lots of reading and writing before one becomes a historian. It means being a writer first, and a historian second. (In terms of development, not obligation.) And if literary talent, like any good, is finite, then we can’t expect more than a few historians to be really great (or even good) writers. Since of the whole set constituted by great (and merely good) writers, very few will become historians, the rest becoming something else.

    I admit my cynicism in saying this, but I think a more realistic goal is to get historians to write less poorly. Simply getting them to stop dropping phrases like “a class of heterogeneous signifieds located in a diacritical force field” would be an improvement. First, do no harm. Gibbon sets an impossibly lofty standard for anyone to emulate. But one doesn’t need to be Gibbon to write history well. Clear, direct, expressive prose would suffice.

    So to Andrew’s question about what a program that took the teaching writing seriously would be like, I would answer that it would be one that insisted on the identity of good writing with good history. Good history is well-written history. (This standard is one we all tacitly accept. If we listed our favorite works of history, how many of them would we say were poorly written? None, of course, and likely many, if not all, are favorites because of how much we enjoyed reading them.) If there is something worth saying, it is worth saying well. That should be the first lesson. As things stand, it strikes me as a rather radical one.

  3. I agree entirely that historians are, on the whole, far from the worst offenders to the written word. I read many social science texts in my research, and think the majority of the writing is awful, worse than most of what I come across in historical monographs. So good point on that Eric.

    Varad, I would disagree that someone has to be a writer first, historian second. If good history is well-written history, then the teaching of history should also be the teaching of writing. I think learning how to write well is an almost impossible thing, but it can be achieved while also learning history, or the discipline of history.

  4. I actually think that one of the things that distinguishes academic historians from other humanists and social scientists in the contemporary U.S. academy is a concern for writing. In her study of interdisciplinary fellowship panels, How Professors Think, the sociologist Michèle Lamont suggests that, unlike their fellow humanists and social scientists in other disciplines, we historians’ professional identity is built around a sense of our discipline as a craft. Writing is an important part of that craft.

    Indeed, complaining about how poorly we historians write has taken on an almost ritualistic quality in the discipline. I’ve certainly heard the same charge–and its (IMO somewhat questionable) connection to our having lost a the once vast popular audience (which we are somewhat questionably said to have had in the past)–for two decades. Once, the story goes, historians could write….and these historians reached a vast public. But out of a debased desire to conform to one or another academic fad, we’ve stopped writing well and have become alienated from the public, thus depriving us of our audience and civil discourse of our great wisdom. And I don’t think that this story was at all new when I first heard it in graduate school in the 1980s. Indeed, the ritual telling of this story is part of how we establish our sense of craft.

    (To be just a little churlish, the Historical Society, an organization founded on a desire to beat ourselves up over the supposed state of our discipline, seems a particularly apt church in which to conduct this liturgy.)

  5. When grad students are recruited by the History Department at UCIrvine, there’s often mention of the departmental emphasis on writing. UCI has one of the nation’s best MFA writing programs and nearly evey year there’s a workshop that offers opportunities for History students to learn writing alongside MFA students. Additionally, the UCI Center for Writing & Translation offers a generous multi-year fellowship for graduate students who are incorporating ‘literary’ elements into their dissertation work. The Histry Dept also benefits from collaborations with faculty who teach in the Literary Journalism undergrad major.

    My podcast (www.makinghistorypodcast.com) focuses on the writerly aspects of history making. Most of my interviewees teach writing-focused classes to grad students, which leads me to think that many departments are stressing good writing.

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