Historians value good writing. All scholars construct new forms of knowledge, but we tend to hold our profession to a very high standard when writing about our discoveries. We prefer clear and persuasive prose over data tables or abstract jargon. We favor book-length monographs over the article-based publishing traditions of the social sciences. And most of all, we appreciate the importance of narrative, the ability to wrap meaningful insights about the past into a good story.
Despite the central role that writing plays within our profession, its practice remains mostly hidden from public view. By and large, historians do our work — the acts of researching, writing, and publishing — alone, rather than in collaboration with others. While we prize the influential books that hold a special place on our bookshelves and in our minds, historians rarely reveal the underlying processes that led to these finished products. Writing is our shared craft, the glue that unites our profession, but we tend to be private about it. “Do not circulate or cite without permission of the author” is an all-too-familiar warning label appearing on drafts of papers delivered at our conferences.
Given this state of secrecy, how do we expect historians-in-training to learn our craft? How do we expect them to develop their skills as writers, particularly of dissertations and books, without openly sharing and comparing our writing processes? How can we advance the overall quality of writing in the profession without asking all of us to reinvent our own wheels?
Collectively, the ideas presented here seek to interrupt this norm of silence within our profession, pull back the curtain, and make our individual work processes more public. To help achieve this goal, we placed our first-person essays on this interactive website, which makes readers’ comments and questions about writing history visible to all. (Read more about “how to comment” and “how it works.”) In fact, after realizing that technological change appeared as a theme in all of our essays, we decided to append “in the Digital Era” to our subtitle. Computers will not make us better writers, but they are powerful tools to share texts and help us learn how to improve our writing.
None of us claims to be an expert on writing, but we all recognize that learning cannot happen in vacuum. While we prepared these essays and open questions for a conference panel at the 2010 meeting of the History of Education Society, we hope that this public website will broaden the discussion beyond our sub-field, and we welcome contributions from all who identify with the topic of historical writing. We encourage you to share your comments and/or submit your own essay during this one-month online discussion period (Oct 11th-Nov 11th, 2010). If this interactive website generates meaningful discussion, we may republish the content in a different form (or format) in the near future.
Inspiration for this collaborative project came from several sources. In the historical profession, leading journals have occasionally recognized the need to shed light into the writing — and reviewing — process. Arguably the most widely discussed issue of the Journal of American History in recent years was a controversial roundtable issue, “What We See and Can’t See in the Past.” Editor David Thelen received an essay submitted by Joel Williamson on the history of lynching, which he sent out to six peer reviewers for blind review. After receiving all of the reports, Thelen persuaded all to attach their names to their writings “to demystify our own practice.” The reviewers sharply disagreed on the strengths and weaknesses of the article and its perspective on race and historical understanding. The resulting discussion (including the numerous letters the JAH published in its subsequent issue) opened up the process of how historians research, write, and publish. Thelen justified the journal’s nonconventional approach on this topic, arguing that, “we live in an age when historians are as interested in the doing of history as in the products of that doing.” (Thelen 1997, p. 1217).
For similar reasons, we were also intrigued by sociologist Michele Lamont’s recent book, How Professors Think: Inside the Curious World of Academic Judgment (2009). A qualitative researcher, Lamont takes us inside the hidden world of prestigious fellowship competitions to reveal the decision-making processes of peer reviewers. Her study sheds light on the multiple meanings of concepts such as “excellence” and “diversity” among scholars, and the difficulties we face in attempting to converse both within and across disciplinary fields. Our essays seek to contribute to this literature by unveiling the individual understandings of “good” historical writing that we each bring into our shared scholarly communities.
This innovation in public scholarly communication is co-sponsored by the History of Education Society Graduate Student Committee and the H-Education electronic network, and we appreciate their support in making the writing process more public.
On behalf of the organizers,
Jack Dougherty, Ansley Erickson, Frank Honts, Sarah Manekin, Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, Michelle Purdy, and Kristen Nawrotzki
Lamont, Michele. 2009. How Professors Think: inside the curious world of academic judgment. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
Thelen, David. 1997. What We See and Can’t See in the Past: An Introduction. The Journal of American History, 83(4), 1217-1220, http://www.jstor.org/stable/2952898
How to cite this website:
A sample citation appears at the bottom of each essay and open-response section on this website. All essays (and reader comments) can be referenced by a permalink, a permanent URL web address, which should be included in a scholarly citation.
Why we use Creative Commons licensing:
To encourage open circulation of our scholarly writing, our content is shared under a Creative Commons license, a non-exclusive agreement that allows anyone to copy, adapt, and distribute it under the same terms for non-commercial purposes, with the original source appropriately cited. As authors and educators, Creative Commons protects our works while making them more publicly accessible than conventional copyright agreements.
How to cite this page:
Jack Dougherty et al., “Introduction,” Writing History: How Historians Research, Write, and Publish in the Digital Age, October 6, 2010, http://writinghistory2010.trinfocafe.org/2010/10/06/intro/.
This web page from Writing History: How Historians Research, Write, and Publish in the Digital Age is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 License. You may freely distribute this work under the same terms for non-commercial purposes, but you must include a citation similar to the one above.