Teaching the Historians Craft

Every semester I teach a midlevel course called The Historians Craft. This course is requirement for all of our history majors and introduces students to the intellectual history of the discipline, basic research skills, some reading and writing techniques, and the historical method. In other words, the course covers a good bit of ground and students, predictably, complain that I try to do too much in too little time.

The focus of their complaints tends to be dreaded prospectus assignment. I divide the class into two parts. The first seven weeks are a narrative history of the discipline accompanied by a series of primary source readings. The second half of the class takes the students through the process of writing a proposal or prospectus for a research project. In theory, this prospectus will become the basis for their capstone research project. In practice, this rarely happened. In most cases, the research proposals are superficial, flawed, or just plain bad.

The greatest problem with the prospectus assignment is that students struggled to identify a way to make a contribution to the historical debate. As much as I emphasize that most research offers just a modest or nuanced take on long standing conversations in the discipline and a revolutionary approach to a topic in the past is unnecessary, students still look to hit the home run and get frustrated when they strike out (instead of going for the single or even the bunt to advance a runner). Part of the issue is, of course, that students have not read much historical scholarship so struggle to identify opportunities to offer nuance. Despite the uneven quality of the proposals produced by this class, there has been a slight improvement in the quality of capstone papers. 

Writing a prospectus on new research in 5 or 6 weeks (at the end of a semester!) is an intense project for students not familiar with independent or sustained research, and they struggle to complete the necessary research and to articulate a plausible research project. I have tried to make the intensity of the course part of its appeal, and compare the frantic research over the second half of the semester to Chip Kelly’s famous uptempo practices. Student buy-in has been modest at best.

From the short term perspective, the students have not enjoyed the class and the results of their work have been disappointing. In the longer term, the class has improved the students’ performance in the capstone course. As a result of this, we have decided to add another required course between the capstone and The Historians Craft that will reinforce the skills introduced in the lower level class. Run like an undergraduate seminar, this midlevel course will focus on a particular historical topic and take the 15 students through the process of writing a research paper. While the Historians Craft class focuses almost exclusively on processes and methods, this new course will balance content and process. 

One result of this new course is that we will be able to parse more finely the process of doing historical research. I decided – begrudgingly – to pull back from my prospectus assignment and instead focus a bit more on reading and understanding the debates taking place secondary sources. The first half of the class will remain unchanged and focus on the history of the discipline. (As an aside, I’m seriously considering preparing podcasts for my 12 lecture on the origins of the discipline of history). The second half of the class, which runs about 6 weeks, will undergo some significant modification. Right now, I have five steps in my revised second half of the class.

1. Primary Source Report. This report describes a primary source from either Special Collection at the University of North Dakota Library or a published collection. The goal of this report is to address basic questions of authorship, purpose, genre, and utility. To paraphrase the great R.G. Collingwood, a primary source is only a source if it’s a source for something. The something in this case is a historical argument.

2. Bibliography Building. The students will build a basic bibliography based on their primary source document. This will introduce students to library research on a particular topic and to basic bibliography formats. The bibliography will include articles and monographs.

3. Article Reviews. The students will write two short papers that review articles. One will be a common article ready by the entire class and the other will be an article that somehow relates to the primary source document. Each paper will require the student to identify the thesis of an article, to determine the primary source evidence that supports this thesis, and to recognize the historical debate to which the article contributes.

4. Book Review. Article reviews set the stage for preparing a book review which will be an extended version of article review. Like the article review, the students will select an academic monograph that relates to the primary source that they evaluated in the first assignment of the class. In the review, the students will have to address the same issues as the article review in a longer, more developed and critical paper. The book review will make an argument whether the book succeeds or fails in making a compelling argument. 

5. Position Paper. The final assignment of the semester will ask the students to bring together their primary source(s) and secondary literature. The goal of the paper is to bring together the article reviews and books reviews into a cohesive evaluation of a single piece of historical evidence. The position paper will not ask a student to articulate a new position in relation to the historical conversation or the primary source evidence, but will ask the student to critically evaluate existing positions.  

The revised version of the Historians Craft will go live this fall, so stay tuned for some updates on the success or failure of my adjustments!

One Comment

  1. I would look forward to that podcast. We had no such course when I took undergrad history and had to pick it up in bits and pieces and by individual reading in an unorganized fashion. The great debate then was about Toynbee.


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