Saturday, January 3, 2015

History Relevancy Campaign: Part 3 (Our Selves Continued)

Note: This is part 3 in an 8 part series on the History Relevancy Campaign, based on an article titled "The Value of History: Seven Ways It is Relevant" from Public History News Vol. 35, No. 1.

Note: Any quotes designated by an asterisk (*) come from that article.

Special thanks to the NCPH as inspiration for this series.

From the campaign's call to action: We believe that history --- both knowledge of the past and the practice of researching and making sense of what happened in the past --- is critically important to the wellbeing of individuals, communities, and the future of our nation.*

Our Selves- 2. Critical Skills- History teaches critical 21st century skills and independent thinking.*

Few skills are as valuable as communication and project management. Successful historical study requires the development of both. This entry will look at several components of historical scholarship and how these components are important to success in other fields. Good historical scholarship requires time management, critical assessment, abstract thought, good writing, and professionalism.

Time Management

Good history scholarship is a process that is time consuming. Knowing how to create and keep realistic deadlines, goals, and assessment is crucial to developing as a historian. Traditionally, in college, this development starts with short (1-2 page) papers, progresses to article length assessments (5-10 pages), and finally to term papers (15-25 pages). By the time many students complete a BA in history, they will have progressed to writing original work in the 20-30 page range. Such an undertaking is impossible to write in the "gauntlet" overnight mode most students begin their collegiate careers with. This writing requires substantial research, revision, and reflection. Students learn to complete these assignments while other classes, jobs, and social functions compete for their time. Without being able to manage a research schedule, students would not have the capacity for completing all these tasks.

The time management skills developed in history coursework are invaluable to businesses and organizations outside of academia. Office workers in particular must balance several projects at the same time, while completing tasks with thoroughness, quality, and timeliness.

Advanced coursework pushes these skills to another level while learning new methods of communicating. Creating posters, giving presentations, writing articles, and finishing term papers all become modes of sharing academic work. Students then begin creating chapters of major research in the form of a dissertation (100-200 pages) for an MA and dissertations (200+ pages) for a PhD. At each of these junctures, faculty review the scholarship students produce, adding yet another set of time challenges based not only on a student's schedule, but on other professionals and their deadlines. At this point, scholars move into the world of scheduling based on outside deadlines (from publishers, organizations, and institutions). Without having developed self discipline for the use of time, historians cannot successfully navigate this higher level of scholarship.

Numerous books about time management in scholarship exist, but I am fond of The Clockwork Muse: A Practical Guide to Writing Theses, Dissertations, and Books (1999) by Eviatar Zerubave; The Craft of Research (2008) by Booth, Colomb, and Williams; and A Manual for Writers: Theses, and Dissertations, Eighth Edition: Chicago Style for Students and Researchers (2013) by Kate Turabian. Many remember Turabian as a style guide, which is true, but the research process presented in the 8th edition is incredibly valuable for setting up research.

Critical Assessment

Historians (especially those in training) develop critical assessment skills related to vetting the sources they choose to use. When we are young, any book or website in print that we can cite is considered useful evidence. As students develop, they begin to move towards using "scholarly sources" in the form of refereed articles and monographs from scholarly publishers. This reliance on "farming out" review slowly gives way to independent assessment of this sources, methods, and theoretical framework in articles and books. Eventually this review extends to vetting primary sources for biases, flaws, and errors. The interaction of this vetting, along with reviewing relevant secondary sources becomes the basis of scholarly interaction.

Being able to assess materials critically matters in almost any form of business. Contractors vet materials and tools; financial workers evaluate products, business plans, and systems; even restaurant workers review recipes and pricing data. Each of these systems follows a similar pattern of development. They begin with all available data, move to "authoritative" sources, and finally independently examine materials as workers develop experience.

Abstract Thought

Well written research involves proposing new ideas. Scholars hinge their work on reevaluating evidence from different perspectives. Historical sources do not "speak for themselves" in the way that physical sciences do. Instead, historians continually add to scholarship by drawing together sources in new ways. Rather than the name-date-event memorization of old, history today uses documents and other sources to explain complex relationships between people, groups, events, and even the environment around us. A critical element of this abstraction though is thought. Historians use sources as evidence to build logical arguments about why and how systems interact. It is not sufficient to merely have a distinct idea about something, but instead, scholars must prove that their ideas either fit into previous scholarship, or why existing scholarship fails to address completely a topic.

Again, other professions highly value the ability to "think outside the box." Creative thought leads to the development of new products, methods, and procedures for meeting a business' needs. Just as in scholarly works, individuals must be able not only to develop new ideas, but also to show their efficacy.

One helpful text for understanding abstract thought is Andrea Lunsford and John Ruszkiewicz' Everything's an Argument (2007).

Good Writing

Writing is the primary form for academic communication. Good writing though separates boring prose from scholarship with impact. A key feature of good writing is an understanding and adaptation based on audience. Many academic historians may grumble about "popular" histories, but academics would be hard pressed to generate as much interest with dry monographs. Dense academic writing works well when interacting with other knowledgeable scholars, but loses its value if not crafted with care. 

The same holds true for other writing. While technical manuals, reference tomes, and textbooks provide lots of information, few will pick them up unless they have to. Individuals make significant amounts of money simplifying these texts and turning them into users guides. The most successful forms of instruction involve making connections between lived experiences and the processes being taught. Only through effective communication does this occur.

Like so many other things, there are thousands of books on writing well. William Kelleher Storey's Writing History: A Guide for Students (1996) is a great primer for historical writing, but perhaps the best writing guide of all time is The Elements of Style (4th ed, 2000) by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White. Anyone wishing to improve their writing should pick up a copy of this book (it is so popular in fact that you can snag a nice copy on Amazon for less than $5).


This component of historical scholarship is not taught per-se, but rather developed over time. As students develop their writing and analytic skills, a recognition of ethical behavior becomes apparent. Without scruples, the entire basis for scholarly work disintegrates. Only by operating in good faith can individuals hope to participate within academia. Citations, peer review, and standards all help in this process, but in the end, researchers individually must take responsibility for the work they produce. (Note: This section will be expanded upon further when we cover History Ethics at a later date, along with professional organizations).

Professionalism within the outside world is just as important. Businesses live and die based upon their reputations. Employees with a good work ethic succeed and become highly valued members of their companies. Those who lack scruples and cut corners do not succeed for long. Employers who bring in well educated students of history can anticipate workers that are capable, accountable, and focused.

These skills are essential to historians and professionals worldwide. While there are alternative ways to develop them, historical education provides a strong foundation for students. This foundation is perhaps one of the best selling points for the value of teaching students the skills associated with historical scholarship.

I appreciate any comments or suggestions you may have for this or any other post on A Historian Finding His Way. Thank you for your time.

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