Welcome back! After a long abeyance, I’m bringing back the ‘Academic Practice’ series of blogs for a couple of weeks so I can talk about a couple of things that have been on my mind. The recent discussions on Twitter about academic writing and academic process have me coming back to these ideas again and again, and I’ve used the opportunity to further develop a couple of ideas. in this post, I’ll be discussing what I call ‘The Humanities Process’- although I’m quite sure I’m not the first one to think of such a thing.
For some time now, since at least when I first joined this website (check out this podcast I did several years ago with Dr Katie Parker and Dr James Davey), I’ve talked about my ‘Five Steps of History’, and argued that they should be taught to undergrads. Every time the response has been, no, it’s better for grad students. After all, I’ve been told- there’s no point in teaching undergraduates too specifically how to do history because only a very small number of them will become professional historians. Right? Wrong. Students are taught about the scientific method when they are in elementary school- I now strongly believe that they should also be be taught an Arts/Humanities method as well- and probably a Social Sciences method as well (but… somebody else should figure out what that is).
I should say first- that I don’t believe that if one follows these steps, what they do is automatically “History”- I mean, I think these steps can be equally well applied to all of the Humanities. However, I think that if a person doesn’t follow these steps, then they’re missing critical parts of academic history. That said, I present my take on…
The Humanities Process
- Determine the state of the field
- Define your Topic/Question, methodology and theory
- Do research
- Analyze the results of your research
- Create your argument
- Communicate your argument
Now, let’s go further into detail.
Determining the State of the Field
To have value, historical writing must be situated within the existing literature. The basics of this, at least, students are- or should be taught in highschool. In grade 8, for example, I learned about primary, secondary and tertiary sources. This stage primarily consists of reading secondary sources, and achieving an understanding of the existing literature. This means both the books that directly related to your topic, and those that are topic adjacent. It is increasingly important that this include interdisciplinary reading as well.
We should be teaching students to write good literature reviews before they get to University. Not just a summary of what they’ve read, organized in chronological order, but for example also getting students to write two or three different literature reviews for the same group of books. It took me a while to realize that I didn’t have to talk about everything I’d read in the lit review, and that the purpose of the section isn’t to show that I’ve read everything, but more importantly to use the discussion of the literature to situate my work. I think that if we teach students different ways to write and structure literature reviews, we can also get them thinking about what they’ve read as a whole in a number of different ways. We should also teach students that it’s okay to approach a literature review as a subdivided thing, rather than a single chapter which must flow smoothly.
Define Topic/Question, Methodology and Theory
This is a subject I’ve been doing a lot more thinking on, especially recently, and the next blog in this series will be addressing the necessity for historians to always address theory and methodology in historical writing. As I mention in my Post-PhD Reflections blog (which I link to below), a research topic/question will almost certainly change over the period of any kind of study- especially an MA or a PhD. However, I do want to address this briefly here.
If we accept that historical writing necessarily involves an argument- then a framework must be created for creating that argument. For example, is the author looking for a threshold of evidence to be met? Are they going to be dividing the evidence into a number of categories which will be compared in order to find ‘the answer’? From that, they must then create a list of questions that will be asked of the sources. For that, students must engage with theory- what questions have been asked- do they necessarily fit the larger question? If not, how are the questions that have been asked going to be modified? We have to teach highschool students to engage with theory (more on that next time).
This is a difficult subject to do without getting into a huge minefield. In previous posts, I and Alan Anderson and others have gone over some of our tips about doing historical research. I think, however, the skills that need to be taught to highschool students are not what is a primary source, secondary source, tertiary source but rather 1) How do you find sources 2) How to read sources 3) How do you organize your research- especially when the internet, online archives mean so much more material is readily accessible 4) How do you deal with drowning in your sources when you start reading them?
Analyze the Results of Research
Here, it’s about rigour. The results of your research will be dictated as much by your determined methodology as by the sources. What we need to teach highschool students is that when evaluating their research, they need to be completely honest with themselves. Have they found the sources they need to successfully use their methodology? Having done the research, does the methodology still seem like something that was contribute to current understanding. We need to teach students that this is where they’ll find the shortcomings in their methodology, and that they’ll probably need to go back to the first step, to ask new questions of the existing literature, to work on their methodology and then to go back and ask more questions, perhaps different questions of the sources.
Create Your Argument
On the one hand, if the students have done the previous steps properly/rigorously, creating the argument should be relatively straight forward. The tricky part of this (at least in my experience) is giving your argument permission- giving it space- to exist. Since becoming a TA, I have told my students that I don’t care what they actually argue, as long as their process is |SOLID|. Sure, in the Humanities there’s a bunch of .. insecurity (perhaps?) because the metric, methodologies and everything will be created by the author (although, based on the existing literature, methodologies and theory). But I think if we more heavily emphasize the role of *process* in studying history (as opposed to facts, figures, names, dates etc)- if we give students permission to create space for their arguments- and emphasize evaluation of the process- then we can create improvement there.
Communicate Your Argument
Here, again, process. First, I think that we should stop teaching students about the candy-structure of the essay- (introduction which becomes more specific, a number of “body” paragraphs”, and then a conclusion that goes from specific to general). Just.. stop. It’s terrible. I think that we need to teach- from as early as possible- about what makes history writing different (or English Lit, or cultural history, or whatever). We need to teach students- as early as possible- about the different types of referencing- and why they contain the information they do. We need to teach them that good (academic) writing is clear writing. Things I’ll be talking about in the next blog include: we need to make discussing methodology and theory a part of *every* historical writing. We need to be teaching students to be doing this as early as possible. We need to teach students that authorial voice is not *bias*- it is a part of everything. And, again, clarity. We need to teach students to define their terms, and to talk about why they chose those terms.
I just can’t seem to move on from the key idea that process is the most important thing that students should be taught about history in high school (and in university, and in grad school). Since students are taught the “Scientific Method” in elementary school (which is at least when I was first taught about it) then they should *also* be taught a “Humanities Process”.
I very much welcome ideas, questions, criticisms, comments etc etc- and I look forward to interesting discussions.