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Co-sponsored by: HES Graduate Student Committee
contact person: Frank Honts
and the H-Education electronic network
contact person: Kristen Nawrotzki
Session organizer: Jack Dougherty
submitted February 12, 2010
¶ 4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 Historians value good writing. Compared to many of our colleagues in related academic fields, historians strive to craft words that wrap insightful analysis of the past inside a good story. All scholars construct new forms of knowledge, but historians tend to hold our profession to a high standard about the craft of writing about our discoveries. We prefer clear and persuasive prose over summarized data tables; we tend to favor accessible narratives over theoretically laden jargon. In contrast to the article-based publishing traditions in many social sciences, historians value long forms of writing: both the American Historical Association (AHA) and the Organization of American Historians (OAH) offer more prizes for books rather than articles.
¶ 5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 Yet despite the central place that writing holds 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 cherish the influential volumes that hold a special place on our bookshelves, historians rarely show anyone the writing 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. Even conference paper drafts of works-in-progress commonly bear a warning label: “Do not circulate or cite without permission of the author.”
¶ 6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 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 individual writing processes? How can we advance the overall quality of writing in the profession without requiring all of us to reinvent our own wheel? How can we raise our collective awareness of the critically important writing process that occurs years before the book award ceremony?
¶ 7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 Our HES session seeks to interrupt this norm of silence by drawing aside the curtain that traditionally shrouds our work, in order to show our writing processes in public. We have invited three presenters to openly share the inner-workings of their individual writing and to engage in reflective discussion with our audience of both novice and experienced authors. In addition to delivering a paper that richly describes how they do their work, each presenter will display selected images of their writing process using our portable digital projector. For example, one presenter may visually compare two paragraphs, before and after revisions. A second presenter may display a computer screenshot to illustrate their process of moving from research notes to written prose. A third may display excerpts from a peer reviewers’ comments on a book manuscript, and how the author responded. Overall, our session is much more than just a panel of people who sit around and “talk” about writing. Rather, each presenter will author a reflective paper and literally “show” illustrative samples of their writing process as historians.
¶ 8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 We have intentionally selected three presenters who embody a diversity of approaches to historical writing. While all are currently working on long monographs (dissertations or books), they have developed different processes, use different levels of computer technology, and will emphasize different aspects of the process in their presentations. For example, one of our presenters literally uses scissors to “cut and paste” paper drafts, while another composes text using research database software. Furthermore, one presenter will emphasize the “research-to-writing” stage by demonstrating how they define their research questions through exploratory writing, how they decide when data collection ends and writing begins, and what their process of historical analysis actually looks like when they sit down at their desks and start typing. By contrast, another presenter will emphasize the “writing-to-publishing” stage by demonstrating how the prose changed in response to the peer reviewer’s comments and broader book audience. All of the presenters will share their failures and successes as they developed their own personalized approach to becoming authors of educational history.
¶ 11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 My dissertation project covers eighty years, six primary sites, at least twice that many secondary sites, and numerous actors. For me, this large undertaking requires the use of tangible notecards that I can sort, color-code, and rearrange, a method that I have found invaluable for handling large amounts of research data, even when working on shorter papers. Yet there are also dangers inherent in the use of tools such as cut-out notecards: rich archival discoveries can be reduced to neat, subject-classified “facts,” examples can pile up until the argument they were supposed to illuminate is lost. In the first draft of my first dissertation chapter I followed my notecards faithfully, but also blindly. The resultant 120-page draft had too much information yet told no story. Subsequently I overcompensated for this mistake, but spent so much time outlining notes and arguments that the writing seemed dead once I turned to it. Tools like notecards, outlines, and detailed plans are essential for me, but discovering the measure in which to use them for successful writing is an ongoing challenge.
¶ 13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 Many historical projects begin with research questions that turn out not to be the ones that matter in the end, or to be different from the ones that are addressed by the final written product. Others proceed through periods in which the actual question to be answered feels unclear. Given the reality of meandering processes in both research and analysis, how can historians collect information in ways that makes exploring new questions and defining new research questions possible? And, how can the writing process itself help historians find their way toward refined, or totally new, research questions? This paper offers examples of and reflection on two strategies – the design and use of electronic databases for notetaking, and various approaches to freewriting and editing – that can help in researching and writing long projects.
¶ 15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 Working with a publisher can help to refine our writing by demanding us to think more clearly about our audience(s). For example, when I submitted the first draft of More Than One Struggle, it was an analytical history written for other historians. The publisher sent back a review that asked me to transform the book into a narrative, to retell the historical analysis by connecting stories about key activists from overlapping generations, to engage broader audiences. While it took me a few years to figure out how to rewrite the manuscript (I must have been absent on the day that they taught novel writing skills in my history graduate program), it was an essential stage in the process. This paper also will address writing challenges regarding the publication of my next book, On the Line: How Schooling, Housing, and Civil Rights Shaped Hartford and its Suburbs.
¶ 17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 Our session provides both a service to the HES membership and contributes to emerging scholarship. Leading historical journals have 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 titled “What We See and Can’t See in the Past.” Editor David Thelen published an article on the history of lynching submitted by Joel Williamson, followed by six reviewer’s reports. After receiving all of the reports, Thelen persuaded everyone to attach their names to the original documents, “to demystify our own practice.” In his introduction, Thelen justified this nonconventional approach, 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). The reviewers sharply disagreed on the strengths and weaknesses of the article, and 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. In fact, the name of our session loosely resembles the title of one of the most popular books being read by faculty across campuses today, Michele Lamont’s 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 (see also book review by educational historian Marybeth Gasman, 2010). Our session builds on this literature by seeking to uncover the assumptions about the qualities of historical writing that each of us brings to our individual work and shared community of scholarship.
¶ 18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0 This session was organized with the cooperation of the HES Graduate Student Committee, which has agreed to serve as a co-sponsor. Two of the presenters are currently advanced graduate students who are completing their dissertations; the moderator is also a former GSC chair. While the session is open to all HES members, we designed it to be particularly relevant for graduate students writing dissertations as well as recent doctoral graduates who are in the process of becoming first-time book authors. Both groups are engaging in the challenging process of crafting monographs of two-to-three-hundred pages, perhaps the longest texts they have ever written.
¶ 19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 0 Another co-sponsor is H-Education (http://www.h-net.org/~educ/), the electronic network of educational historians that is formally affiliated with both HES and H-Net. By cooperating with H-Education, the content of our session will be available at the HES meeting and on the Internet, enabling both conference participants and those who cannot attend a means of participating in this important dialogue about writing. Two weeks before the HES conference, the session organizer will post the presenters’ papers (and any web links or digital images) on a website titled “How Historians Research, Write, and Publish,” which allows readers to post their own comments and questions. H-Education will email an announcement about the website and upcoming HES session to its 1000+ subscribers across the globe, encouraging them to read the content, submit postings, and/or bring ideas to contribute at the session. At the HES meeting, we have portable technology to share the website (and reader contributions) during the session. H-Education will create a permanent link to the website, which will serve as a valuable resource on historical writing. Most important, sharing how historians think about writing in a dual format — on-line postings and live conference discussion — will make the writing process more public in our profession, and give all of us an opportunity to learn while reading and writing reflections. Our session builds upon a popular H-Education Guest Discussion feature in 2006 on “Book Publishing for Historians of Education,” which is available via this stable weblink: (http://www.h-net.org/~educ/H-Education-publishing-discussion.htm).
¶ 20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 0 As contributors to this proposed session, we came together with the common goal of opening up some structured, meaningful conversations about how we do our writing, our most important work as historians. We believe that HES offers the ideal forum for this much-needed opportunity to examine a process of historians’ work that remains mysterious, confusing, and opaque to most of us. Judging from our informal conversations about the topic with several other HES members at last year’s session, we anticipate that this will be a well-attended and engaging session for November 2010.
¶ 21 Leave a comment on paragraph 21 0 Note to Program Chair: If this session is accepted, we request that it be clearly listed in the program as “open to all” (not just graduate students). In addition, we also request that it be scheduled during a timeslot that would not conflict with sessions intended for graduate students, or when Graduate Student Committee members are presenting, or during the business meeting (to avoid the conflict that occurred at the HES 2009 meeting).
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Gasman, M. (2010). The ‘Truthiness’ of Academic Meritocracy. Academe, 96(1), 46-47. http://www.aaup.org/AAUP/pubsres/academe/2010/JF/br/br1.htm
¶ 24 Leave a comment on paragraph 24 0 Thelen, D. (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