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Understanding Your History Professor (A Guide for the Perplexed)
All disciplines--History, Chemistry, Political Science, and the like--have their quirks and special rules. Here's a short guide to what makes History tick.
1. KEY CONCEPTS AND WORDS.
- History? History is both less and more than “the past.” It is less because we, of course, can never fully grasp what has already passed. It is more because history is about both collecting information about the past ("facts") and understanding that information ("interpretation"). “God cannot change history, but historians can.” This is my all-time favorite quote about history. It plays with the idea that no one (even God!) can undo what happened, but historians can retell it in many different ways.
- Facts? Every discipline has its core information, its equivalent of the Periodic Table of Elements. In history, “facts” are the foundation of the discipline. As a rule, historians treat “facts” as “truths.” It is a true fact that St Augustine of Hippo died in 430 CE.
- Interpretation? Every discipline has its thinking side, too—the side in which scholars speculate about what’s known and not known. In history, we call this speculation “interpretation,” and it usually focuses on the core questions of cause and effect. Why did something happen? What was its effect? These two questions drive most history-writing. Historical interpretation is not bias or mere opinion. It must match the known facts; it must be logical; it must correspond with our understandings of human behaviors. So, for example, although there can be many legitimate interpretations about why the attacks of 9/11 occurred, there are other interpretations--that the attackers were invaders from Mars, or that no one actually died that day--which historians would reject as non-factual or illogical. When you write history essays, beware of stumbling in this regard: your interpretation must be factually based and logical.
- Primary source? A primary source is a first-hand account from the past—for example, a sermon written c. 600 or a recipe book from c. 1400. Primary sources are usually stored in archives or libraries, but others are edited, translated and printed so that students can read them. For an example of the differences, go here. For some online primary sources, look here.
- Secondary source? A secondary source is a second-hand account about the past, usually written by a historian—for example, an article written today about a sermon written c. 600.
- Historiography? This is a scary word with a simple meaning: historiography is “the study of history-writing.” In a big sense, historiography is the study of how humans have written history ever since Herodotus c. 460 BCE systematically collected facts and crafted a history of the Persian-Greek wars (he is considered to be the “first” historian in West). In a more modest and more usual sense, historiography is the written “conversation” that historians have had and are having about any given subject. So, for example, there is a vast historiography on the “fall of the Roman Empire”—many historians with their many interpretations. You can read more about this particular historiography on pages 23-25 of Medieval Europe.
- Archive? Archives are like libraries, except that they specialize in the storage and preservation of primary sources. Many historians do their scholarly research in archives; others work in great libraries or rely on primary sources in print. For my field (medieval English history), the most important archives are The National Archives and the British Library, but there are hundreds of other relevant archives; you can peruse them here. The medieval Valentine you can see here is kept in the British Library.
2. PAPERS. WHAT COUNTS AS GOOD, RELIABLE EVIDENCE IN HISTORY PAPERS?
- What counts as scholarly? Historians publish their findings to two main ways—in articles (published in journals or edited books) and in freestanding books, also called monographs. So, for example, when I researched the history of ale, beer, and brewing in England, I first published my research in articles, such as "The Village Ale-Wife: Women and Brewing in Fourteenth-Century England" (1986) and eventually in a monograph, Ale, Beer, and Brewsters in England: Women's Work in a Changing World, 1300 to 1600 (1996).
- Article? An article is a published essay, found either in a journal or in a book-length collection of essays. “Scholarly article” is another term, used to distinguish academic articles from, say, articles in People magazine. Here’s an example of a citation to an article in an edited collection: Judith M. Bennett, "Ventriloquisms: When Maidens Speak in English Songs, c. 1300-1550," in Cross Cultural Approaches to Medieval Woman's Song, ed. Anne Klinck and Anne Marie Rasmussen (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001), 187-204.
- Monograph? A scholarly book. Here’s an example of a citation: Judith M. Bennett, Women in the Medieval English Countryside: Gender and Household in Brigstock before the Plague (Oxford University Press, 1987).
- Journal? You might think a journal is a diary . . . which it is. But in academia, “journal” also describes an academic publication that is published two, three, four times a year and usually contains articles and book reviews. It is a physical thing, with a cover and pages . . . rather like a book. (There are now a few e-journals, but most are still hardcopy.) Most journals are published in volumes (one per year), with several issues in each volume. A citation to a journal article looks like this: Judith M. Bennett, “Compulsory Service in Late Medieval England,” Past and Present 209 (2010), 7-51. Here are some of the best journals in medieval history.
- Periodical? Journals are also called “periodicals” or “periodical publications” because they come out periodically.
- Book review? A book review is just what is says: it’s a review of a newly published book.
- JStor? JStor is one of many electronic sites that stores past issues of journals. Although there are many such sites, JStor is a favorite of medievalists. Jstor is limited to subscribers, so you usually have to access it through your campus library. It is a great time-saver. If a journal’s back issues have been collected in JStor (or something similar), you do not need to go to the library and pull the hardcopy off the shelf; you can find the issue (and the articles therein) online. There’s one hitch, though: moving walls. A moving wall blocks access to recent issues of a journal, which means that JStor contains only old articles, not the most recent ones. Why? This forces libraries to pay twice—once for the hardcopy issue of the journal, and then again, for electronic access through JStor or some other collection. Most moving walls are five years in length: a five-year moving wall means that you cannot access online an article published in, for example, the premier medieval journal Speculum until five years after it has appeared in print.
- Bibliographies? You know about bibliographies because you have to append them to your papers: it’s a list of sources used. But there’s another meaning for the term: a bibliography is a massive index of publications that you can search by author, title, subject, and other categories. When you are looking for information on a specific topic, bibliographies are what you need. You can find the main online medieval bibliographies here. These bibliographies leave lazier search options--Google, Jstor, and your library catalog--in the dust. Savvy history students might dabble with Google, Jstor, and library catalogs, but they spend most of their time with specialist bibliographies.
- Textbooks? Articles and monographs count as top-notch scholarship, but textbooks are also useful resources for History students. Textbooks are not the product of archival research; instead, they summarize the scholarship found in articles and monographs. A good textbook wrestles the jumble of scholarly knowledge into a coherent and straightforward narrative. History is messy; textbooks make sense of the messiness—that’s what Medieval Europe aims to do. In the hierarchy of primary sources and secondary sources, textbooks constitute a sort of tertiary source. They are useful and authoritative, but they do not produce new knowledge. Click here for advice on how to read our textbook smarter and faster.
- Encyclopedias? Encyclopedias—both in print and online—also summarize research, but they are organized by topic and provide no overall story. Usually, each entry is written by an individual scholar who is expert in the topic. Like textbooks, encyclopedias rank below primary and secondary sources; they are best for facts, not interpretation. For a list of some of the main encyclopedias for medievalists, look here.
- Wikipedia? Wikipedia is alluring . . . and dangerous. Yes, yes, you are going to use it (who can resist?), but use it carefully, and never, never treat it as an authoritative source; if you find interesting information on Wikipedia, verify it elsewhere before you use it. Why? Wikipedia lets anyone be an authority—and be an anonymous authority, at that! If an eighth-grade history student adds some drivel to the Wikipedia entry on, say, the Magna Carta, it will sit on Wikipedia until someone else fixes it (if ever). Conversely, if a scholar who has spent his life working on the architecture of the cathedral at Chartres adds information to Wikipedia, it can be deleted or amended within hours by an ill-informed tourist. This happens all the time, and as a result, Wikipedia contains a lot of wrong or misleading information. I guarantee you: Wikipedia will lead you astray. Rigorously edited encyclopedias are a better bet: their entries are produced by expert scholars, who are confident enough about what they say to put their names on it. Think about it. If you want to know about medieval beer-brewing, would you rather rely on the fond musings of various unidentified beer fans on Wikipedia or on my own authoritative comments under “Brewing” in Medieval England: An Encyclopedia, edited by Joel Rosenthal (1998), p. 144? I profoundly hope you would chose the latter. In any case, here's one very good piece of advice: never make the mistake of citing Wikipedia as an authoritative source in a History paper. Authoritative it is not.
- Reference Librarians. Found in every college library, reference librarians are the nicest people on campus. Their job is to help you, and they love to do it. Don’t disappoint them. Ask them questions!