The study of history and writing are inseparable. As a form of knowledge based on the interpretation of fragmentary records that survive from the past, all historians use the written word to posit an argument and defend it with evidence. Because historical sources reveal only part of the whole story, no single historical work can ever be fully comprehensive or definitive. As a result historians continually debate the varying interpretations that emerge between different schools of thought. Ultimately, the quality of historical writing is determined by the successful collection, organization, and presentation of evidence in support of a coherent and convincing thesis.
At its core, historical writing depends on judgment: the thoughtful selection of good research questions and the identification and interpretation of historical sources. Historians use two types of evidence: primary and secondary sources. Primary sources are documents or other records created at the time of the events under analysis; they come directly from the participants themselves. Secondary sources are the findings of writers who were not direct participants in a historical episode but those who have subsequently investigated primary evidence of it. Works of scholarship are the most common secondary sources students of history will encounter. In certain situations, a secondary source can become a primary one.
Sources, whether primary or secondary, do not answer historical questions themselves. Students of history must sift with a critical eye through the information provided in their sources and then rely on their own judgment to construct a historical argument grounded in evidence. In order to determine the reliability of their sources, historians read documents closely and place them in historical context. They ask critical questions to determine who wrote the document, when and where it was created, and for what purpose. The capacity to determine what matters—to think critically about what evidence to include and what to exclude and how to frame one’s analysis—is one of the core skills students of history acquire through writing.
Writing in history takes many forms. Some history papers are organized as narratives that tell stories of people and events in the past; others are more analytical and organized as an essay. Most historical writing incorporates both narrative and analysis. Some papers deal with historiography, that is, how different historians or schools of thought have approached the history of a particular subject. Other papers deal directly with history, analyzing not simply what happened but why and how it happened. Whatever the format, history students must begin with a thesis statement and the evidence bolstering their argument must always be divulged using a responsible and consistent citation style.
In contrast to some fields of study, history as a discipline has no standard content or proscribed sequence of courses. Within the History Department curriculum, different course levels require different amounts of research, analysis, and interpretation but we do not mandate a rigid progression from one level to the next. Depending upon the course, undergraduate students of history are typically asked to write many kinds of history papers, including document analyses, book reviews, response papers, bibliographic surveys, historiographical essays, research or exhibit proposals, or research papers. They might also be asked to develop a digital history project, which would involve writing text to accompany any digital maps or images.
As they move through the SFS Core Curriculum and meet the requirements towards their major, IHIS students thus repeatedly encounter and practice various forms of historical writing. All SFS students, including IHIS majors, take history courses as part of the Core Curriculum. These courses (which are numbered within the HIST 007-199 range) introduce students to writing in the discipline of history through the careful reading and discussion of primary sources and writing assignments that require engagement with the past based on evidence-based analysis and interpretation. In HIST courses in the 100-299 range, students continue to work on primary sources, but they will more frequently encounter differing interpretations of modern scholars. They will become more fully cognizant of the wide variety of sources available for historical analysis, and they will experiment with different types of written assignments that further hone their ability to select and interpret reliable evidence, to contextualize that evidence, and to build and support analytical arguments in written form.
IHIS majors complete a total of ten courses, the majority of which are taught by historians. All IHIS majors are required to take HIST 305, Global Perspectives on International History, which is a reading and writing-intensive colloquium that intensively highlights reading and analytical skills that are key to the study of history in general and the subfields of international, comparative, and global history in particular. Students are asked in various writing assignments to sort, arrange, and interpret what they read in ways to better make sense of the evidence. They must weigh the validity of the arguments of other scholars, assess the soundness of historical judgments and practice critical thinking. At least one of the assigned papers has typically allowed students to develop a research question, identify appropriate evidence, and outline a coherent and convincing thesis supported by evidence drawn from primary and secondary sources.
All IHIS majors take at least two courses numbered HIST 300+ but most take more than that. These discussion-based seminars require more substantial reading (in both primary and secondary sources) and more complex and substantial writing assignments, including those that require historical research and extensive use of the library. Many IHIS majors go on to complete the year-long Senior Honors Seminar, in which they research and write a significant and original historical thesis under the mentorship of the Seminar director and individual faculty members. In the Honors Seminar, students routinely review and comment on each other’s drafts. This feedback, combined with that provided by faculty, allows students to continually develop and revise their writing across the academic year.