Reading for History Essays #1

One of the most common questions students ask their tutors is: how much should I read for this assignment? Inevitably, there is no satisfactory answer. It depends on how broad the topic is, how in-depth you’re asked to go and plenty else besides. As a headline figure I tend to recommend 8-12 texts is about the right amount for a History essay. But that’s a rough guideline. To make sure you’re reading what you need for your essay you need to make sure you’ve covered your bases – this is less about how much and more about what to read. This is the first building block of writing a university essay, yet explicitly discussing the different types of readings out there very much depends being lucky enough to get a good tutor. So let’s put that right!

There are four key kinds of texts you’ll be asked to read during a History degree. Making sure you’ve read the right things when preparing an essay is bound to be hit-and-miss unless you know which of these to seek out. And those four are:

  • Textbooks and general histories. While common at school and at university in most subjects, there are actually rather few textbooks for History students in British universities. What you find more often are general histories, introducing readers to a broad brush stroke account of an historical topic or theme. Some of the first readings History students will be set are chapters from Eric Hobsbawm’s classic Age of… series of general histories of Europe since the late eighteenth century. Textbooks might be more user-friendly than general histories, but they basically play the same role as the starting place for reading up on a topic. Something to watch out for here is the blurred line between scholarly general histories and popular histories written for a non-academic audience. Both will cover key events, but the latter will only sometimes consider themes or issues and rarely debates in any useful way, being more concerned with telling a good story.
  • Monographs. Most students arrive at university never having heard the word ‘monograph’, and bizarrely it’s rare for tutors to simply tell them in the first few weeks that this is the name given to a book, usually written by one author, presenting original research into a discreet topic. Helpfully they usually have names that tell you what, where and when the book is about – something like British Foreign Policy under the Macmillan Government, 1957-63 – as either title or subtitle. If it’s specifically on the topic you’re writing an essay on you’ll at least want to take a quick look to be aware what the main argument of the book is. Monographs typically include a useful summary of the literature on the topic either as a section of the first chapter or as the whole second chapter. Towards the end of the first chapter there’s also usually a helpful summary of the rest of the book, giving a sentence or two on each chapter, which can guide you to the sections of the book relevant to your essay question.
  • Journal articles. These are the essays academics write, usually presenting their own original research in a similar way to monographs. There won’t usually be any theme linking the articles in an issue of a journal and academics will only occasionally write more than once for the same journal. What links them is very broad – time and place (as is the case for Twentieth Century British History) or thematic/conceptual focus (for example Social History of Medicine). Most journals now include short abstracts of each article, which you can use to quickly decide if you need to take a quick look, sit down for a proper read, or move on and not waste your time.
  • Edited collections. These are books made up of chapters that are quite similar to journal articles. They will be by different authors, can be on quite different topics, often putting forward different, sometimes competing, ideas or arguments. Unlike a journal though, there will be something linking them. The topic of the book overall means they’ll either be presenting new research on different aspects of the same topic (something like The Eugenics Movement in Modern America and Europe) or work on different topics sharing some common theme or conceptual approach (perhaps Social Histories of Disability and Deformity). What pulls these diverse chapters together, in any good edited collection, is an introductory chapter by the editor(s) giving an overview of what’s previously been written in this area and explaining how these essays fit together and say something new. Sometimes only a particular chapter will be relevant, but if the book as a whole is then the opening chapter will probably be essential reading for you.

The other types of readings you’ll be set in a History degree really fall into two categories.

  • All other writings by historians. This could literally be anything, but a newspaper article or a blog post are the most common. It’s quickly being realised that blogging has become an important space for sharing insights from academic research, and so historians’ blogs are likely to become set readings more and more. Occasionally you’ll be able to use some writings by academics other than historians. These can be useful, so long as you’re aware they may frame the topic in a different way: asking different questions, prioritising particular theories or types of evidence. If it’s not written by an academic or other expert (very common in online writing) it’s unlikely to be an appropriate text to use, unless it falls into the final category…
  • Primary sources. Most undergraduate essays won’t require the use of primary sources, unless the assignment task is specifically to analyse a particular document (advice on which you’ll find here). That said, there’s nothing wrong with using primary sources if relevant. Just remember they are the evidence used to support your point, don’t mix that up with the interpretations, explanations and debates you’ll find in the secondary sources written by historians and other scholars.

Once we know what the types of readings out there are, we can turn this into a basic strategy for reading to prepare an essay. I’ll be turning to this in my next post

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