Reading for History Essays #2

In my last post I gave a run down of the four different key types of texts you’ll be asked to read as a History student, and some brief points on how to make sense of the things that don’t fit into those categories. Next we turn to how to use understanding when reading for a university essay. Where my History Essay Checklist can remind you what you need to do in each section, the point here is to have appropriate readings for each of those tasks.

Your tutors and library staff will be the best people to advise you on how to find relevant readings, but it’s worth having some idea of what types of readings you’re looking for. So, what are the basic steps?

1. Start broad. Look up your topic in textbooks and general histories that cover the time and place. Is it a major topic? Does it generally have a chapter dedicated to it? If so, there’s going to be a lot written on it, so overviews of the debates and the few most influential works are likely to be all you can get through. Does it get a passing mention? If so, what are the few words chosen to characterise it? Is there a generally agreed interpretation or can you already see the fault lines in a debate? The sooner you can identify these, the sooner you can start thinking about how you’ll work through them in your essay.

2. Dig deeper and follow leads. As Professor Barry Doyle reminded me, there are times when it’s important to read from start to finish in order to get a sense of the overall academic argument and how it’s structured. This is the point when you need to do so. Move on to texts specifically on your topic and plan to spend longer on these. If textbooks and general histories name influential historians or works, take the hint and turn to them next. Likewise, when historians point to those others they’ve been influenced by or with whom they disagree, follow that lead and check out their work too. At this stage you’ll be reading monographs, journal articles and chapters in edited collections. You’re reading them to find out more, but the trick is to stay focused by keeping the essay question in mind – slowing down and taking notes only on what’s relevant. Writing the essay question on a post-it note and sticking it over the corner of your computer screen is an old trick to help with this.

3. Remember historiography. While you’re reading you should be taking notes on the facts and figures you’ll use as evidence to support your essay’s argument, but you should also be taking note of what different historians say. Where do they (dis)agree? What different approaches to the topic do they adopt? If your core argument is that a Marxist History assessment of your topic is wrong, then you really should do a little reading on what Marxist History is, as well as reading up on your own topic. Even students who are great at backing up most of the points they make with evidence can forget to do this when their point is not about what happened but how we make sense of or explain it. Sometimes you’ll find whole books or articles on this – historiography is one area where you will find textbooks. Other times it’ll be a case of using the historiography section near the beginning of articles and book chapters or the introductory chapters of edited volumes, which can be especially useful for this.

4. Do these for every issue you address, not just the essay as a whole. It’s not uncommon to find a good introduction, acknowledging important different approaches to the topic or sides of a debate, followed by each paragraph relying uncritically on only one for each specific issue covered. You need the big picture and the detail, the argument, the evidence and the historiography for each aspect of the topic (often meaning each paragraph). Depending on how wide-ranging your essay is and how much there is written on the topic, this might mean you are using half a dozen readings or dozens.

The key thing to remember is that everything is up for debate in History. This means you shouldn’t be relying on only one reading for anything. The number of readings used in the essay overall is far less important than whether you bring in numerous readings to inform what you have to say on each particular point. It is possible – although very rare – to do a cracking job going back repeatedly to just a few readings by bringing them into conversation with each other, you as the mediator. Mostly that’s not possible, so you’ll often find you need to have more readings than paragraphs to bring in multiple perspectives on each issue covered.

That might sound daunting once you look at the number of deadlines you have. But it can be made manageable by knowing what types of readings you’re looking for and how to use those different kinds of texts. Don’t think you need to read a whole textbook if only a paragraph on page 342 is relevant for your essay. Don’t think you need to read all the detailed research in the later chapters of a monograph to understand the central thesis of the book. While some things do need to be read beginning-to-end, you’ll only be wasting your time if you don’t know which ones.

Like so much else in study skills, understanding better the different types of readings and how to use them not only helps you prep well for essays. It can also make it easier, quicker and less stressful to get the job done.

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