4 thoughts on “The Problems of Writing Academic History

  1. The tension between academic and popular history also relates to the historiographical genres in which we engage. Journal articles tend to make an argument, not offer a narrative. Dissertations and many specialized monographs do that, too. History that offers a straight narrative tends to translate to the public better, because we like stories. If the author is having a comversation with other scholars, it gets tucked away in the notes, where it won’t bother the general reader. But even a lively narrative history might find little interest, if it’s about an obscure subject, no matter how important.

    Another way we can engage the public is in the classroom, not only by teaching history, but also by teaching about the genres and media in which we publish. Too many people get through university without even a basic understanding of the scholarly enterprise. It’s up to us to change that where possible in the classroom.

  2. Mark I think you are right about the difference in the narrative. While academics do deal with the narrative, it is often a case of reconstructing and analysing it rather than just presenting the straight story.

    I would suggest that linked to this is the issue of training. Academics are trained historians. We have been conditioned to analyse and question. I do not think this lessons the validity of popular history but it does illustrate the difference. It is also prevalent in works by non-historian who are academic and even try to write history or use it in their work. I have recently read a paper on the ‘Big Wing’ debate, which was written by a mathematician and it clearly illustrated intellectual limitation in terms of a lack of historical training.

    This work was part of my teaching on a unit on approaches to history and the module convenor for this does exactly what you mentioned. She tries to explain some of the issues that face practicing historians. I think this can only be a good thing.

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