What Do We Teach When We Teach “The Writing of History”?

Tomorrow night my graduate course on the writing of history has its first meeting. With the students pre-registered and the syllabus pre-circulated, we plan to jump right in, reading many of the influential essays and articles on the choices made when writing history.

Yet, as the prep time ends and the course begins, I have circled around and around the question: What do we teach when we teach “The Writing of History”? Should it be advanced mechanics — taking the word-mincing beyond citation, argument, and evidence analysis to voice, metaphor, pacing, irony, character? Or should it be more theoretical — reading epistemologies of history writing, defenses and attacks on the politics of narrative, and research on linguistic preconceptions?

For all my other classes, there are model syllabi galore, but here I find myself more alone. I know the courses John Demos and the late Robin Winks once offered at Yale, and I have found a smattering of other such courses taught from NYU to UC Irvine, Cornell to Harvard to Caltech. Some are for undergraduates, other for grad students – though, as Martha Hodes, Marjorie Garber, and Virginia Scharff have noticed year after year, as a profession we seem to warn graduate students off the truly imaginative until they have attained the truly remunerative job.

The more I have dedicated myself to facing out from the academy and writing about the past in newspapers, on blogs, and for museums, the more I find the choice requires its justification to skeptical colleagues. And often the justification requires an anatomizing the process of writing history.

So I have built the course as a hybrid – a few weeks of the tough questions to consider when writing history, and then a repast of exemplary innovative histories. And then there is the requirement—not merely the chance—for my graduate students to experiment in their own writing and to receive feedback.

I hope to return here regularly this semester, to report on how the course is going – and to hand over the reins to my students, when their take on the readings or their experiments in writing history call out for a wider audience.

I welcome those teaching, taking, or pining after similar courses to chime in as well!

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