Historians’ Reading and Writing Norms

In order to recreate the discourse community of historians in secondary classrooms, teachers must consider what historians read and write, how historians read and write, and, most importantly, why historians read and write.

What Historians Read and Write

Historians read a wide variety of texts. Some travel to distant locations where they search archival repositories to gather evidence that will help them solve historical mysteries. Their hope is to discover primary sources, firsthand accounts, that are both reliable and relevant to their questions. Other historians conduct interviews of individuals who have personally experienced his?torical events. Others pour through family papers, church records, land claim maps, old photographs, manuscript census forms, and ships’ manifests in order to reconstruct family histories. A colleague of mine analyzes television programs from the 1950s and 1960s, comparing those produced on opposite sides of the Iron Curtain. The types of texts historians read include a diverse array of evidence depending on the questions they seek to answer. The historian- philosopher Collingwood contended that “of all the things perceptible to [a historian] there is not one which he might not conceivably use as evidence on some question, if he came to it with the right question in mind” (1993: 247).

Should historians’ analysis of non-written or even non-linguistic evidence be considered “reading?” Do historians “read” an oral history, a historic photograph, or a television program? Building upon Gee’s notion of discourse communities, researchers of new-literacies (Cope & Kalantzis, 2000; Kress, 2000) and of content area literacy agree that the notion of text should be defined broadly (Draper, Broomhead, Jensen, Nokes, & Siebert, 2010) to include the resources that are valued by practitioners within disciplines (Moje, 2008; Shanahan & Shanahan, 2008). In response to current literacy theories, then, the notion of historical reading should be expanded to include the analysis of any evidence. Because historians use such a wide array of linguistic and nonlinguistic, and print and non-print texts, reading and writing in history involves much more than words on paper. Still, most historians privilege written primary sources above other resources. Even as the notion of reading is expanded, reading in the traditional sense maintains a highly valued position in history.

In addition to evidence and primary source accounts, historians read secondary sources, second-hand accounts produced by fellow historians. Historians read primary and secondary sources for different purposes. They use secondary sources to ground their research in the existing body of knowledge. In order to find the “gap on the book shelf’ that their research will fill, historians must stay abreast of their colleagues’ work. Additionally, secondary sources lead them to interesting questions and useful evidence. An awareness of secondary sources helps historians understand how they and their work fit into the discourse community of historians. To answer the question of what they read, then, historians engage in traditional reading, surveying the work of their colleagues as well as analyzing primary sources. In addition, they engage with non-traditional forms of text of a nearly limitless variety based upon their research interests and the available evidence.

Just as historians use a variety of types of evidence to answer historical questions, they create a number of different types of texts. Historians produce monographs, charts, maps, diagrams, visual presentations, journal articles, web sites, textbooks, lectures, and countless other products. Just as the notion of reading and text should be expanded, the notion of writing must also be considered more broadly to include all discipline-focused creations of historians (Draper et al., 2010).

Regardless of the specific format that historians’ writing (defined broadly) assumes, their products generally include a mix of narration, description, and persuasion or argumentation. Historians’ writing includes the formulation and justification of an original research question; a review of research on similar questions, with a focus on the flaws or gaps that their current study intends to correct or fill; an explanation of the process used to gather and analyze evidence; the imaginative development of an interpretation; and the written explanation and defense of that interpretation (Gaddis, 2002). Further, in ongoing conversations with their peers, historians review (often in writing) one another’s work. Thus, historians’ writing integrates questioning, description, narration, critique, analysis, and persuasion.

In addition to the writing of professional historians, amateur historians (sometimes in consultation with historians) produce public histories. Public histories are intended for the general populace rather than for historian audiences. They include museum exhibits, historic building restorations and displays, historical fiction, movies set in the past, popular books, and other texts produced to entertain and/or nurture an awareness of heritage. Public histories often lack the academic rigor expected of professional historians. Though these texts are on the fringe of what is accepted by the discourse community of historians, because they are commonly encountered and are extremely influential (Rosenzweig & Thelen, 1998; Wineburg, 2007) historians remain aware (and usually critical) of them.

To summarize, historians write not only traditional types of texts in the form of monographs and articles, but they also produce lectures, visual presentations, maps, diagrams, and many other genres of text. Much historical reading and writing, especially that of professional historians, involves the construction and defense of evidence-based interpretations of past events (De La Paz, 2005; De La Paz & Felton, 2010; De La Paz, Ferretti, Wissinger, Yee, & MacArthur, 2012; Foster & Yeager, 1999; Levstik & Barton, 2015; Monte-Sano, 2008, 2010). Public histories, often produced by amateur historians, provide an additional example of historical writing.

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