How Historians Read and Write

As mentioned, the discourse community of historians has guidelines for reading and writing—guidelines that are generally taught implicitly to history graduate students. Because the reading strategies that historians use are rarely discussed explicitly and often become automatic (i.e. used without conscious awareness), as historians mature in their careers they have a difficult time explaining to nonhistorians how they read and write. Wineburg reported, “as a guild, historians have been uncharacteristically tight-lipped about how they [work with historical texts]” (2001: 63). This is not because they are secretive or exclusive, but in large part because they do not spend a great deal of time worrying about the historical thinking of people outside their discourse community. However, a few non-historians have investigated how historians read.

The psychologist, Sam Wineburg (1991), pioneered research on historians’ reading. He found that they use three heuristics for making sense of written evidence. First, they pay attention to the source of each document, noting the text type (e.g. textbook, journal, deposition, or novel); the author(s) (including their position, involvement, potential biases, etc.); the audience; the timing of the text production in relation to the events it describes; and the perceived purpose of the text. Historians comprehend the text’s content with the source in mind, reading, for example, a transcript of a defendant’s court testimony differently than they would a private diary entry or the transcript of a government official’s press conference. Second, historians keep the context in mind as they read, considering the physical and social milieu surrounding both the event and the production of the account. In their mind’s-eye they might selectively imagine an election year motivation, racist undercurrents, the weather conditions during a battle, a policy-maker’s religious background, or other relevant contextual factors that influence an author’s perspective and a document’s content. Third, historians compare and contrast across documents, noting and trying to explain both similarities and differences. No nugget of information, no matter how important to their argument, is accepted without cross-checking it against other evidence. Wineburg concluded that these three heuristics for making sense of historical texts, sourcing, contextualization, and corroboration., form the foundation of historical reading.

Other researchers have added to the list of reading strategies historians use, particularly for working with non-linguistic evidence. Baron (2012), who studied historians’ analysis of historical sites, identified their use of origination, a strategy that blends sourcing and contextualization in a manner that is more appropriate for analysis of places; Intertectonality, which, similar to corroboration, involves comparing a historic building with others built in a similar time for similar purposes; stratification, which involves considering how an object in continuous use must be understood in terms of contextual strata, or how it has been used and altered in different eras; and supposition, the consideration of absent evidence. Other researchers highlight historians’ use of perspective taking (Lee & Ashby, 2001; Levstik, 2001) or historical empathy (Baron, 2012; Davis, Yeager, & Foster, 2001; Lee, 2005), the imaginative process of viewing circumstances as a historical character would. Historians imaginatively fill in gaps in evidence with logical inferences (Collingwood, 1993), are skeptical about interpretations, and remain open to new evidence that is constantly being uncovered (Britt, Rouet, Georgi, & Perfetti, 1994). Historical reading involves the integrated use of these specialized reading strategies. In keeping with Gee’s (1989) research, historians have their own ways of reading.

In addition to reading strategies historians employ, researchers have theorized about the cognitive processes involved in constructing historical understandings from texts. These theories are based upon a model of narrative reading, proposed by Van Dijk and Kintsch (1983). They suggest that as a reader encounters a text he develops a text base that captures the passage’s literal meaning, and a situation model that preserves the narrative as understood by the reader—the story taking shape in the reader’s mind. The situation model emerges as the text base interacts with the reader’s background knowledge.

Some researchers have proposed that historical reading shares some processes and outcomes with narrative reading, notably the text base and the situation model. However, acknowledging that reading multiple, contradictory, fragmented, and conflicting accounts is more complex than reading a single narrative, Wineburg (1994) and Britt and her colleagues (1994) propose two ways of conceptualizing historical reading. Wineburg (1994) suggests that in addition to the text base and situation model, readers construct a documents model, which captures their assessment of the reliability and usefulness of various accounts. Additionally, Wineburg suggests that mature historical readers construct hypothetical situation models—alternative narratives that are simultaneously retained in case newly encountered evidence requires the reader to modify an emerging interpretation. Exposure to new evidence might lead an individual to make minor changes to a situation model, to add details, or to replace a situation model altogether by what had previously been a hypothetical situation model. Readers iteratively use their situation model(s) to evaluate and filter new accounts to which they are exposed and use new accounts to test, revise, and/or refine their situation model(s).

Britt and her colleagues also contend that a single situation model is insufficient when working with historical evidence (Britt et al., 1994). Instead, they contend that readers must construct separate representations of what each author has stated, keeping in mind the agreements and disagreements across texts. A mature reader’s cognitive representation of texts acknowledges each source of information and the interrelationship between the evidence and arguments they bring to a historical controversy. An accomplished reader notices the arguments made by authors as they integrate facts, evidence, and claims within their accounts. A skilled historian constructs an integrated argument model that pulls together factual reports, personal opinions, and evidence from multiple sources. Thus, the construction of an argument model requires the ability to understand arguments made by each single author and to synthesize arguments into an interpretive evaluation of the arguments made by each author.

Needless to say, both models show that historical reading can strain the limits of an individual’s working memory, particularly a novice who is trying to learn the ins and outs of historical thinking as she engages with evidence and explores previously unfamiliar content (Nokes, 2011). Of course, historians do not spend a great deal of time thinking about how they are doing all of this— they just do it. Psychologists and literacy researchers are the designers of these models of reading. Still, historians judge their colleagues’ work based upon whether norms for reading have been followed.

Although some aspects of the writing processes can be inferred from historians’ products, how historians write has not been studied as extensively as their reading. Young and Leinhardt contrast students’ writing with historians’ unique knowledge transforming arguments, explanations, and descriptions. They suggest that historians use “rhetorical strategies of the disciplinary genre to transform disparate pieces of information into a coherent argument” (1998: 29). These rhetorical strategies include using evidence-supported claims,

evidence-based rebuttals of opposing claims, and the systematic use ofdocuments through paraphrasing and/or direct quotation in order to support claims (De La Paz & Felton, 2010). In spite of some awareness of these tactics, the writing process of historians remains somewhat unexplored. Though we can infer that historians’ writing is purposeful, audience-driven, and argumentative, the specific heuristics historians use to write have not been studied extensively and represent a topic for future research.

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