The writing process is something I’ve never really enjoyed. For some, it is a long and painstaking ordeal, of planning, outlining, and revision. For others, they can simply sit down and write. I find myself in the middle. I do not thoroughly plan out my papers, nor do I simply write and be done with it. I do some planning (talk about x then y and so on), but I tend to write a paragraph, or even a sentence, then revise that one part until I like it and move on. This process of mine makes writing a chore and I feel as if I have to force myself into doing it. On the positive side of my approach, it makes my drafts stronger, which in turn means I have to do fewer major changes to my papers. A problem with the writing process for many, I believe, is that people like formulas. They want a step by step guide to things and writing doesn’t fit nicely into that. Yes, there is an intro, body, conclusion, but what you put in those 3 parts is what matters. The directions for writing assignments tend to be vague as well, write x number of pages about a topic. There’s a lot of freedom in writing and maybe it’s that freedom that can be overwhelming.
Citations, they are not my favorite thing in the world (an easy way to loose points) but I understand their purpose. People getting credited for their work is important and not just because of copyright law, but because it’s the right thing to do. I too would be angered if somebody made a profit off my work, and I got nothing- who wouldn’t? I don’t, however, understand the need for multiple styles like Chicago, APA, MLA, etc. The cynical part of me thinks the only reason there are so many is because everybody wants their way of doing it. I do like choices, but this isn’t like Folgers versus Maxwell House when I’m buying my cheap coffee at the grocery store. In regards to problems with Chicago, I found citing the advertisement during our class exercise to be needlessly confusing.
Our digital identity is who we are in the digital world. For some there digital identity is what they have created: video games, song, and movies. For most of us, however, it is more of our presence on social media. My online self is important as a student of history. The things I choose to say online can negatively affect my relationships, both personal and professional. I can also use my online presence to reach out to other people and network or for purposes of research.
I am not the biggest fan of having digital identities though. As an example, I find it absurd that people are fired for what they say on facebook. Is it a public statement because it was made online? I guess, but my real issue with it is the same as when people get upset at athletes or celebrities, saying something off the cuff and not toeing the line. People are allowed their opinions and even if they are saying something deplorable, nobody bats a thousand. Granted what I’m talking about here is a different issue, but social media is tool by which it is used. I do think there is a lot of good things with the online world, but I guess I value anonymity over openness.
The use of digital technology for historians is the biggest development since pen and paper. I am aware of how incredible that sounds, but isn’t it true? Thanks to the internet, more information is now more easily available than at any other point in history. If I were to rate the biggest historical events in my lifetime, the internet would be up there along with 9/11 and the collapse of the Soviet Union: it changes everything.
As for how it affects historians in particular, I would say it makes the job far easier than ever before. A good example would be zotero, and how it makes footnotes and bibliographies much quicker to do. Another would be how it allows you to simply have multiple tabs open, as opposed to sprawling out countless books and documents over your desk and/or floor. In regards to those interested in history, the digital maps, graphs, videos, etc. can help make certain historical events or ideas more palatable than reading lines of text.
I do, however, think there is a problem with digital history. My big concern is that too often, people look at a graph, map, or whatever and instantly draw up their conclusion. A good example of this; I once read an argument by a guy who said Texas did little (if anything) during the Civil War. His rationale? Only a few small battles took place in the state of Texas, which he learned from looking at a map of Civil War battles. If this guy had read any appreciable amount of literature, he would have known that Texas supplied vast amounts of supplies to the CSA along with roughly 10% of the CSA Army’s manpower. In short, his argument would be akin to saying America or Britain did nothing in WW2, since no major battles occurred on their home soil. Sometimes the boring text is important.
The recent fields of ethno, social, cultural, and gender histories have added a new prism through which to look at history. The older fields (political, military, and economic) are still important, but they do come with drawbacks. Chief among these problems, is that they omit certain aspects of the human experience. This is where the new fields set up to the plate. What they contribute is a more complete picture. The weaknesses of these new fields, is whether or not what they contribute is worthwhile to begin with. As an example, let’s say I’m an American history teacher. I’m teaching about the Revolution, and I spend most of that lesson looking at gender roles in Colonial America at that time, with only passing mention of the Founding Fathers and the battles. Would that be the best education for those students? Now that is an extreme example, but I think it does a decent enough job summing up my point. While I’m a military history guy, I personally like these new fields. I feel like getting the “human story” is crucial to helping us understand history.
I fall into the field of traditional history, namely military. Military history has always held my interest, but that does not mean that I do not like the social, cultural, etc. approaches that can be brought to the field. The strength of a traditional field (like military), comes in two big points. One is that it covers big topics that are infinitely important, whereas many of the new fields tend to be too laser focused (think buying a house and your only concern is the living room ceiling fan). The other big one is that the traditional fields already have a wealth of material out there. I know that sounds odd, but my reasoning is that; because there is so much out there, it makes it easier for people interested to find out more about their topic.
Why did historians challenge, change, and expand? I think that they did, because people were tired of hearing things one way. Changes in the academia play a big part yes, but without a student body that signs up for those classes, new historians may have just become a footnote living in an echo chamber. People love to hear the same stories over and over again, but they also love to hear them in different ways, think Christopher Nolan’s Batman versus the old Allen West Batman.
Current events played a big role in the writings of Francis Jennings and Francis Parkman. Parkman lived in a time of American expansion. Growing up he toured Europe, but also saw the Oregon Trail first hand and lived through the Mexican War and Civil War. While he did not live in the time of the French and Indian War, America was still a new country, which was not even one hundred years old when Parkman was born. This sense of adventure, destiny, and new-ness influenced Parkman’s writings.
On the other hand Jennings lived throughout most of the 20th Century. Jennings was profoundly effected by events like the Vietnam War, and other such events that he viewed as injustice done by the US. During his life, the rise of the New Left in the history field was also taking place. With this new way of looking at the past, through the eyes of oft ignored groups, Jennings formed a different view of US history. Unlike Parkman, who viewed the founders as paragons of justice and virtue, Jennings viewed them a complex human beings with both admirable and questionable traits.
The difference between popular and academic history is largely in the audience that it is made for. Popular history is what is written for the masses, a good story, and typically focuses on beefy topics like war, revolution, and the like. The purpose of popular history is twofold: make money for the author(s), and educate the public (I find it hard to believe that historical authors do all that they do, solely for monetary gain). I finished a popular history prior to this semester, Alamo in the Ardennes by John C. McManus. Did this book help my understanding of the Battle of the Bulge? No, not really, I already knew the general course of affairs that took place in late 1944. However that doesn’t mean that I didn’t get anything out of it: certain names like Fuller and Cota (commanders who saw their units vanish before their eyes) where new to me, as where the events of the early part of the battle in the south, that tend to be overlooked in most other histories.
Academic history on the other hand is written very much for an audience similar to the author. That isn’t to say someone outside of the field can’t get anything out of it, but it would take considerable background knowledge and/or a willingness to do some extra homework to figure things out. The benefit to academic writing, is that it is often research on unlooked or overshadowed concepts and, perhaps most importantly, it is pier reviewed and written by someone with some level of accreditation. Popular histories on the other hand, require only that someone write the book and find a willing publisher.