Ah…the historiographical paper. Few assignments are as pivotal in graduate school. Few are as difficult to get the hang of.
As an undergraduate history student, you may have briefly encountered the idea of historiography (sometimes referred to as “the history of history,” though that is a bit over-simplified). But as a graduate student, you will be expected to interpret, compare, and contrast the ideas of historians. Yikes!
If you are reading this blog, it is probably because you are looking for a place to start. The University of Central Florida faculty and graduate students have the following advice to offer you as you start your historiographical essay:
- Look at it as different from a research paper. “Historiography is a different animal than a research paper. It’s kind of a contradiction on how we train you. When you’re going up through undergrad, we train you to focus on a research paper and original research. Historiography is almost the opposite, you’re not doing original research, you’re looking at how others have done it.” – Dr. Daniel Murphree
- Take notes and make connections. “Students should think of each historian’s writing as her or his perspective developed through evidence-based research. The historiographical paper is the student’s analysis of these diverse authors’ perspective on a particular topic. During seminar periods, it helps to take notes about what is being said about each perspective and try to connect the books through their evidence, perspective, style, and so on.” – Dr. Yovanna Pineda
- If possible, choose a topic you are passionate about. “Historiography papers often seem poor when the writer does not have an interest in the topic…If you pick a topic that you find interesting and engaging, your writing will undoubtedly be better and your paper will benefit.” – Sarika Joshi
- Begin with the most recent secondary works. “Look at the footnotes for the historical arguments, this is where the historical debates are often found. The most recent books often have the best synthesis of the historical arguments, so start modern and work backwards through the historiography. “ – Kevin Mercer
- Look at themes, not just dates. “If you put too much emphasis on finding a “dialogue” between different authors simply because of their publication date, you will pull your hair out trying to find connections when none may exist. Instead, I use a more thematic approach.” – Drew Fedorka
- Keep your purpose in mind. “I think the most important thing to remember for a historiography paper is the goal of the paper. Historiography is not a recounting of the theses and chapters of a specific work. Instead it is an analytical paper about the trends of historical scholarship.” – Daniel Bradfield
- Search footnotes, endnotes, and book reviews. “Start with the most recent works and scrounge the introductions for the major works they reference. Then make friends with book reviews, footnotes, and end notes. All of the above can help you to locate books and evaluate whether or not they will fit your topic.” – Kendra Hazen
- Discuss with your professor. “Each faculty member is looking for specific things within your essay, so asking questions and discussing it in-depth is always a good way to begin.” – Ella Gibson
- Make your way back through time. “Start with the most recent book on the topic, and go through their footnotes and references. Identify the major works they reference, and go to those for their references. Follow it back until you find the start of the historiography, then pick the most influential works between the oldest and the newest.” – Leanne Wiggins
- Be strategic. “Learn how to gut secondary sources for what you need and what applies to your work. You don’t have time to read 30 books for every class per semester and you will waste a lot of time that can be better spent on primary source research if you even try.” – Katie Kelley
If you have ever written a historiographical essay, leave a comment below and share your experience! What worked? What would you have done differently?