delores

Learning how to ask and answer historical questions

Recommended Posts

I'm a first year MA student in an interdisciplinary program with a strong interest in history. My BA is in philosophy; I have not taken a single history class since high school. I'm very excited to be in my first graduate history course this term, but I'm a little worried that, when it comes to doing research or analyzing the readings, I won't know how to ask questions like a historian. 

As an undergrad, I found a wonderful guide to writing philosophy papers which I often referred to (here). It's aimed at intro students, but the advice pertains to people doing philosophy at high levels as well. I especially appreciated the list of things which a philosophy paper might try to do, and when I was stuck writing something, I would sometimes look at it to remind myself of what the possibilities were.

I recognize that many of the guidelines for how to write a philosophy paper apply to history as well, but aside from that--does anyone know of any similar resources for history? It could be another blog post, or a book. I'm just looking for some guidelines about how historians ask, and answer questions--an introduction to the practice of history as a discipline, I guess. 

Any recommendations? 

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Your input in that class won't come because you think as a historian. It will come because you don't. You are in an interdisciplinary program, so ask interdisciplinary questions. I enjoyed having people from other in my history classes because they were not historians: they helped me think outside of the history box. 

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I've also struggled with this question, because there really is no clear answer. There are so many different ways to approach history that one clear methodology isn't usually possible. For me, I've found it helpful when looking through primary sources to look for "weird" things--something that doesn't make sense to you. Is it weird, given what you know, for an author to be talking about something in a way other than what you expect? Research more into that. This method is how I've arrived at my MA thesis project. From an inter-disciplineary  standpoint, see how the questions you would normally ask or the topics that you would normally study are handled in History. When all else fails, imitation (in terms of methodology) is the highest form of flattery. Read secondary sources, find one or two that you really liked, and look at how they structured their research. Hope this helps!   

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
16 hours ago, delores said:

Colonial Latin America, though I would think that the kind of thing I'm looking for would be relevant for people working in any area. 

IMO, because professional academic history is so compartmentalized and due to your specific circumstances, I think a running start may be a better (and more challenging) way to go, especially given your area of interest and experience level relative to some of your classmates.

I recommend that you select three to five academic journals related to your area of interest and spend time going through 10+ years' of volumes. I recommend using physical copies rather than digital versions. Try to put your eyes on every article, historiographical essay, extended reviews, presidential address, and round table. Read very selectively those pieces that strike you as vitally important and/or very interesting. As @DGrayson points out, you'll see a variety of methods used but you will start to see patterns/rhytms in how historians present the questions they address within the contexts of ongoing debates.

I cannot offer much in making specific recommendations IRT journals for you to select. One article that may help you get your arms around your field is Mark T. Berger, "Civilising the South: The US Rise to Hegemony in the Americas and the Roots of 'Latin American Studies' 1898-1945,"  Bulletin of Latin American Research ,Vol. 12, No. 1 (Jan., 1993), pp. 1-48 available at http://www.jstor.org/stable/3338811 .

 What follows is a list of the 54 journals related to Latin American studies available at Jstor. 

  • Afro-Hispanic Review 1982 - 2013
  • The Americas 1944 - 2012
  • Anales de la literatura española contemporánea 1981 - 2013
  • Anales de la narrativa española contemporánea 1979 - 1980
  • Journal of Spanish Studies: Twentieth Century 1973 - 1980
  • Anales de la novela de posguerra 1976 - 1978
  • Anuario de Estudios Centroamericanos 1974 - 2013
  • Arizona Journal of Hispanic Cultural Studies 1997 - 2013
  • Bulletin of Latin American Research 1981 - 2006
  • Canadian Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Studies / Revue canadienne des études latino-américaines et caraïbes 1984 - 2010
  • NS, NorthSouth 1976 - 1983
  • Caravelle (1988-) 1988 - 2013
  • Cahiers du monde hispanique et luso-brésilien 1966 - 1987
  • Caravelle (1963-1965)1963 - 1965
  • Caribbean Studies1961 - 2015
  • Chasqui1972 - 2013
  • Chiricú Journal: Latina/o Literatures, Arts, and Cultures1976 - 2017
  • Confluencia1985 - 2013
  • Cuban Studies1986 - 2015
  • Desarrollo Económico1961 - 2015
  • Diálogos: Artes, Letras, Ciencias humanas1964 - 1985
  • Economía2000 - 2015
  • Estudios Demográficos y Urbanos1986 - 2017
  • Demografía y economía1967 - 1984
  • Estudios Económicos1986 - 2016
  • Demografía y economía1967 - 1984
  • European Review of Latin American and Caribbean Studies / Revista Europea de Estudios Latinoamericanos y del Caribe1989 - 2016
  • Boletín de Estudios Latinoamericanos y del Caribe1974 - 1989
  • Boletín de Estudios Latinoamericanos1970 - 1973
  • Boletín Informativo Sobre Estudios Latinoamericanos en Europa1965 - 1969
  • Foro Internacional1960 - 2017
  • Guaraguao1996 - 2013
  • Hispamérica1972 - 2013
  • Hispania1917 - 2015
  • The Hispanic American Historical Review1918 - 1999
  • Hispanic Review1933 - 2013
  • Hispanófila1957 - 2013
  • Historia Mexicana1951 - 2017
  • Iberoamericana (2001-)2001 - 2014
  • Ibero-amerikanisches Archiv1924 - 2000
  • Notas: Reseñas iberoamericanas. Literatura, sociedad, historia1993 - 2000
  • Iberoamericana (1977-2000)1977 - 2000
  • International Journal of Cuban Studies2008 - 2017
  • INTI1974 - 2013
  • Journal of Haitian Studies1995 - 2015
  • Journal of Latin American Geography2002 - 2013
  • Yearbook (Conference of Latin Americanist Geographers)1984 - 2002
  • Proceedings of the Conference of Latin Americanist Geographers1981 - 1983
  • Publication Series (Conference of Latin Americanist Geographers)1971 - 1980
  • Journal of Latin American Studies1969 - 2011
  • Latin American Antiquity1990 - 2014
  • Latin American Literary Review1972 - 2013
  • Latin American Perspectives1974 - 2013
  • Latin American Politics and Society2001 - 2013
  • Journal of Interamerican Studies and World Affairs1970 - 2000
  • Journal of Inter-American Studies1959 - 1969
  • Latin American Research Review1965 - 2013
  • Luso-Brazilian Review1964 - 2011
  • Mexican Studies/Estudios Mexicanos1985 - 2015
  • Mexicon1979 - 2014
  • Nueva Revista de Filología Hispánica1947 - 2016
  • NWIG: New West Indian Guide / Nieuwe West-Indische Gids1992 - 2012
  • Nieuwe West-Indische Gids / New West Indian Guide1960 - 1991
  • Christoffel1955 - 1958
  • Vox Guyanae1954 - 1959
  • De West-Indische Gids1919 - 1959
  • Portuguese Studies1985 - 2017
  • Problemas del Desarrollo1969 - 2013
  • Reis: Revista Española de Investigaciones Sociológicas1978 - 2015
  • Revista española de la opinión pública1965 - 1977
  • Revista Canadiense de Estudios Hispánicos1976 - 2015
  • Reflexión1972 - 1974
  • Revista de Crítica Literaria Latinoamericana1975 - 2014
  • Revista de Historia de América1938 - 2011
  • Revista Hispánica Moderna1934 - 2013
  • Revista Internacional de Lingüística Iberoamericana2003 - 2014
  • Revista Mexicana de Sociología1939 - 2013
  • Social and Economic Studies1953 - 2013
  • The University of Miami Inter-American Law Review1984 - 2014
  • Lawyer of the Americas1969 - 1984

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I don't have anything to contribute in terms of replying to the original post, but I would just like to acknowledge the excellent advice given here. As someone who is about to take their first steps as a student of history, I have found this thread very helpful so, thank you.

@Sigaba, if I may ask, why do you recommend using physical copies of academic journals rather than digital versions?

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

One approach I've recently learned is to read a monograph and afterwards outline the questions the author asked and answered.  Then think about questions you wanted to ask but wasn't covered in the book.  I've used this approach several times and after a while started to think more like an academic historian.  Give it a shot.  It may or may not work for you but it's worth a try. 

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
On 9/6/2017 at 8:16 PM, delores said:

I'm a little worried that, when it comes to doing research or analyzing the readings, I won't know how to ask questions like a historian. 

I'll tackle this one. First, your philosophy training will probably lead you to ask big questions. And it's fine to ask the big questions. They need to be addressed. But historical research asks a particular question and uses primary sources to make an argument. The thesis is the argument they're making. Primary sources are sources from the period you are analyzing. (You can call these original documents, or things you examine when you want to do history.) Secondary sources on the other hand are sources that analyze the period or event after the fact. The Declaration of Independence and Locke's Two Treatises of Government are primary sources, but a book (or thesis or article) that asks how Locke influenced Jefferson's legal/political philosophy would be a secondary source. Historiography -- a fancy word that you'll read, hear, and have to use quite often -- is the history of history, that is, how historians have written about the past and what arguments have already been made about your topic. If you're asking how Locke influenced Jefferson's legal philosophy, then you need to read what's already been written about that question. Your argument can be entirely new, or you can disagree with an existing argument provided you have convincing evidence from primary sources. Historical research is therefore an ongoing debate involving a range of interpretations. This is historiography. If ten historians examine the same document, they'll likely interpret it ten different ways. This is doing history. And as I hope you'll find, it's a lot of fun to do.

As for readings, just remember that you don't have to read the book from cover to cover. You can't. You don't have enough time. If the book is assigned to be discussed in class, then just read the introduction to find the thesis (also called the argument), methodology, and structure. Then read the conclusion, and then you're done. (This is useful: //forum.thegradcafe.com/topic/30968-reading-tips-for-graduate-students-in-history-programs/.) But if you're reading a book or article that you'll use in your thesis, then you'll of course want to read more of it.

Anyway, I hope this was helpful. To echo what AP said a few posts earlier, if you're in an interdisciplinary program, then you won't apply historical methodology all the time. This is one methodology among many that you'll probably encounter.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
2 hours ago, Karou said:

I don't have anything to contribute in terms of replying to the original post, but I would just like to acknowledge the excellent advice given here. As someone who is about to take their first steps as a student of history, I have found this thread very helpful so, thank you.

@Sigaba, if I may ask, why do you recommend using physical copies of academic journals rather than digital versions?

@Karou IMO, using physical copies increases opportunities for serendipity. The front and back matter, the advertisements, the physical dimensions of a journal, paper, and font size can provide opportunities for additional insights that lead to more questions.

For the same reason, at a library or bookstore, I will put my eyes (if not hands) on as many books as possible.

The same goes for going through a digital catalog. Some years ago, a university library had a record for Upton and the Navy. This was a typo: the work in question was Upton and the Army. The mistake prompted questions that remain either under-explored and unasked by American military and naval historians.

 

 

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
2 hours ago, JKL said:

Primary sources... Secondary sources

Two minor points. A very senior historian once corrected her students: "That's primary sources and secondary works."

Also, the line between a primary source and a secondary work can be blurry, especially when a topic of contemporary historical interest has contemporaneous political and policy implications

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
4 hours ago, JKL said:

But historical research asks a particular question and uses primary sources to make an argument.

I would like to add that this is not always true. You can use primary sources to answer larger questions. For example, I'm using primary sources in my writing sample to address the larger question of how can we "periodize" French urban planning in Algeria. It goes from the specific to the broad.

And we can't forget people like Foucault who use primary source research to answer very broad questions (much broader than my example) , like how is power exercised etc. etc.

Although, I was a history and philosophy major...

Edited by miami421

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Since the OP is new to history as a professional discipline, I'd recommend searching out for a syllabus for introduction to historiography and the like.  I'm actualy out of the country so I don't have access to my bookshelves to remember the precise title/author of several books that I have found useful.  Some were handbooks for research/writing history and others offer an introduction to the discipline and its history (aka historiography).  Such introductions will give you a sense of how historians approach sources and ask questions.

As a philosophy major, you're already quite well trained to analyze texts for arguments and structure.  What you need to do now is learn to engage with actual facts and make the choices of actually whether or not to accept them to use for  your argument.  (My best friend was a philosophy major and our conversations sometime get a little too intense when we debate the "truth" behind sources to answer our big question at the time :) )

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
On 9/8/2017 at 8:26 PM, Sigaba said:

@Karou IMO, using physical copies increases opportunities for serendipity. The front and back matter, the advertisements, the physical dimensions of a journal, paper, and font size can provide opportunities for additional insights that lead to more questions.

For the same reason, at a library or bookstore, I will put my eyes (if not hands) on as many books as possible.

The same goes for going through a digital catalog. Some years ago, a university library had a record for Upton and the Navy. This was a typo: the work in question was Upton and the Army. The mistake prompted questions that remain either under-explored and unasked by American military and naval historians.

 

 

Ah serendipity, I like that, and I can definitely see how that's true.I tend to prefer reading from physical objects rather than on the computer anyway. I do apply that rule to books already, be it in a library or, like you said, a bookstore. However -and I feel a little silly admitting it- I never thought of picking up a physical copy of a journal, I guess I just got so used to browsing JStor etc. But I will definitely try this method once I have access to my university library. Thank you for your reply.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!

Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.

Sign In Now