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Lecturer's advice

Ian Copland, Lecturer Eleanor Hancock, Lecturer In this section, two of your lecturers - Ian Copland and Eleanor Hancock - answer Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about researching and writing essays in first-year History.

FAQs: Click on those topic areas that are of interest to you, or that you need to know more about.

General

  1. What makes a good history essay?
  2. What's distinctive about history writing?
  3. What does it mean to adopt a critical approach in history?
  4. Why do some essays fail?
  5. How should I deal with a bad result for an essay?

Reading

  1. How much reading should I do for an essay?
  2. What type of reading do I need to do for history essays?
  3. How much is the study of history about learning "the facts" of a period?
  4. How does the use of primary and secondary sources differ in the researching of an essay?
  5. In my reading, should I be looking for the historian who has come up with the "correct" interpretation of events?
  6. How should I deal with the situation when two historians present conflicting interpretations of events?
  7. As a student, how can I make my own judgements about the work of professional historians?
  8. How useful is the internet for history essays?

Writing

  1. How can I go about developing a structure for an essay?
  2. How much should I retell historical events in an essay?
  3. What sort of writing style are lecturers looking for? Should I try to make my writing complex?
  4. Can I write "I think" in an essay?
  5. What's a "historical argument"? How can I be sure that I'm "arguing" in an essay?
  6. Which referencing system do I use? Footnotes or Harvard? Why?
  7. What type of information do I need to footnote in an essay?
  8. When should I use direct quotes in an essay? What about quoting secondary sources?
  9. What's plagiarism? How can I avoid it?
  10. Who's the audience for my essay? Is it just my lecturer?


1. What makes a good history essay?

Summary:

  • Grappling with an issue
  • Reading widely
  • Structuring your work clearly
  • Editing your work thoroughly
  • Finally, being aware of the element of opinion in historical writing

Eleanor

: The main thing is that we need to see evidence in your writing that you've been grappling with an issue - that you've been thinking about the issue, that you've been reading widely and thinking hard about what you've been reading.

It's also important to remember that often we are marking the work of students we don't know - the student for us may be just a name on the cover sheet. So we are judging work entirely in terms of what's on the page. This means you've got to make things absolutely clear.

Ian

: A good essay will be based on a good range of sources and be thoroughly referenced. And as you read more widely on the topic, we hope you will begin to pick up on the element of opinion in historical writing - that different historians bring different interpretations to the events we are considering. And we hope that your appreciation of these differences will come out in your writing.

Two other points - that really apply to any piece of writing, irrespective of the discipline. The first is structure - you need to show us in your writing that you have planned out the work - that there is a logical flow that the reader can follow. Second, good essays are proofread and edited - you need to sit down with the hard copy and read it through and fix up the obvious flaws.

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2. What's distinctive about history writing?

Summary: Our claims about the past always need to be supported with evidence.

Ian

: A feature of history is that it is above all an "empirical" discipline. By this I mean that it requires its arguments to relate to a factual context. And even though there are difficulties with the idea of "historical fact" (i.e. we can never get to the whole truth or be wholly factual), there is a core belief that in history we are dealing with something that actually happened. We need therefore to defend our statements as statements of truth - and we do this mainly by referring to the primary evidence - evidence generated by people involved at the time.

History is the telling of stories, but it is not a fiction. We need always to document this story - and this is the main reason why footnoting figures so prominently in history writing.

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3. What does it mean to adopt a critical approach in history?

Summary:

  • Identifying the range of historical interpretations of an event or period
  • Drawing your own conclusions

Eleanor

: The best way to explain this is to give a concrete example: Let's say you're doing an essay on "Why the Nazis didn't win in the first six months of Operation Barbarossa (the German invasion of Russia)". This is a "Why did X happen (or not happen)?" style of question, which is very common in history.

So there will be a range of reasons for the Nazis' failure - and different historians will have proposed different explanations. What we really like students to do is set out a range of these explanations - say two or three - then to compare them and consider their respective strengths and weaknesses. And then you need to draw your own conclusion. There will be different possibilities here. You might want to show that one explanation is more persuasive than another. Or you might draw out of the different accounts a composite explanation, i.e. that the explanations of Historian A and Historian B have to be considered together. Or you might want to say that none of the explanations seems adequate - that they all leave something out that needs to be investigated further.

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4. Why do some essays fail?

Summary:

  • A lack of time spent on the essay
  • A lack of attention to the topic

Eleanor

: Many essays that fail have something in common - it's clear to us that the student has written it a day or two before it was due. These essays are easy to recognise - they will mainly be copied or paraphrased from a general source like an encyclopaedia; or the student may have read only one or two books. Thus, there will be very few footnotes in the essay.

Some essays also suggest to us that the student has barely bothered to look at the topic. Recently I had to fail an essay because a student devoted the whole essay to discussing the First World War when the topic was the Second World War. So the minimum requirement is to show that you're reading and engaging in a serious way with the question that's been posed.

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5. How should I deal with a bad result for an essay?

Summary:

  • Don't see it as a judgment of you
  • Learn from your mistakes

Eleanor

: Assuming that you have put in the effort, you need to bear in mind that some essays - for whatever reason - just don't work out. You don't want to become demoralised when you get a poor result. The mark is not a judgement of you, but just of this particular piece of work and the approach that's been used. The thing is to learn from the feedback you get - and to work on improving on these things.

I recall one of my students from some years back who had very high expectations in the subject - but whose first essay I felt I had no choice but to fail. The student was most upset. It was a year-long subject and the student went on to get an HD overall. So he didn't say to himself "I've failed this essay and I'm nothing". He had made some obvious mistakes, but once he saw what these were, he did something about them. And he went on to do a doctorate. So a poor mark is not a life sentence - but an opportunity to learn from your mistakes.

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6. How much reading should I do for an essay?

Summary: A minimum of six texts, but we encourage wide reading

Ian

: We've decided to be quite explicit about this - we work to a rule of a minimum of six texts. These might be the chapter of a book, or a journal article, or a collection of primary sources. But this is a minimum. We hope students will want to explore further - and to go beyond the references we've listed in the handbook. An essay will almost invariably be the better for additional reading. You will be rewarded for going to the library and fossicking around and finding your own material. This is what much of historical research is about.

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7. What type of reading do I need to do for history essays?

Summary:

  • It's a broader type of reading than for other Arts subjects
  • Begin with a general text - move on to more interpretative texts

Eleanor

: Reading for a history essay is a bit different from reading say for philosophy or literature. In these other two subjects you might have to read just a few works. But you need to read them very intensively, because you have to look at the language in great detail.

In history you don't need to read so intensively. It's a broader kind of reading. You need to read a number of texts and what you're looking for is to pick up on the broad differences in interpretations.

What we recommend is that you begin with a simple general text which tells the basic story - e.g. what happened in the first six months of Operation Barbarossa (German invasion of Russia in 1941). And then you turn to works of a more interpretative nature and try to work out the different ways that various historians have explained the issue - e.g. why the Nazis were unsuccessful in the invasion.

Once you have knowledge of the basic events, these more interpretative texts are going to be easier to grasp.

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8. How much is the study of history about learning "the facts" of a period?

Summary:

  • "Facts" are just a starting point
  • The main focus is on issues and interpretations

Eleanor

: Knowing the facts is a first requirement - and we do run small tests to check that you do have this basic knowledge, e.g. "that Hitler became Chancellor in 1933" or "that Operation Barbarossa was launched in 1941". But this is just the starting point.

Our main focus is not on simple, unproblematic questions like when, who, where, but on issues about which there is debate - why something happened, or how much something was successful, etc. These are interpretative questions that take in the views of various historians and also your view of events.

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9. How does the use of primary and secondary sources differ in the researching of an essay?

Summary: Primary source material will be in documents and also embedded in the secondary sources.

Ian

: In our first-year assignments we don't expect students to be gathering primary source material from archives. Much of the primary source material you will need to draw on will be in the subject handbooks and these are a rich resource for your essays.

But there is another repository of this material: secondary sources in the form of textbooks, articles, etc. These texts will contain masses of evidence in the form of statistics, quotations, accounts of events. A lot of this will be primary source material embedded, as it were, in the secondary source.

It is your job to consider how the authors of these texts have marshalled the evidence and used it to draw their own conclusions. So in a secondary text, where Bloggs for example is discussing why the British appeased the Germans in the 1930s, there may be a nice quote from Chamberlain (the British PM at the time) which says: "We need to appease the Germans". And so this becomes primary source material that you are able to draw on for your own purposes.

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10. In my reading, should I be looking for the historian who has come up with the "correct" interpretation of events?

Summary:

  • There are no "correct" interpretations as such
  • All historians bring their own agendas and biases to their work
  • Your job is to make judgements about these interpretations

Eleanor

: No. Some students are under the misapprehension that there is one particular historian out there - one we're not telling them about - who has the right answer. Students can think that the main job in their research is to work out who this secret historian is. But this isn't it at all!

Our questions are ones that don't have clear-cut answers - they allow for different interpretations. So if you find yourself saying Historian A is absolutely right and all the others are misguided or have the wrong end of the stick or whatever, you're probably on the wrong track.

Also you need to be careful about the labelling of historians. Some students think that once a historian has been identified as, say, a Marxist or a feminist or a revisionist of some kind, then we don't need to take them seriously any more - that they can be dismissed on the grounds of the label alone. When you're reading the arguments of historians who might be identified in a particular way, we say take their stance into account. But that's not to say there's no value in their work - there often is. Some students can have this notion that there is a "pure" historian out there judging things completely objectively and dispassionately and that the student's job is to find them.

Unfortunately no such animal exists. All historians have their own particular perspective on things - and they have their own agendas and biases. Part of your job is to recognise these differences, and then make your own considered judgements about which of the range of interpretations on offer sheds the most light on the issue.

Ian

: But whilst all historians have their own agendas and prejudices, you don't want to overstate this - and use it as an excuse for coming to no conclusion. As a kind of knee-jerk response, some students can say in their work: "There is no correct answer to this question, because all historians are biased." But this is really a bit of a cliche - it doesn't get us anywhere. Your job is to consider the nature of the bias in each case - and to go out on a bit of a limb, making judgements about whether one historical analysis has, in your mind, more value than another.

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11. How should I deal with the situation when two historians present conflicting interpretations of events?

Summary:

  • It's great when you notice these differences.
  • Think about why they come to different conclusions

Eleanor

: The first point to note is that historians often disagree about things. If you notice differences in your reading, that's great! This is what a lot of historical writing is about - realising that there aren't clear-cut answers - that there is often debate around these questions.

When you notice these differences you then need to work them into your essay in an explicit way. For example you might write: "Historians have differed on the issue of X. Historian A has argued that..., whereas B has argued that..."

The task then is to think about why A and B have come to different conclusions. Is it due for example to different weighting of the evidence? To different motivations? And you often have to ask yourself which of these alternative interpretations you find more convincing.

Ian

: When you pick up on these differences - you first want to lay out what the differences are. Then you should ask questions like: Which account do I find more reasonable? Which is more plausible? Which is more in keeping with what I've already read or what I already know about the subject? So you want to have a bit of a go.

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12. As a student, how can I make my own judgements about the work of professional historians?

Summary:

  • We don't expect you to come up with some new answer
  • Just have a go at making your own judgments

Ian

: Some of the assignments we set specifically ask students to consider the work of a historian (or historians) and to decide whether it is an adequate account of an issue (e.g. why the Germans failed to defeat the Russians). Some students can feel that this type of task is a bit beyond them. They might say, understandably: "I'm just a student! How can I be expected to stand in judgement of Professor X from Oxford, who has devoted his life to researching this issue?" And I guess the answer is: "Well, what about the views of Professor Y from Cambridge? What does he have to say about the issue? Do you get a sense of them disagreeing? Does one of them persuade you more than the other?" And this is the spirit that you need to get into. But of course, this approach requires that you read your sources in a detailed and careful way.

Eleanor

: Students' anxiety about making these judgements is understandable. But we don't expect you to come up with some new answer that's never been thought of before - you're not in a position to do this. What we hope is that you will just have a go - to look at various accounts and to think, "Well maybe there's a problem here". So maybe a historian will say that the Germans' failure to defeat the Russians was all due to the weather. But then you might note that the Germans were already running into difficulty before the onset of winter. And this observation could form the basis of your critique.

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13. How useful is the internet for history essays?

Summary:

  • Most material is not useful for essays in history
  • You need to be very discriminating

Eleanor

: You need to be very careful when using the internet for history research; unfortunately there's a lot of junk out there. Some sites can look quite official and credible when in fact they're not - like some of the "holocaust denial" sites. That's not to say that there isn't useful material available: Yale University's online library is a worthy example.

The thing to remember about a book though, is that before it's published, it's usually vetted by at least two knowledgeable people in the field - so it will automatically have a degree of credibility. By contrast, anybody can put material on the web, so you always need to approach this material with extra caution.

Ian

: I'm probably showing my age here, but I don't use the internet perhaps as much as I should. We need to be very discriminating. Unfortunately there's no star rating - like three stars indicating that this is a good site. This is, in a sense, what we need to be doing whenever we come across a site: making a quick judgement and applying our own star rating. But my guess is that the majority of sites would get no stars, at least for our purposes as historians.

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14. How can I go about developing a structure for an essay?

Summary:

  • Try to set out your essay as a series of paragraphs
  • Think about how these paragraphs follow on logically from each other

Ian

: The first thing you need to do is sit down with the assignment question and work out what it means - to spell out the question in terms of a problem and the beginnings of an hypothesis (a possible answer). You then need to expand that into a series of paragraphs which would consist of a main point (topic sentence) and evidence for each point. You should be able to see, going through the plan, how you get from the beginning to the conclusion. There should be some sort of logical progression, which may be chronological or may be related to certain themes you are exploring. So the better writers in our experience lay out for themselves some sort of outline before they launch into the drafting process.

Once you have completed the draft, you then need to check that the structure of your essay is working. The obvious place to look is at the transitions from one paragraph to the next. You need to look for any weak spots, where for the reader there may be no obvious connection between one paragraph and the next.

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15. How much should I retell historical events in an essay?

Summary: Think of the events in your essay not as a story to be told, but as evidence to support your argument

Ian

: Just as far as is necessary. But you need to remember that your history essay is not like a textbook - where you are telling the story for the reader. You should think of it more as an answer to a question - a solution to a historical problem: e.g. why the alliance between the victorious powers in the Second World War (USSR and USA) broke down so soon after the war. So you will be offering your own interpretation of the event: e.g. that it is was due principally to fundamental ideological differences between the two powers. So the events you chose to describe will need to somehow support the argument you are presenting.

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16. What sort of writing style are lecturers looking for? Should I try to make my writing complex?

Summary:

  • No, always go for clarity ahead of complexity
  • Avoid cliches (like the plague)

Ian

: No! Always go for clarity. Don't go for the fancy expression - go for the clear and simple one. Some students opt for very long sentences - ones that might extend over quite a few lines. But these can be awfully difficult to follow. It is often the short sentence that has the most power.

Eleanor

: Some students think that their writing has to be colourful and entertaining, a bit like that of a television current affairs presenter. Hence they can fall back in a lazy way on media cliches like:

The finger of blame points at Adolf Hitler.

Or The Nuremburg Trials were for the Allied powers a win-win outcome.

In history essays, you are judged mainly on the quality of your argument and on the evidence you bring to this argument; not by describing events in a sort of racy 60 Minutes style.

It's important to realise that in a university essay, you're dealing with a different style of writing: one that's geared less toward entertaining the reader, and more toward persuading them.

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17. Can I write "I think" in an essay?

Summary:

  • Use it sparingly, especially to outline your argument
  • There are alternatives to using "I think"

Eleanor

: Yes, but use it sparingly. The essay shouldn't be "I think", "I think" all the way through - this would suggest an essay that was making too many unnecessary judgements along the way. But there are strategic moments when it is appropriate to use "I". This is especially the case when you are presenting your own argument or when you are making a judgment about other historians. For example, you might say that: Historian A argues X and Historian B argues Y, and my conclusion is that A has the stronger case.

Ian

: But as you can see from this example, you don't necessarily have to write "I think". There are all sorts of ways of signalling that an assertion is your own: "My conclusion is that..." or "It could be argued that..." or "On balance, Historian A would appear to have the stronger case", etc.

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18. What's a "historical argument"? How can I be sure that I'm "arguing" in an essay?

Summary:

  • It is your response to the question being posed
  • Write statements like "In this essay I wish to argue that..."
  • Use logic words like - hence, it follows that, these events suggest that..., etc.

Eleanor

: We can think of this in two ways. First, an argument is the topic under debate; that is an issue about which historians do not agree. For example "why the German army was unsuccessful in its invasion of Russia". Our essay topics are often based on the types of debates that professional historians are engaged in.

The other sense of a "historical argument" is your argument: that is, the response you offer to the question being posed. How do you use the "facts" to put forward an argument. So you might want to argue that the German army was unsuccessful principally because of X, whatever X might be (disunity in the German command, the tenacity of the Red Army, etc.).

How can you be sure that you are arguing in an essay? Well, one way is to provide an explicit statement of your position, e.g. " In this essay, I wish to argue that the German army was unsuccessful principally because of X...". In a properly argued essay, these sorts of statements are usually found in the introduction or the conclusion.

Ian

: Another way of recognising whether you are arguing is to look at how you are describing events in your essay. If you are just retelling the story - this happened, then this happened and then this happened - then your essay is probably going to be too descriptive and not sufficiently argumentative. One feature of a well-argued essay is the use of logic words like: hence or it follows that or these events suggest to us that or thus we can conclude..., etc. So you're not just telling the story, you're drawing conclusions about events and presenting them as evidence for the case you are making.

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19. Which referencing system do I use? Footnotes or Harvard? Why?

Summary:

  • Always use the footnote system
  • The issue of evidence is incredibly important in history writing

Eleanor

: In history, we always use the footnote system, never Harvard (author-date). Why? Because we are always concerned with the issue of evidence. As readers, we need to know immediately on what evidential basis any assertion is made in a text (i.e. Where did the information come from?, What was the source?, When was it produced?). Footnoting is the most efficient system for providing this information.

Another reason is that in history we use a variety of sources - often unpublished ones like documents and letters - which can't be adequately represented in the Harvard style.

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20. What type of information do I need to footnote in an essay?

Summary:

  • Any direct quote
  • Any fact that is not generally known
  • Any argument taken from a secondary source

Eleanor

: In simple terms, you footnote the following:

  1. Any direct quote from a primary source. If you are quoting from a primary source (e.g. one of Hitler's speeches) we need to have all the background details - when the speech was given, where, to whom, etc.
  2. Any "fact" that is not generally known. This is not exactly straightforward; it will require some judgement on your part. For example, it would not normally be necessary to footnote a statement like "The Second World War began on the 3rd September 1939" or "Winston Churchill, the Prime Minister of Britain during the war years...". These are clearly known and uncontroversial pieces of information. But a more specific assertion like "On the 4th May 1941, Winston Churchill ordered that British troops be held ready for X" would need a footnote.
  3. Any argument taken from a secondary source, i.e. the particular interpretation of an individual historian. Thus the following type of statement - "Historian A has argued that the main cause of the German defeat on the Russian Front was X" - would clearly need a footnote.

The simple rule: if in doubt, footnote. No student ever failed an essay for footnoting too often; but an essay can fail for a lack of it.

Ian

: The best way to pick up on the conventions of footnoting is to have a look at how things are done in a scholarly journal. You'll see that footnotes are there in abundance - it might be that in some cases half the page is devoted to the footnotes.

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21. When should I use direct quotes in an essay? What about quoting secondary sources?

Summary:

  • Quote primary sources
  • Quote secondary sources when you are dealing with a historian's particular interpretation

Ian

: The first point is that we encourage you to quote directly from primary sources. For example, if Goering or Goebbels said something that is relevant to your work, then their exact words should be quoted. The quoting of a primary source is one of the ways you can support an assertion you're making. It also adds texture to your work - the original words often have a power that can't be conveyed in paraphrase.

For secondary sources, the situation is a little trickier. You should avoid quoting just for information. For example it would not be appropriate to write:

quote " In 1938, Chamberlain embarked on his ill-fated trip to Munich to negotiate with Hitler" unquote.

This information would need a footnote, but it is making too much of it to express it as a direct quote. There is no good reason to quote this statement - better to paraphrase.

So what is appropriate to quote from a secondary source? Essentially it will be broad statements of interpretation offered by the historian. Such quotes will normally have the historian mentioned in the sentence - for example:

Bloggs argues that Britain's appeasement of the Germans in the 1930s was "quite understandable in the context of the time."

This is a good use of direct quote because it shows precisely what Bloggs's view of appeasement is.

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22. What's plagiarism? How can I avoid it?

Summary:

  • Plagiarism is not acknowledging your sources properly
  • Try to avoid it by letting your voice come through

Eleanor

: Obviously, it's plagiarism when you copy from a source and don't acknowledge it. This is deliberate plagiarism and is unacceptable.

But there is also a less deliberate, more "innocent", form of plagiarism. This happens when the student is just a bit too close to their source - when they are just paraphrasing - changing a word here and there. The problem here is that the "voice" that comes across in the essay is not really the student's, but that of the historian they've been reading.

What you need to do is assimilate the ideas you have been reading and to lay them out in your own terms. You need to keep your sources at arm's length, as it were - to allow your own "voice" to come through.

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23. Who's the audience for my essay? Is it just my lecturer?

Summary:

  • Not just your lecturer - try to have a broader readership in mind
  • Be generous to your reader

Ian

: Some essays suffer from a sort of "clique-ism" - that is, the student is clearly writing for someone who is in the know, but it's not going to make sense to anyone else. Some students tend to think: "The tutor has set the question; therefore knows what the question means - why should I bother to explain it?" Or "The lecturer has lectured on this point and knows all about this area, so why should I put in the background?"

But you should have a broader readership in mind - someone like an averagely intelligent person. You could think for example that you're writing for a friend doing another subject. Ask yourself: "Could somebody doing, say, Sociology or even Medicine or Engineering read this essay and understand what the issue is, what my argument is, etc.?" If the essay fails this test, then it is probably deficient in some basic way.

In short, you should always seek to be generous and helpful to your reader.

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