History Is Scholarship; It's Also Literature

Brian Taylor

July 12, 2009

History is a book-based discipline. We read books, we write books, we promote and tenure people on the basis of books, and at national meetings we gather around book exhibits. But we don't teach our graduate students how to write books.

It's an odd omission. We view statistics, geographic-information systems, languages, oral-history techniques, paleography, and other methodologies as worthy of attention in doctoral study —but not serious writing. Yet careers rise and fall on the basis of what we publish.

It may be that the scientific model of the grant-supported article is becoming more dominant, or that the simple production of data has become a sufficient justification for scholarship. Surely one reason is that research seminars offer enough time to compose an essay or a journal article but not a book, or even a book chapter. Perhaps an obsession with historiography has blocked interest in historical writing as literature, or the belief has arisen that the best way to meet the challenges of postmodern literary criticism is to deny its claims altogether, particularly since the contamination of memoir by fictional devices has tainted the whole question of applying "literary" techniques, borrowed from fiction, to nonfiction sources.

It may be simply that most of us don't know how to teach writing —real writing, which is to say, finding the means to express what we want to say. Instead we defer to the off-the-shelf formulas of the favored journals and the thesis-evidence-conclusion style of traditional dissertations. We take students' ideas for books and turn them into dissertations, and then expect them to magically reconvert them back into the books that originally motivated their imaginations and that their subsequent careers will require. While at least some historians are keen to unpack prose, few are eager to teach how to pack it properly in the first place. Whatever the reasons, serious writing isn't taught. There isn't even an accepted name for it.

Over the years my curiosity about that tendency ripened into concern. Then, a few years ago, while visiting at Australian National University, I was asked to lead a seminar on writing. That inspired me to offer a graduate course at my own institution on the theory and practice of making texts do what their writers wished. It would be English for historians, just as we might offer statistics for ecologists or chemistry for geologists. It's been the best teaching experience of my career.

Initially I thought most of the students who enrolled would come from history; almost none of them did. Instead, my students came from biology, anthropology, journalism, English, geography, communications, and undeclared majors who strolled in more or less off the streets. The only historian who took it did so as an override in defiance of her program of study. What all of the students shared was a desire to write better, and generally to write something other than the oft-cribbed, formulaic prose required of their disciplines.

We meet once a week for three hours. Class size matters: The structure of the course doesn't work with fewer than four or more than 10 students. The first 80 minutes or so we discuss the assigned readings —sometimes a book, sometimes essays or sample sections —that illustrate the topic of the day, such as voice, designing, plotting, character, setting, figures of speech, editing, scaling, and so on. We break for 10 to 15 minutes and then turn to the weekly writing exercises. That is where the rubber hits the road.

Each week students electronically submit an exercise of 300 to 600 words on an assigned topic. I select four and post them to the course Web page, and we discuss them intensively. Course evaluations, both formal and informal, are unanimous that this is the most valuable part of the course. To establish the style of the discussion, I use the first class session to demonstrate with a piece or two of my own writing.

Why not evaluate more than four selections? We simply haven't the time, or the concentration. We're exhausted. I try to vary the selections so the same students aren't always showcased. I pick those who did well, those who struggled, and those who wrote interesting or instructive pieces. There is something we can learn from each of them.

However much we might argue that writing requires self-editing and an ability to see ourselves as other readers might, putting words on paper is personal and anxiety inducing. I try to calm students with two strategies for our in-class discussions.

First, the students whose work is selected for us to evaluate in the classroom are anonymous. I post their work only as "Text 1," "Text 2," and so on. Over time, everyone pretty much knows who submitted what, yet the artifice is convenient, and it even allows the authors to comment on their own work. From time to time I throw in something I've written just to keep everyone guessing.

Second, students are graded according to whether they attend class and submit the required exercises. They can miss one without an excuse and still get an A. They don't have to fret over whether a submission is "good enough": If it's submitted on time and to the correct specs, it is.

In the past I had tried to teach writing within the context of a research seminar. The students were terrified. If they did not write well enough, they feared their transcript would suffer; and, just as worrisome, they stood to "lose" a potentially publishable article, which would also diminish their emerging CV. With my graduate course on writing, they have the chance to experiment and, for many, to undergo a literary detox program as they struggle to find their own voice and try to purge the awkward styling they've often inherited from their disciplines that leaves them tripping over their syntactical shoelaces. Rehab can take several months, but their grade won't suffer if they are dutiful with submissions and discussions. That kind of discipline is itself something a writing course should cultivate.

How do we discuss the writing? Pointedly, and gently. My role is not that of instructor so much as editor. We ask, What is this piece about? What is the writer trying to do? And how might we assist him or her in doing it? Then we often step back and ask more generally: What other techniques and strategies might get at this topic? The point is not that the submission is right or wrong, but that there are always many ways to express an idea, and we can use the particular submission before us to explore a range of possible approaches.

That there are always alternatives is the guiding directive of the course. Figuring out how to say what you want without making things up, or leaving things out that need to be in, is where literary imagination comes into play. Aesthetic closure is our duty to art, thematic closure our duty to scholarship, and reconciling style and substance is what the course is about. Who then determines what is the best solution in the end? The writer.

For me, the biggest challenge in teaching a course like this is getting students engaged in the difficult task of analyzing the exercises. I have to push them. They have to learn that a few casual comments of the "I like this a lot" or "This doesn't work for me" variety won't do. They have to analyze why and how it works or not. Many simply don't know how to read for craft. That's the purpose of the assigned readings, which are full of examples. And that's why I need to demonstrate a style by tackling (fairly critically) some writing of my own.

Another problem is that students tend to look to me to offer a "solution" to each exercise. I do comment; we are all expected to join in the discussion. But the trick is to put the burden on them to undertake the heavy editing. Some students do that much better than others, and some classes take to it more readily. The catalyst seems to be having a self-confident and generous student, usually older, who injects a calming presence. So far I've been lucky to have one of those each time I've taught the course.

The deeper institutional issue is granting credit to graduate students for such a course. While there is widespread dismay over poor writing, especially by historians, "good writing" seems to mean, for many faculty members, that "You need to write in the style I like," or "I want to do less copy editing." The idea that writing is an exercise in literary imagination —that it requires thinking about voice, about designing and framing, about diction, about the potential uses of character and setting and plot —is not widely accepted. Too many academics think "good writing" merely means using the active voice, not confusing "its" and "it's," and getting from thesis to conclusion as painlessly as possible.

For some scholarly writing, the prevailing formulas are sufficient, and part of good writing is recognizing when they work. Yet they often falter when confronted with new ideas, and learning how to adapt traditional templates to the actual requirements of the material and the enthusiasms of the writer is a craft that can be learned, and even taught.

Without departmental support, however, writing with literary imagination is not only difficult to teach but detrimental to graduate students because they will not get credited for the work nor be allowed by dissertation committees to use what they have learned. Before writing can be taught seriously to graduate students in history, their professors will have to agree on what good writing means, decide that it matters, and accept themes as well as theses. Before we can educate students about good writing, we may have to re-educate their teachers.

Stephen J. Pyne is a professor at Arizona State University and the author of Voice and Vision: A Guide to Writing History and Other Serious Nonfiction.