Labels in History, or Why Historians don’t Complete Arguments with ‘QED’

When this post goes ‘live’, I’ll be heading north to spend a week shut away on my own, brainstorming the plot of ‘Quinton 6’. (The first draft of book 5, The Battle of All The Ages, is currently out with its critical readers, and after I’ve made the inevitable revisions and redrafts, it should be on course for publication by Old Street Publishing on schedule in the spring / early summer.) For a variety of reasons, the sixth book is going to be very, very different to everything that’s gone before in the series, so watch this space for further information!

In the meantime, I’m delighted to welcome another guest blogger this week. Samuel McLean is a PhD student in the Department of War Studies at King’s College, London. His doctoral research is supervised by Dr Alan James, and examines the professionalization of the Royal Navy from its creation in 1660 to 1749. Samuel is also the Social Media Editor for the newly launched online naval and maritime history website www.BritishNavalHistory.com. He is active in the promotion of the academic uses of social media, and can be found on Twitter @Canadian_Errant. Current projects also include the podcast series “Making History” which will be available through the website.

So without further ado, over to Sam!

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First, I need to thank David for providing me with this opportunity. I would not be at Kings, asking these questions, or able to make these arguments, without his encouragement and honest criticism.

Lately, I have often proclaimed, in the course of teaching or talking to my friends, that history is a performance art. The gist of my argument is that the study of history is not just about the accumulation of knowledge; it should also be about analysis, and the creation and communication of an argument. I have also realized that I don’t think that this original sentiment goes far enough to emphasize process over result. Clearly, I don’t have to tell anybody that historical education is not receiving anywhere near the level of funding or the priority that I and many of my historian colleagues feel it should be getting, at any level of education including universities. Part of the problem is that although I’m a historian by practice, I’m not part of a history department at King’s College London, but rather the Department of War Studies. Although the department originated from History, it has in the subsequent decades incorporated other disciplines such as social sciences, and fields of study like International Relations that lack a specific discipline. As a result, the War Studies BA (undergraduate) students are faced with a series of conflicting requirements and disciplines. This has created very specific reactions in the classroom. I am a Teaching Assistant for a 1st year basic survey course, “Conduct of War”, as well as for a 2nd year course on naval history. In both cases my primary tasks are to lead seminars (which are discussions) and to mark essays and provide feedback for students (formative, not substantive assessments). With my recent experiences teaching as well as experiences talking to senior academics and education researchers I have developed concerns about how history seems to be taught as a science, rather than an art.

I realize that sounds ridiculous, and inflammatory, but considering the way that history is structured, and way certain topics are taught give some credence to my concerns. Maths and sciences are taught in a very specific way. Students are taught the rules, formulas, provided the values of variables. Then they are handed a series of problems that they are expected solve using the formulas. Essentially, they are taught how to analyze a situation, and then to use the provided rules to find an absolute answer. It is clear to me that in many ways, students are being taught history in the same manner. I think that a major part of the modern approach to education is the creation of the correct, final answers; this is an approach that is anathema to the study of history. However, it is an approach that has taken hold. Consider the way that historians use labels and descriptions. One particularly vivid example from my past was one element of Ontario’s high school history curriculum “what were the four causes of the First World War.” The curriculum was looking for specific answers, and not arguments. Recently, my first year students have spent five weeks and several seminars discussing Michael Robert’s “Military Revolution” thesis. Much time was spent by the lecturer demolishing the thesis and its underpinning assumptions. Whether Roberts intended the “Military Revolution” to be the final answer or not, historians should not treat it as an attempt at such. The goal should not be to develop descriptions and labels that solve a particular historical problem, but rather to find precise, and as my colleague Katie Parker said “elegant” ways to communicate history arguments clearly and to also invite questions to propagate future analyses and arguments.

Some people I have discussed my concerns with have argued that is incumbent on the teachers and teaching assistants to ensure their students look beyond the explanations that they are given. While I agree, and do so in my seminars, it is clear that many undergraduate students feel that my approach to history implies extra work that cannot be accommodated given their course loads. As a result, often students won’t go beyond the simple answer presented by the label, or the framework to study the complexity. This raises my aspect of my concerns. After a recent academic event, a very senior historian and former naval officer opined much of the work produced by history students was essentially plagiarism due to the lack of original analysis and the reproduction of other historians arguments. Setting aside the implied academic misconduct, my colleague’s point was embodied by an encounter I recently had with one of my students, who handed me an essay for which they had clearly read many historical monographs and articles. However, the student neither used those sources to provide references for their personal analysis, nor provided a historiographical analysis. When I spoke to them in my office hours, they told me that they had been taught that history essays did were not supposed to include arguments from the student. On the same day, I was told that in the English academic tradition, the role of the lecture is not the transmission of information but rather the expression of the lecturer’s opinion. That practice can only contribute to a problem-solving approach to history.

I’m not arguing that historians shouldn’t create frameworks like The Military Revolution, just that the frameworks or labels should be a means, not an end. Instead, historians should create frameworks as a mechanism to organize their study and facilitate the creation of their arguments. The development of just such is the encapsulation of the experience of my PhD so far and my practice as a historian over the past several years. The difference between what I was attempting to do during my Masters research and my current Doctoral research is the link between my comprehension, practice and expression of the interdisciplinary aspects of my work. I was previously unsuccessful because although I had an innate understanding of the questions I was trying to ask I was not able to communicate to my professors, or the readers of my work what I was trying to do and their inability to understand my methodology rendered them unable to evaluate the arguments. In a very similar way, the most important changes that I’ve made within my PhD project was the movement from the use of a label to a description at the centre of my analytical framework.

Whether we recognize it or not, historians always create artificial frameworks to organize their arguments whether they be the sections of an essay, chapters of a thesis or a rubric. For my current study of the professionalization of the Royal Navy, I’ve created a number of these that describe, and break down the development processes. Unintentionally, this resulted in a loss of focus on the history itself Instead of describing the frameworks I use in my methodology, I placed them at the centre of my thesis statement. This affected the way that my chapters were being written, as well as the way that others understood my work. It became clear that this was an issue when I began receiving comments about concerns that my PhD was not “history” enough to defend successfully. I also struggled with the use of a label at the centre of my thesis. For months, I had argued that the Royal Navy was a corporate entity. I had needed to select a label because when I used the term ‘Royal Navy’ in my arguments I needed to communicate that I was not talking about men, or the materiel but something rather less tangible. Although this label did provide the required function, it did not accurately describe what the Royal Navy actually was. A colleague pointed out that the Royal Navy was never incorporated, cannot be attributed the same legal agency as a corporation. I needed to consider why I was actually using the term ‘corporate entity’, and as a result I decided that I didn’t need a label, I needed a description. By providing a description of the compound existence of Royal Navy instead, I found that I no longer needed to continually clarify what I meant when I used the label “Royal Navy” and my arguments because much easier to understand.

In both cases, the artificial frameworks that I created proved to be a distraction. Instead of simply being tools to help understand the analysis and arguments, they became arguments themselves. Their removal allowed me to refocus my work and clearly outline its place within the established historiography which in turn has resulted in the most recent responses to my work actually being on my arguments, where they should be.

Historians should be like the Borg; we should strive for perfection despite the knowledge that we’ll never read every single document or achieve the perfect turn of phrase to encapsulate a complex phenomenon. As we (historians) get better at describing what we are doing, the better we (historians) are able to analyze what we are seeing, and better able to communicate that analysis. But historians cannot forget that the result of historical study is not a final solution to a historical problem, but rather contributions to an ongoing discussion.

2 Comments

  1. swilliams13@san.rr.com says:

    I enjoy your blogs, thank you! I’m writing a historical fiction novel that involves a EIC ship. Do you know where I could find resources to discover the fine details of the ship’s sail plan and various features, such as decks and holds (cutaway views)? I’m using the Henry as my ship in the story, but any 350 ton EIC vessel would work. Also, any information about Swansea circa 1693 would be of help since my character was born there. I’m located in the U.S. and I’m a retired Senior Chief of the U.S. Navy. My recently deceased grandfather was an enlisted engineer in the Royal Navy on a destroyer during Korea. Thank you for any pointers, and have a good day.

    Scott Williams

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    • Thanks for your kind comment, Scott! Unfortunately, your timing is a bit out – I’m away for a week, brainstorming the plot of my own next novel, so don’t have access to my books and other sources, particularly the ones about Swansea. What period would your EIC ship be? From memory, I don’t think there is a single source that provides the sort of information on EIC ships that you’re looking for; books like Jean Sutton’s Lords of the East and Chatterton’s A World for the Taking should help, though. I’ll email you after I get back to base and can look things up properly!

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