Historical Awareness

For the History 297 class, we were required to read from John Tosh’s The Pursuit of History. Tosh opens by trying to convey his opinions on the general idea that humans, as we currently exist, rely more on experience than instinct. The culmination of all of our experiences, our memories, are what ultimately make it history. I like to think of this in the sense that history is the memory that tells us we will burn our hands on the stove. Tosh continues in the first chapter by establishing that all societies have this type of “memory.” These are the things that can unite a culture, as they focus on certain ‘defining’ events. However, this ‘memory’ that these cultures share can often be historically inaccurate. In here is the difference between Historical Awareness and Social Memory. Both are important for a historian to understand. With Social Memory, these are the ideas which some societies operate on. It is how they answer the question “why is x the way it is?” Even if the answer is not entirely accurate, it is the answer that forms their societal policy. Historical Awareness, however, refers to the observation of the past for what it is. It marks the significance of many points in history without influence from modern politics. Historical Awareness was particularly popular with the historicists, who believed that the presentation of history must be done without bias. They also believed in three main principles: difference context, and process. Understanding the difference between each time period, understanding the context of the actions of that time by knowing what else was going on, and understanding that these actions made more of an impact later on.

We also had to read Chapter 2 of Pursuit of History, Uses of History. In a similar fashion as the first chapter, Tosh opens by pointing out two contrasting views on history: Destiny and ‘bunk’. One tells us that human history has been on a progressive course that will ultimately lead to our destiny. The other states that nothing can truly be gained by learning it, or that the past does not justify actions in the present. It also states that it may be better to advance society if we do so without the continuation of tradition. However, both ideas have their problems. The first would believe that history could prophesize the future and, in doing so, would negate the idea of human agency. The other would state that we should not hold on to certain ideas and leave nothing for social order. From history, we can try to attain “experience that is simply not possible in our own lives.” Tosh continues by stating that the point of history is not to see what we have already done, but to see “the possibilities.” It is indispensable, for both society and the individual, to seek out this “experience.” Which is why we are here, as historians.

Writing as Communicating

For our history 297 class, we were required to read from The History Student Writer’s Manual. Specifically, we read Chapter 2, Writing as Communicating.

The chapter starts by referencing the greater wordsmiths of American History; Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, and John F. Kennedy.  These men, as the chapter states, did not begin their lives with some Mozart-esque talent at writing. Their speeches were prepared, proofread, edited, and revised many times before the public ever heard it. This process is the main theme of the chapter.

The paper starts by telling the reader that, even if the subject they have to write about is not within their area of interest. It tells them to remain confident in their work and work on it with the same level of enthusiasm they would have shown in any other case. From there, it returns to the first actual step in writing a paper: choosing a topic and narrowing it down. For historians, this is not as simple as saying “write about the Revolution.”, but rather “write about how the patriot movement was popularized in the colonies.” After that the topic has to be narrowed down to something more specific, without being so specific that the historian would have incredibly limited resources. So, continuing with the theme of the revolution, the topic would become about “the acts of the British government and their effect on the Patriot movement.”

From there, it reads a bit like the books we had in our public speaking class. We must choose whether or not we are trying to inform or to persuade. This is also affected by who the audience is. Understand what the audience is seeking to get by reading the paper. The tone of the paper would also be different if the paper is being written for the professor, your colleagues, or for some form of historical journal.

After that, the chapter goes back to the formatting of the paper. Creating outlines, formatting those outlines, writing statements for each paragraph to get the general idea, etc. Continuing from there, it adds in the usual advice for a paper. Keep away from slang terms, be formal; do not use clichés, if you have to use an analogy, be original about it.

All in all, I found the whole chapter a bit refreshing, in the sense that it is the type of document you would find in a refresher course. It goes over the same type of writing rules that we have learned, but done so in a way where it is more conducive to the writings of a historian. It certainly is worth reading. Especially considering that it’s the fall semester, and people forget things like these over the summer. It establishes the criteria for what is expected of us in our writings. That being said, it does at times, seem a bit tedious. There is the sense that, considering most of our class are in the junior year, we would understand this by now. Still, it is nice to look back at the rules of writing, knowing that it might influence our writing for the better.