Notes On Kamp, et al.’s Writing History! A Companion For Historians

Kamp, Jeannette, et al. Writing History!: A Companion for Historians. Translated, Amsterdam University Press, 2018.

This book was written for academics and non-academics who are interested in understanding how history is written and what they can do to write history with increasing efficiency.

The layout of the book is excellent. There is a summary of the chapters right after the introduction and the front page of each chapter contains a brief description of the contents.

Chapter 1: Historical Research (15-31)

Chapter 2: The Building Blocks of the Historical Method (33-59)

Chapter 3: Applying the Historical Method (61-81)

Chapter 4: Writing History (83-109)

Chapter 5: Presentation and Historical Debate (111-121)

Chapter 6: A Historian – Now What? (123-129)

Appendix 1: Guidelines for Notes (133-152)

Appendix 2: Other Styles of Notes (153-162)

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Chapter 1

Historical Research: The Importance of the Research Question

Right off the bat, this chapter reminded me of a quote from 1942 made by Carter Good:

“Only when a perplexing question has been identified and correctly stated does profitable study of history begin.”
Carter V. Good (1942) [1, p.141]

Reportedly, the first crucial step in figuring out what to research is a critical examination of your choice of subject.[p.17] Three questions that they pose in the book related to this critical examination are:[p.18]

1: “Why is this particular subject so interesting?”
2: “What would you like to know?”
3: “What results do you expect that researching that subject will produce?”

When discussing the importance of formulating a good research question, the authors lay out three different types of questions:[p.19]

1: Descriptive – a question that helps describe the subject/phenomena
2: Explanatory – ” ” explain ” “
3: Exploratory – ” ” explore ” ”

Chapter 1.1.3 gives some illuminating examples of historians and their research questions. Chapter 1.1.4 covers the criteria for historical research questions. Some of the criteria are:[p.21]

1: Be precise, not vague
2: Be historically relevant
3: Ask difficult questions that can’t be answered in a short summary or single word
4: Avoid implicit value judgements

Chapter 1.2 goes on to assist with forming a good research question:[p.22]

1: “a thorough knowledge of the relevant academic literature”
2: “a preliminary exploration of the available (source) material”
3: “an assessment of its potential contribution to the discipline”

“Link or lever – in the end, a good research question must ensure that the research project makes a relevant contribution to the state of knowledge in an academic field.”[p.25]

Peep Show Season 9 Episode 3 comes to mind after reading the above quote. Jeremy asks Angus, “Did Jesus have a cat?” before berating him for not knowing the answer. The whole scene is hilarious.

The chapter goes on to discuss self-criticism and criticism from others. It briefly touches on the philosophies of history that different people employ as well as the difference between chronicling and writing history.

The final section of chapter 1 gives more information about planning your research.

Chapter 2

The Building Blocks of the Historical Method

The authors draw a line between “sources” and “literature”. They call primary sources “sources” and secondary sources “(secondary) literature”.[p.35] They do clarify the context for the terms in the following pages. Then they discuss some aspects of 5 different types of sources: textbooks, monographs, collections, journal articles, and encyclopedic works.

After talking about some methods of finding sources and literature, they discuss something apparently known as “the snowball method”.[p.43] I didn’t know that it was called this, but it’s something I’ve done myself while researching topics. Generally speaking, it involves gathering up the sources of your sources and looking into those too.

The “Arts and Humanities Citation Index” was mentioned, which I don’t think I’d heard of before. It’s reportedly an index that lists citations from a specific book (or other publication) and also the works that it itself has been cited in. This sounds really useful.

Another mention I want to learn more about is the “New York Review of Books”.

Jstor (https://www.jstor.org/) and Muse (https://muse.jhu.edu/) were mentioned as “important digital libraries”.[p.45]

The Web of Science was mentioned. I’m not familiar with this but it looks interesting to me. I briefly searched for the sign up but didn’t see it anywhere. All I found was the sign in option. https://support.clarivate.com/ScientificandAcademicResearch/s/?language=en_US

I hadn’t heard of Historical Abstracts either: https://www.ebsco.com/products/research-databases/historical-abstracts. Another mention was the International Medieval Bibliography.

Limitations in methodology was discussed and some common pitfalls were identified.

They discussed 5 categories of source (textual, material, visual, auditory, and digital) and 4 places to find those sources in (archives, published sources, specialized historical databases, and museum depots).[pp.47-59]

Chapter 3

Applying the Historical Method

They provided “Five steps towards a definitive research design”:[p.63]

1: form a research question
2: explore the literature
3: refine the question
4: explore the literature and sources more
5: write the research plan

They go on to expand upon each point.[pp.64-70]

Pages 71-81 discuss methods for organizing sources and research.

Page 74 has a useful diagram on how to summarize and organize a piece of literature.

Page 80 has a useful diagram on how to analyze photographs to be used as an historical source.

Chapter 4

Writing History: Narrative and Argument

The authors discuss ways of writing prefaces, introductions, arguments, and conclusions.

They list 5 attributes of a good introduction:[p.87]

1: subject intro
2: research question
3: question justification
4: theory and method presentation
5: chapter overview

Introductions are essential. Prefaces are not.[p.88]

“The aim of historical research is the description and explanation of changes over time.”[p.90]

They talk about how to structure paragraphs and then give some examples. Next they covered sections and subsections before covering how to write your arguments and debates.

There are some useful notes about how an author represents their work in their text and the work of others in it.[pp.97-100]

They discuss plagiarism and originality and then go into some examples.[pp.100-103]

Page 105 talks about using past and present tenses when writing about history. When I started this website and I was making brief biographies of people, I began writing those in present tense. As time went on, I thought past sounded better and so I switched to using that instead. Apparently past tense is more academic historical accounts than present.

The chapter concludes with some rules for annotation.

Chapter 5

Presentation and Historical Debate

The opening of this chapter reminded me of a quote from Jonathan Zimmerman:

“Most historians today are not actually schooled to speak to anybody except other historians. …because I’m a professional historian, one of the things I study is the way that professional historians have been wrong. And often, you know who they’ve been corrected by? Lay people.”
Fake News and Fake History: A Crisis of Authority, c.52 minute mark

The chapter discusses the importance of presentation and discussion. There are good pointers in this chapter but it is notably short. I’ve been wondering about how to get lectureship positions. Information on how to do that was not included but it is still a good chapter nonetheless.

Chapter 6

A Historian – Now What?

This book is about writing history, so discussing job prospects and community involvement isn’t the core focus. I think it would have been nice to have a longer Chapter 6. It briefly covered some things historians can do inside and outside of academia, as well as the importance of publishing.

Appendices

The appendices have information on how to cite and make notes/footnotes.

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References:

[1] – Good, Carter V. “Some Problems of Historical Criticism and Historical Writing.” The Journal of Negro Education, vol. 11, no. 2, 1942, pp. 135–149. JSTORwww.jstor.org/stable/2292396. Accessed 28 July 2020.

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