Book Review: Essaying the Past

More from my week of staring at the Wiley/Blackwell booth… Though this one I almost missed. Essaying the Past: How to Read, Write, and Think about History by Jim Cullen is a thin book. I might have missed it had I not gone over and taken a really good look at the history section 🙂

This is another book that I might not give to Freya (at least not immediately) but really helped me see how to guide her learning in history. Regular readers will know that I do not think the purpose of studying history is to know a lot of facts about important events. And Freya seems to have a natural attraction for history so I don’t really need to worry about getting her to do any.

Essaying the Past is written for high school and undergraduate university students. It is a discipline specific look at how to write an essay. And that discipline specific focus is important because, as I used to tell my students, most academics use the same words to describe what they want but they don’t all mean the same things by them. “Argument”, “evidence”, “theory”, etc mean different things to different people. And “discipline” in the academic sense is not that far removed from “discipline” in the military sense — it is about training people to do things in a particular way.

Taking a discipline specific approach to the topic of essay writing also allows Cullen to discuss details of the process that are usually treated as outside of the essay writing process per se. The first seven chapters are actually about reading and include an excellent discussion of how to skim read a large range of possible sources in order to home in on your question and choose sources you will read in more detail. It also includes a solid discussion of the appropriate uses of internet research in academic work, as well as detailed guidance on evaluating sources.

The first section ends with a chapter on analysis, which is what distinguishes an essay from a report. This is an excellent discussion of the subject and makes it clear that students do need to take a position and communicate it, but that this is not any old “opinion”. Rather, students are required to engage with the material and make decisions and persuasive arguments.

The next 7 chapters go through how one might do that in some detail. Throughout the text Cullen uses examples from both published histories and student essays written for his classes at the Fieldstone School in New York. The importance of choosing a good question, first broached in Part I, is fleshed out here but the focus shifts to the proposed answer (the thesis). He also situates all of this in terms of the motive, the reason why anyone should care about this question and argument. But he does so in a way that keeps the student tied firmly to the evidence.

The 15th chapter is an extended discussion of one student essay demonstrating how all of this works in practice in a novice piece of history writing. I think this is important because it is impossible for high school and undergraduate students to write at the level of professional historians, and unreasonable to expect them to do so. They are, by definition, novices. That doesn’t mean, however, that they can’t make arguments of their own and support them with evidence. In fact, the availability of primary sources in digitized format on the internet makes the possibilities for novices to “do history” much greater than they were in the past.

The Appendices deal with various technical issues including citing sources, plagiarism, and writing answers to DBQs (Document Based Questions). Excellent information that is appropraitely located here.

I highly recommend this book for all students of history in high school and college/university. It is easy to read and easy to dip into as a resource.

I also recommend it to parents of younger children to get a sense of where you might be going with your children’s history education. Influenced by Julie Bogart (at Bravewriter), Jena (at Yarns of the Heart) and others, my approach will be to develop a lot of the skills orally at first — asking good questions, making arguments, and supporting arguments with evidence .  And by “at first”, I don’t mean for a couple of months. I think a few years of primarily working in this mode will provide a good basis for developing solid essay writing later. (Look at Jena’s post on her son Peter’s first college paper for evidence of this.)

At this point, Freya seems to be doing very well with writing fiction based on historical sources. Her latest success in this is a poem based on the biography of John McCrae (who wrote In Flanders Fields) that has been accepted for publication in Canadian Stories. It’ll be in the October edition.


3 thoughts on “Book Review: Essaying the Past

  1. Most people seem to develop a distaste for history because in their education it is essentially reduced to memorizing names and dates. But, if it is not approached that way, most find it interesting.


  2. I just read this review out to my husband who, on top of being a reference librarian at the university, also teaches a class in medieval history. He was really intrigued.

    Good review, and thank you for writing it.


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