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What makes a good historian -- details please!

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  Quote hugoestr Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Topic: What makes a good historian -- details please!
    Posted: 13-May-2007 at 07:56
Many of us at AE write history or would like to write history. We all want to do a good job. Yet writing history in many ways seem closer to an art than science, and this has been the case since the beginning of the historic tradition at least in Western civilization.

Examining primary sources are probably the most important technique that any aspiring historian has to learn to do. And most would agree on this.

But after this, we have many methods and techniques available which are hard to make a clear judgment about them.

Let me give you an example. I personally love Thucydides' method of going into detail in one example and use it as an archetype for that situation throughout his book. So he presents one case of famine in detail, and refers people back to this account every times another famine happens.

But how valid would it be to use this method today?

Please share other examples and comment
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  Quote elenos Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 23-Jul-2007 at 00:20
I think the important points are to be accurate, be honest, try not to show bias, and most of all to tell a good story. Most the great writers of history are remembered for their inventive construction of phrases. It sounds a lot better to say "the Assyrians descended like a wolf on a fold." Than to say the Assyrians attacked the Israelites", but the previous quotation, although world famous, there is bias against the Assyrians.


Edited by elenos - 23-Jul-2007 at 00:21
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  Quote Justinian Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 28-Jul-2007 at 23:20
A poet writing about historical events.  I own a copy of thucydides' peloponnesian war but haven't read it yet so I can't comment on his style.  That being said I would say besides having a flair for prose a historian should realize his/her limitations and give as objective an account of his/her subject as possible.  As well as giving his/her audience a list of sources with opposite opinions and updating them on the current level of understanding of said subject.  A good historian would also give his/her opinion on the subject and why he/she has that opinion while making it clear that is an opinion and not the absolute truth.  After all isn't it Napoleon who once asked, "what is history but a fable agreed upon?"
"War is a cowardly escape from the problems of peace."--Thomas Mann

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  Quote hugoestr Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 29-Jul-2007 at 09:52
Yes, sometimes good writing gets in the way of good history. My professors said that Herodotus told great stories in a great way. Thucydides' style was a reaction to Herodotus lively and engaging style. A lively style is a lot more fun to read; but a more serious style can allow us to think through the topic better.

I have been doing research on a Mexican president, and I am reading a lot of histories of Mexico to find information about him. So far, my favorite author is the one that writes in a style similar to Plutarch. This is, he writes little analysis of character by picking entertaining and telling anecdotes. His writing is filled with interesting stories, yet I can't use it in any serious way because he doesn't have references to them because his history is meant to be a popular history, not a scholarly one.
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  Quote Aster Thrax Eupator Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 01-Aug-2007 at 17:09

Yes - just like Suetonius Tranquillus - he writes his "rumours" (I won't call them histories) in a very concise and organised chronological way, but doesn't give enough useful evidence to be of any great help in writing about any of the early Caesars (urmmm...Suetonius, what about Claudius's invasion of Britain?), but Tacitus, on the other hand gives clear and concise views of some of the early emperors, with usually relevant detail that can be worked from. Unfortunatley, his style is so messed around (he wrote in annals and notes - it's not structured like suetonius) that he's harder for the historian to deal with.

A healthy balance between the two is what I think makes a good historian - Suetonius's structure and flowing style, and tacitus's clear and concise, relevant details with an appropriate interpretation.

I also think that sheer enthusiasm (not something which AE is short of!) aids a historian (as it does any profession!) greatly- despite your shortcomings, if you are an enthusiastic historian, you will pursue your chosen area of study with glee, and can thus maintain a healthy prolific writing style and can see problems as learning curbs. Many of us pre-university types here (such as myself, rider and knights) have all gained most of our historical information (at least I would assume so) from our own personal reading and enthusiasm- as we are part of such a community at our tender age of 15-17, we can practice and sharpen our skills so that when we go to uni, we already have a good background.
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  Quote Efraz Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 28-May-2008 at 11:21
I humbly recommend Collingwood readings for a "modern" view on historiography.
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  Quote Theodore Felix Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 28-May-2008 at 17:32
- Objectivity -- I think that this cant be stressed enough since its one of the most difficult. As Polybius once said, we must be ready to praise our enemies when it is deserved and attack our allies when it is deserved. But more than just praise, we have to evaluate those we are looking at without the biases that we may have. We must see our own people and that of the "enemy" as an equal in a single realm: history.

- Enthusiasm -- As mentioned before, enthusiasm for a subject is an utmost necessity as writing is hard and writing history is particularly difficult.

- Critical Thinking -- History is more than just what happened; and often, what happened can be explained differently by 10 diff. people. More than just the event, we must be able to understand why it happened, what led to it. If an event occurred today, we need to be able to go back in time and point out what was the precursor. And more, how did this affect history. For ancient it can be easier than modern, since we are still living through it.

- Good writing skills -- Although historians as models of prose anymore, writing skills are still a necessity if you want an audience.

Edited by Theodore Felix - 28-May-2008 at 17:33
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  Quote Aelfgifu Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 28-May-2008 at 19:04

An open mind is needed. A historian should always be willing to see different sides of things. A historian should always find the flaws in his/her own theory, and give a good evaluation on why these flaws are or are not a problem for the theory to function. Historians must always keep in mind that there is no such thing as the truth, that it might never be possible to know for sure what happened, or why, or even when. And of course historians must realise and take into account that there is no such thing as objectivity, and all we can ever do is try to be as objective as possible, without developing tunnel vision.


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  Quote Efraz Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 29-May-2008 at 11:30
Originally posted by Theodore Felix

- Objectivity -- I think that this cant be stressed enough since its one of the most difficult. As Polybius once said, we must be ready to praise our enemies when it is deserved and attack our allies when it is deserved. But more than just praise, we have to evaluate those we are looking at without the biases that we may have. We must see our own people and that of the "enemy" as an equal in a single realm: history.

- Enthusiasm -- As mentioned before, enthusiasm for a subject is an utmost necessity as writing is hard and writing history is particularly difficult.

- Critical Thinking -- History is more than just what happened; and often, what happened can be explained differently by 10 diff. people. More than just the event, we must be able to understand why it happened, what led to it. If an event occurred today, we need to be able to go back in time and point out what was the precursor. And more, how did this affect history. For ancient it can be easier than modern, since we are still living through it.

- Good writing skills -- Although historians as models of prose anymore, writing skills are still a necessity if you want an audience.


Very complete. Congrats...

Hard to add anything more. But I humbly want to emphasize "critical thinking" and especially "objectivity" due to my late thinkings.

First of all "History" as a science must be approached like any other discipline of science. Collingwood states an important issue for a historian.

A research should be solely in pursuit of the facts. But sometimes this pursuit can be shadowed by presumptions. For example a historian could have a presumption of a certain issue and during the research he/she sometimes unconsciously tries to prove her point instead of searching for what's really there.

This is a very common risk for historians. History is a dangerous area, highly politicized with national and religion views. And we are all humans. Like a Roman thinker said, none of us free of humane faults.

So a historian, before starting his research should be ready for every conclusion. It's easy to conclude to the answer you are looking for. If you have a presumption it's very easy to delude yourself with false or weak proofs. So one must be totally determined to welcome all types of outcomes of his/her research without any shadow of presumption.

This is crucial for any discipline of science but more dangerous for history. Pseudo-history is very tempting, hard to resist sometimes.


Edited by Efraz - 29-May-2008 at 11:31
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  Quote Seko Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 29-May-2008 at 16:33
All very good requirements in making a premier historian. I will add one thing similar to letting the facts guide you. The mindset is important. If a historian goes into his/her research not only with an open mind but with the intention to look at all possibilities he/she will be doing his/her study justice. If doing an article on a battle, for instance, it would be a good idea to take the point of view of both sides then establish a conclusion showing the pitfalls and gains of each.
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  Quote Cryptic Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 02-Jun-2008 at 00:29
Originally posted by Seko

I will add one thing similar to letting the facts guide you. The mindset is important. If a historian goes into his/her research not only with an open mind but with the intention to look at all possibilities he/she will be doing his/her study justice. 
Too bad David Irving did not follow this advice.  He is an excellent research historian who  started to force the historical facts regarding the holocaust in the fiormer Soviet Union to fit his increasingly extremist beliefs. In the end, a great research career was destroyed by a few deliberatly mistated facts.
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  Quote Guests Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 02-Jun-2008 at 20:34
This is a good question; I'm looking for the answers myself.
 
These things have been appreciated by my professors: source-criticism, ability to think outside the box, inter-disciplinary methods, awareness of latest research.
 
Things not appreciated by the said gentlemen and ladies: prejudice, anachronistic views, complete reliance on secondary sources, uncritical approach to primary sources, internet, Discovery Channel.
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  Quote Sukhbaatar Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 10-Jun-2008 at 09:39

I think unbiased and balanced point of view withut personal opinion is most important however not many historians do this.

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  Quote Parnell Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 10-Jun-2008 at 13:40
Showing a POV is fine, I'd rather that than a half baked attempt at neutrality, which a lot of historians do. As long as its not a reference work (Such as a book about German history between 1870-1920), historians should write with a bit of boldness and opinion, especially when they are pushing their own thesis.
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  Quote pikeshot1600 Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 10-Jun-2008 at 20:00
Originally posted by Sukhbaatar

I think unbiased and balanced point of view withut personal opinion is most important however not many historians do this.

 
As all of us have some biases and we all have opinions, that is difficult or impossible to do.  As Parnell states, a reference work, or perhaps a textbook (if not censored by some bureaucratic authority) may achieve a "fair & balanced" presentation, but those are exremely dry works.
 
Any monograph has a thesis, and must be expected to be biased in favor of the author's opinion.
 
Perhaps edited collections of essays or lecture papers by various historians can be more balanced, as those books can tend to show some variety of opinion, and differing PoVs.
 
 
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  Quote Al Jassas Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 11-Jun-2008 at 07:31
Three things
 
1- Documentation
2-scientific analysis
3-Superior exposition
 
anything else is just relative and a historian can try but will never succeed in perfecting himself in them.
 
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  Quote Parnell Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 11-Jun-2008 at 12:51
I suppose you could make the case that lots and lots of hours in the archives makes a good historian. 
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  Quote Panther Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 12-Jun-2008 at 07:57
What makes a good historian? 
 
I guess for starters is too never follow any of my advice! If it ever sounds like i am ever being philosophical, then beware... you all have been warned!
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  Quote HaloChanter Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 21-Jun-2008 at 07:09
I have always thought what would make a good historian is the ability to create a deadline and stick to it...
 
...Something I have yet to achieve!
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