It is likely that advocates of every discipline believe their subject is unique, but in history we know it to be true. Every subject, every family–indeed everything–has a history, which makes most everyone a historian of a sort. This pervasive familiarity with history (bolstered by requirements for students in public schools to complete courses in US history in some states) has a political side as well. In the last few hundred years, with the rise of nation states, communicating a shared understanding of the history of one’s country has become an important part of building a cohesive identity and establishing patriotic feelings. Many, if not most, adults legitimately claim a degree of ownership of the past. They want to know about the history of their country, their ethnic group, their state, their family.
While this widespread thirst for stories about the past creates an audience for historians, it can complicate the process of writing history. In every era, including our own, both politicians and historians have debated the validity of some claims about the past. Some of these debates emerge from honest differences in interpretation from limited source material while others emerge from competing political positions. We think the best outcome for students of history is that they will learn the difference between the two, and thus not be subject to someone else’s claim about “what history tells us.” One benefit of this book–and the introductory historical research methods course it is usually attached to–is that helps students build the critical thinking skills necessary to discern what is behind such debates and whether one side has a better argument than the other.
A less lofty, but an equally important, goal for this book is that those who read it will learn how to do well in history courses by developing the ability to read, research, and write according to the standards established in our discipline. Becoming familiar with how historians customarily approach questions about the past–as well as learning to how to read critically, research efficiently, build strong arguments based on evidence, and write with clarity–are the lessons that will give history students not only a leg-up in their history courses, but provide important, marketable skills useful in other courses and in many careers.
If you remember nothing else, we hope that the main lesson you gain from reading this book is that within the professional discipline of history (unlike the history that everyone owns) there are standards for research and writing about the past. In a historical methods course, you will practice those skills and then test your mastery of them (we hope) by completing your own historical research paper. The first four units of this book–“Thinking Historically,” “Reading Historically,” “Researching Historically,” and “Writing Historically”–offer descriptions of the essential skills. The fifth unit–“Performing Historically”–offers advice about presenting your research findings as well as a bit about some of the careers open to those with an academic training in history. Dive in, so that you too can know what it means to think like an historian!