A fellow student in the Classics program at Temple University received a B on one of her papers. She was visibly frustrated and I pressed her on whether it was deserved or not. Her teacher left one comment about her lack of any secondary sources. Her response was, “Why do I need any secondary sources, if I used all primary sources?”
A professor at another university revealed that some of her students find historiography difficult to master, as they “tend to see historiography as a chore they must perform before moving on to more ‘sexy’ types of analysis.”
The mentality is common among undergraduate students from multiple schools–what is the big deal about historiography?
Historiography, or the history of history, can appear unappealing, but historians ignore it to their own detriment. The context and influences on why people remember, commemorate, and retell history the way they do can be just as revealing as the actual events.
For example, there is nearly 150 years of history about the American Civil War. However, there are countless influences on those narratives from cultural, to apologetic, political, reunion, excited storytellers, and many others. Reading any book on the war from the past 150 years could expose you to any or sort theme or vein of historiography with its own rich history. Understanding these veins is crucial to understanding the angle of the historian, intentional or unintentional.
In addition, historians who jump straight to the primary sources ignore 150 years of work by their predecessors. Regardless of how tantalizing a diary entry, letter, or official report may appear, it is likely that some historian analyzed it already. Ignoring this analysis can result in retreading dispelled myths, which happens often in Civil War historiography nowadays.
Historiography is important and budding historians should learn to love it.
Online Learning Tips, Student Contributor
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