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Writing History Dissertation

As a Ph.D. Candidate in History, I'm working on the intersections between the history of American antislavery and the history of families. My dissertation traces the journey of African American families as they migrated from North America to West Africa during the early nineteenth century, locating settlers and missionaries as they established new lives for themselves in the American colonies at Liberia. These migrants often kept in close contact with family members that remained in the United States after the Atlantic crossing was made, and I have been working on uncovering the histories of these connections.

While it’s summer in Ann Arbor, and many of the undergraduate students have left town, I’m still hard at work on my dissertation. The project for this summer is to write a chapter of my dissertation (ultimately, it will have about six). As a historian, most of my work involves researching in archives – which you can read about in my last blog post here. What I’m doing now is taking my archival findings – notes and photographs from old letters, diaries, land deeds, and books – and turning them into an intelligible narrative. Since most of the people I write about left little written record, I often have to do a lot of work to uncover small points. For instance, I had to visit three different archives just to determine how many printing presses were in Liberia by 1840.

I’ve always enjoyed writing, and especially writing history. But writing a dissertation chapter can be exhausting. Recently, I’ve taken to writing in the afternoons in stretches lasting a few hours. I find that if I try to write for longer periods of time, I distracted too easily and end up with messier prose. And since I’m still in the research stage of my dissertation, I can spend mornings looking at microfilm or reading books at the graduate library on the U-M campus. Most often, I’ve been swimming in the early morning. Exercise has helped me more thoroughly concentrate when I am writing, and it also forces me to stretch out my arms and back. Unsurprisingly, sitting in a chair reading and writing over a computer all day is not the best for one’s body.

When I think about the past four years I’ve spent in grad school, it occurs to me that I’ve done quite a bit of writing. During the first two years, when folks in my program typically take coursework, we write a fair bit. Usually, there’s weekly reading responses, end-of-term historiography essays, research-driven seminar papers, syllabi and teaching statements, or some combination of these things that must be done to complete a course. During the third year, when many students take prelim (sometimes called “comprehensive”) exams, I wrote synthesizing essays for all of my prelim fields. But I am finding dissertation writing to be very different than these other exercises in writing.

The writing can be a bit lonely. I don’t just mean that the process of writing is isolating, as a lot of other grad students in my cohort are off researching. The loneliness comes in when I’m actually writing, and it occurs to me that less than a handful of people have read the same documents I’m reading, and now it’s up to me to tell a story based off of this mass of newsprint and manuscript material that I’ve found. There’s a lot of pressure to “get it right” while writing history, and I feel like I wouldn’t be doing my historical subjects justice unless I gave my full effort into telling their story. Since I work on the history of people who, historically, have not been afforded much attention (both in the nineteenth century and now), I really want to get it right. One of the African-American missionary families I’m studying left a lot of records from their time in Liberia. But unfortunately, I haven’t yet been able to find evidence that would indicate whether the mother in the family was born free or enslaved. While it’s possible that I’ll come across some document in Virginia that might give me a clue, it’s also possible that the records of her birth are simply lost. When there’s that level of uncertainty, it can be difficult to get to writing because I’m a bit unsure if the assessments I’m making are on point. But I’ve found that as I continue writing, this insecurity falls away. I suppose the answer is to just write more!

Sachiko Kusukawa

There are many ways of writing history and no fixed formula for a 'good' essay or dissertation. Before you start, you may find it helpful to have a look at some sample dissertations and essays from the past: ask at the Whipple Library.

I.

Some people have a clear idea already of what they are going to write about; others find it more difficult to choose or focus on a topic. It may be obvious, but it is worth pointing out that you should choose a topic you find interesting and engaging. Ask a potential supervisor for a list of appropriate readings, chase up any further sources that look interesting or promising from the footnotes, or seek further help. Try to define your topic as specifically as possible as soon as possible. Sometimes, it helps to formulate a question (in the spirit of a Tripos question), which could then be developed, refined, or re-formulated. A good topic should allow you to engage closely with a primary source (text, image, object, etc.) and develop a historiographical point – e.g. adding to, or qualifying historians' current debates or received opinion on the topic. Specific controversies (either historically or historiographically) are often a great place to start looking. Many dissertations and essays turn out to be overambitious in scope, but underambition is a rare defect!

II.

Both essays and dissertations have an introduction and a conclusion. Between the introduction and the conclusion there is an argument or narrative (or mixture of argument and narrative).

An introduction introduces your topic, giving reasons why it is interesting and anticipating (in order) the steps of your argument. Hence many find that it is a good idea to write the introduction last. A conclusion summarises your arguments and claims. This is also the place to draw out the implications of your claims; and remember that it is often appropriate to indicate in your conclusion further profitable lines of research, inquiry, speculation, etc.

An argument or narrative should be coherent and presented in order. Divide your text into paragraphs which make clear points. Paragraphs should be ordered so that they are easy to follow. Always give reasons for your assertions and assessments: simply stating that something or somebody is right or wrong does not constitute an argument. When you describe or narrate an event, spell out why it is important for your overall argument. Put in chapter or section headings whenever you make a major new step in your argument of narrative.

It is a very good idea to include relevant pictures and diagrams. These should be captioned, and their relevance should be fully explained. If images are taken from a source, this should be included in the captions or list of illustrations.

The extent to which it is appropriate to use direct quotations varies according to topic and approach. Always make it clear why each quotation is pertinent to your argument. If you quote from non-English sources say if the translation is your own; if it isn't give the source. At least in the case of primary sources include the original in a note if it is your own translation, or if the precise details of wording are important. Check your quotations for accuracy. If there is archaic spelling make sure it isn't eliminated by a spell-check. Don't use words without knowing what they mean.

III.

An essay or a dissertation has three components: the main text, the notes, and the bibliography.

The main text is where you put in the substance of your argument, and is meant to be longer than the notes. For quotes from elsewhere, up to about thirty words, use quotation marks ("...", or '...'). If you quote anything longer, it is better to indent the whole quotation without quotation marks.

Notes may either be at the bottom of the page (footnotes) or at the end of the main text, but before the bibliography (endnotes). Use notes for references and other supplementary material which does not constitute the substance of your argument. Whenever you quote directly from other works, you must give the exact reference in your notes. A reference means the exact location in a book or article which you have read, so that others can find it also – it should include author, title of the book, place and date of publication, page number. (There are many different ways to refer to scholarly works: see below.) . If you cite a primary source from a secondary source and you yourself have not read or checked the primary source, you must acknowledge the secondary source from which the citation was taken. Whenever you paraphrase material from somebody else's work, you must acknowledge that fact. There is no excuse for plagiarism. It is important to note that generous and full acknowledgement of the work of others does not undermine your originality.

Your bibliography must contain all the books and articles you have referred to (do not include works that you did not use). It lists works alphabetically by the last name of the author. There are different conventions to set out a bibliography, but at the very least a bibliographic entry should include for a book the last name and initials/first name of the author, the title of the book in italics or underlined, and the place, (publisher optional) and date of publication; or, for an article, the last name and initials/first name of the author, the title in inverted commas, and the name of the journal in italics or underlined, followed by volume number, date of publication, and page numbers. Names of editors of volumes of collected articles and names of translators should also be included, whenever applicable.

Examples:

  • M. MacDonald, Mystical Bedlam: Madness, Anxiety, and Healing in Seventeenth-Century England, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981.
  • William Clark, 'Narratology and the History of Science', Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 26 (1995), 1–72.
  • M. F. Burnyeat, 'The Sceptic in His Place and Time', in R. Rorty, J. B. Schneewind and Q. Skinner (eds), Philosophy in History, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984, pp. 225–54.

Alternatively, if you have many works to refer to, it may be easier to use an author-date system in notes, e.g.:

  • MacDonald [1981], p. 89; Clark [1995a], p. 65; Clark [1995b], pp. 19–99.

In this case your bibliography should also start with the author-date, e.g.:

  • MacDonald, Michael [1981], Mystical Bedlam: Madness, Anxiety, and Healing in Seventeenth-Century England, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Clark, William [1995a], 'Narratology and the History of Science', Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 26, 1–72.

This system has the advantage of making your foot- or endnotes shorter, and many choose it to save words (the bibliography is not included in the word limit). It is the system commonly used in scientific publications. Many feel however that something is historically amiss when you find in a footnote something like 'Plato [1996b]' or 'Locke [1975]'. In some fields of research there are standard systems of reference: you will find that this is the case if, for example, you write an essay/dissertation on classical history or philosophy of science. In such cases it is a good idea to take a standard secondary source as your model (e.g. in the case of classics, see G.E.R. Lloyd's The Revolutions of Wisdom: Studies in the Claims and Practices of Ancient Greek Science, Berkeley 1987).

Whatever system you decide to follow for your footnotes, what matters most is that the end-product is consistent.

Keep accurate records of all the relevant bibliographic information as you do your reading for your essay/dissertation. (If you don't you may waste days trying to trace references when you are close to submission deadlines.)

Consistency of style throughout the essay/dissertation is encouraged. There are many professional guides to thesis writing which give you more information on the style and format of theses – for example the MLS handbook (British) and the Chicago Manual of Style (American), both in the Whipple, and a booklet, H. Teitelbaum, How to Write a Thesis: A Guide to the Research Paper, 3rd ed., 126 pp., New York: Macmillan (& Arco), 1994 (in the UL: 1996.8.2620). But don't try to follow everything they say!

Every now and then you should read through a printout of your whole essay/dissertation, to ensure that your argument flows throughout the piece: otherwise there is a danger that your arguments become compartmentalised to the size of the screen. When reading drafts, ask yourself if it would be comprehensible to an intelligent reader who was not an expert on the specific topic.

It is imperative that you save your work on disk regularly – never be caught out without a back-up.

Before you submit:

  • remember to run a spell-check (and remember that a spell check will not notice if you have written, for example, 'pheasant' instead of 'peasant', or, even trickier, 'for' instead of 'from', 'it' instead of 'is', etc.);
  • prepare a table of contents, with titles for each chapter of your essay/dissertation, page numbers and all;
  • prepare a cover page with the title, your name and college;
  • prepare a page with the required statement about length, originality etc.