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How to write a good history essay

Pat is taking a course in Canadian history and has to hand in a final essay. She has read all the textbook and all the reference papers, but she still have no clue how to write a good essay. She summarized all points from different historians, but she could not figure out how to meet the essay requirement, assess and contrasts the points from those historians.

I think writing an history essay is just like writing a philosophy paper, probably all undergrad level academic papers come from the same mold. For a history essay, first you give a brief summary of the historical event, what had happened and what is the result. Then you quote different historians to offer different explanations on why it happened and what is the consequences of the result. Usually the easy way out is pick the perspective from the historian you like, cite some minor events to backup his theory, and cite some other minor events to go against other theories. At the end of the essay, you conclude by saying historian A is right, historian B and C are wrong, and that’s it. I know nothing about the Riel Revolution, but after reading just Pat’s summary, I manage to BS an outline for an A grade essay (I think).

The historical event in the essay is about some European and native Indian mix-blood decedents rebel against the Canadian federal government seizing their land and the Hudson Bay Company (HBC) has a monopoly in fur trade. At the end the federal government gave in and respect their properties rights. Historian A uses Marxism theory, the revolution is a typical class struggle. The government and the HBC are capitalist exploiting poor rural farmers and hunters. Historian B claims there are two groups of mix-blood decedents, those mixed with English and those mixed with French. The revolution is just the extension of the England-France war with the French mix-blood rebel against government while the English mix-blood wants to assimilate with the government. Historian C gives a toned down version of Historian A’s view, instead of claiming class different is the problem, he claims cultural different causes the problem. Historian D does not offer any theory, he just record some anecdote of certain English mix-blood family. It really does not matter which theory you choose to defense, I am sure you can find reference in D’s material to support or against any of A,B,C’s view points.

I think besides becoming a philosopher, I also have the potential to become a historian. Writing history essay seems pretty easy, it’s like ordering fast food, combo A + B + C. First pick a historical event, then pick a social theory and link them up by citing minor events. You just need to claim your theory is better than any other theory in explaining why the event happened and twist some facts to make them fit your theory.

3 comments to How to write a good history essay

  • Hmmmm, so did Pat take the history course to learn something or just to get a good grade/diploma? I hope she is taking the course to try to learn something. And if that is the case, I suggest she find something that is interesting to her (not to you, not to me, but to HER) to write the essay on. And then try to explore why it is “interesting” to her. (note that it is obviously beyond the scope of my comment to address the “how”, but I also feel that it is more important to address the “why” and “what”)

    At some stage of our lives, we have to realize that we are our own masters. Learnings and knowledge comes from within and not from a “grade” someone gives you just because you can BS your way through the course/exam format to score an “A”.

    It is one thing to try to fool the “teacher”, it is another (and more sad) thing to knowingly fool ourselves.

  • My prof is asking us to write a historiographical essay =)
    It is challenging because I have to do extra readings on ‘the history of history’ =)

    So far, my essay is composed of approaches from microhistory, quantitative history, cultural history, and economic history (towards a bit Marxist). These are common approaches in the academia of social history.

    I don’t blame hevangel for his tendency to write like an engineer, especially with his theory of ‘A+B+C’ – he has a good point to form my essay with a well-structural frame. This assignment asks for another level of cognitive process – which is finding the scopes to compare and contrast.

    The problem with this course is distance-education. It is not easy for me to learn, while I interact just with the computer screen with my professor. (I hope she’s not too annoyed by me for now…) Wish me luck to finish it by today…

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