NOTE ON READING HISTORICAL ARTICLES

 

One major goal of this class is to understand what historians do, and how they think. In each class, in addition to the books under discussion, we will be reviewing and responding to one major article from one of the flagship journals, either the American Historical Review, or the Journal of American History, and in every case, from the last three or four years. In each case, I will distribute the article the previous week: the extra reading is not too onerous, since each will work out to around 20 pages or so. I am not pretending that the articles chosen are necessarily the most important, or even that they are terribly good – some are, some aren’t. The key thing is that rightly or wrongly, they got published in a major journal, which means that somebody believes they represent significant or even outstanding work. In order to appear in these pages, this article must have gone through a quite intimidating process of selection and peer review.

In reading the articles I will distribute, I want you to answer the following questions.

 

1.     First, obviously, what is the article about, and what is its core point?

2.     Does the author make his/her case well and clearly? Is the article well-written and well-argued? (the two points are not necessarily the same!) If not, why not?

3.     The fact that the article was published in these exalted journals indicates that somebody thought it made an important and innovative point. What? Briefly, what made this article publishable, when dozens of articles submitted to these same journals each year are not accepted?

4.     What did the article tell us that was not previously known? What can we learn from the review of the existing literature that tells us how the article fits into this scheme, yet advances beyond previous knowledge?

5.     Why are people studying this kind of topic right now? What does this tell us about the state of historical writing and scholarship in contemporary universities?

6.     Does the author push the evidence to make it fit into contemporary concerns and obsessions? How?

7.     What major questions and issues about twentieth century history surface in this article?

8.     Is the article of any interest or significance beyond the immediate scope of the study addressed?

9.     Are there questions that you would like to ask that the author does not deal with, or covers poorly?

10.  What can we learn from the footnotes and acknowledgments about how the author went about his/her research?