Tag Archives: historiography

How to write, and not write, a history paper


A manuscript of Bede's, Historia Ecclesiastica...

A manuscript of the Venerable Bede's Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum

Trolling through some old material from my days as a Duke preceptor (teaching assistant), I find the following advice on papers I gave to Susan Keefe’s CH13 one year. Re-reading it now, some 15 years later, I find that students still have much the same issues when writing history papers, and I still recommend the same solutions. Some of these problems and solutions apply to any humanities paper, or any paper at all. Some are more specific to history.

[Point 1 of my notes had to do with a specific paper they were working on, so I’ve deleted it]:

2.  Key issues in papers.

a.  A certain distractedness; a tendency to drift from the question asked, or the topic at hand.  Given an assigned question—or in the case of your research paper, once you have established your own topic, question or thesis statement, make sure that everything you write relates to that question.  Cut everything out that doesn’t.  Don’t worry about running out of things to say; any given historical question—at least at the level we’re working—has had countless books written about it. There’s far more than enough material for a single paper.

—Watch out for getting caught up in the vivid details about the lives of those you write about; details that are compelling and fascinating, but don’t relate to the question.

—Look with particular suspicion at your first page.  Often “huffing and puffing,” getting the engine going, giving background material that only vaguely relates to the topic. Continue reading

“The polemical nonsense about Constantine”: A follow-up on Peter Leithart’s new book Defending Constantine


Head of the colossal statue of Constantine I, ...

Image via Wikipedia

After my sympathetic post today about Peter Leithart‘s new book, Defending Constantine, my Anabaptist friend Mark Van Steenwyk responded as follows:

*in steps Mark, who has been lurking in the shadows*

Could you give an example of some commonly asserted “polemical nonsense being spouted these days about Constantine?” I get that there is more to the story than Constantine, and that he isn’t the lone Villain responsible for developing a sort of pro-War, nationalist Christianity. But doesn’t he play his part? Is Yoder being unfair?

*returning the shadows* Continue reading

Can the study of history have value for the church? Reflections after the Kalamazoo congress


A few reflections on my experience at Medieval Congress 2010, dictated as I drove from Kalamazoo to Midway Airport (through Michigan Wine Country–and stopping at a few tastings!) to return to the Twin Cities:

Sitting in that last session [where I heard the paper “The Beauty of the Person in the Thought of Thomas Aquinas,” by Margaret I. Hughes of Fordham Univ] reminds me again of the apparent integrity and usefulness of Thomistic moral categories and moral analysis (this first came across me at the conference in Rebecca DeYoung’s session on vainglory).

I’m aware always of David Steinmetz’s off-handed dismissal, in a class one day, of virtue ethics as something, as I understood him, inherently Pelagian. But I think again that there’s a high value in an anatomizing of the heart as an ultimately spiritual as well as intellectual discipline, and I think Aquinas works in that mode do many other ethical thinkers in the medieval period . . . and as do the penitential manuals and so on and so forth.

Do they always do it well or in ways we can appropriate today? I’m sure they don’t. But to examine closely our personalities, who we are as moral beings, how we are tempted, how we sin, and how we recover from sins and become purified through a life-long process of sanctification—there is great value in this; it’s a value that was captured in the Methodist movement, has been captured by the Pietists, the Puritans . . . It seems it’s inherently and faithfully biblical and worthy of further study. Continue reading