Over the past three years I’ve taught a foundation degree module titled ‘The Dawning of America’. It is a beast of a module in terms of the time period under study: from the initial colonial attempts of the English under Queen Elizabeth I in the late 1500s right through to the Spanish-American War of 1898. Since the birth of this foundation degree the assessments have been two essays, with one focussing on a topic of colonial America (for example, a question on the relationship with the colonials and the native Americans) and the other focussing on the first century of the United States of America (for example, a question on the key reasons for the outbreak of the Civil War in the 1860s). However, last summer the teaching team was urged to update various module guides, all of which resulted in some changes. So, the initial essay remains, but the second assessment is now an historiographical survey. All of which presents some questions.

The first question: is it ‘an’ or ‘a’ historiographical survey (it turns out that both ‘an’ and ‘a’ are fine here, but I do prefer ‘an’). The second question – and the far more important one – is just what is an historiographical survey? Historiographical surveys are overviews of the historical debates on a particular issue, rather than being concerned with the issue itself. To continue with examples from the history of America, it would survey how historians have interpreted the Civil War rather than analysis/evaluation of the Civil War itself.

This all comes back to how history is studied and written. I try to explain to new students about Marwick’s three tiers in terms of historical study (more on which in an earlier post from 2018).

  1. The Past: everyone/everything has a past; it is everything that has ever happened to anybody/anything.
  2. History: the recorded information about significant events.
  3. Historiography: historians essentially arguing with other historians about just what the significant events are, and the best way to interpret them.

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It all comes back to interpretation in history: every event and piece of history that has been written about has been interpreted by the historian themselves. All of this means that objectivity is hard – if not unobtainable – but different historians have different ideas about this; Carr argued that history was subjective, whereas Elton pooh-poohed this and stated that good, proper historians can find objective balance.

Either way, historiographical surveys serve a purpose: they remind us that history is constantly being studied and re-written – it is never static. The most thorough surveys provide us with a clear overview of historical topics, and show us how different historians (or schools of history) have interpreted the same evidence in different ways. For example, historians influenced by political ideology would look at the American Civil War in different ways, as would someone from the Deep South, or from New England, or even from good old Devon here in the UK.

My biggest concern is whether any of this will make any sense when I introduce it next week in class. No doubt the assessment will help each of them develop their own understanding of the importance of interpretation in history. In the meantime, I have written a couple of sample “test” surveys, and the next post on this blog will follow on with this train of thought (yes, a continuing thought…a rarity on the pages of this blog).