Teaching Narrative in Graduate School

Word Cloud of Cronon's 2013 Presidential Address

This past Monday I turned in my final paper in a graduate seminar given by John Demos entitled, “Narrative and Other Histories.” I initially registered for the class not long after watching Bill Cronon’s Presidential Address at this year’s AHA Annual Meeting and engaging in conversation about it on Twitter as well as in a piece for The Junto. With all the focus on “storytelling” and narrative as a means for carving out a twenty-first-century model of the historical profession, the course offering appeared quite timely.

In my piece, “The AHA and the Future of the Profession,” I cautioned against thinking of a return to narrative as the historical profession’s path to salvation or, more modestly, to popular relevance. That, however, is not to say that academics producing more narrative histories would be a bad thing. Narrative history appears to be the only path from academia to a popular audience. I concluded the piece by pointing out the difficulties for graduate students to take up Cronon’s call to arms for narrative without there first being a broad and demonstrated consensus among established and senior historians.

It was with these notions swimming around my head that I registered for the course. For the record, this was not the first time the course had been offered. It had been taught three or four years earlier and once or twice before that. For the first 4 weeks, we read examples of narrative histories produced by academics including Robert Rosenstone’s Mirror in the Shrine, Simon Schama’s Dead Certainties, Patricia Cline Cohen’s The Murder of Helen Jewett, Craig Harline’s Conversions, Aaron Sachs’ Arcadian America, and Jane Kamensky’s The Exchange Artist. We concluded the seminar by reading Stegner’s Angle of Repose and Demos’s most recent project in manuscript.

In the middle of the course, four weeks were given over to writing practica in which the class was broken up into two groups of seven or eight students. Topics were given on which we were to produce 1,500-word narrative essays. The first assignment was to write a narrative of the trial of Anne Hibbens in Puritan Massachusetts. The second assignment was to write on a topic related to 9/11 and the third was a topic of our own choosing. Each student in the group read the other papers and gave comments in class as we went through the papers one-by-one.

All in all, it was a very interesting course that exposed me to some historical writing methods of which I had been previously unaware. It also got me thinking a bit more creatively (or, perhaps more accurately, less “academically”) about the structure, voice, and tone of my own writing. These are tangible benefits but the immediately practical benefits of the course were limited due to the issues I raised in my previous piece on Cronon. Writing a narrative dissertation would be a risky career move. Hence, I would not have the opportunity to try something similar to the things we were reading unless I should be fortunate enough to get tenure. Nevertheless, the benefits mentioned above in terms of my thinking about and approach to writing are significant and useful.

I’m interested to know if either our readers or their departments offer a course on narrative or any aspect of historical writing style? If so, do you think it has been beneficial to students? If not, do you think such a seminar should be offered? I’m also interested to know what our readers think of the calls for narrative and the role that courses like this might play in achieving more academic narrative histories.

19 responses

  1. A preliminary question, Michael: what exactly is a narrative history? You seem to imply that it is a “style” of historical writing, but (without thinking about it overly much) I’ve been inclined to look at it as a way of organizing the evidence, relying primarily on chronology–story-telling, as it were. Help me out here.

    • Right, Ted. For the purposes of the course, “narrative” was defined by the works which were assigned. I would push back a bit on the notion that “narrativity” emerges primarily out of chronology or chronological structure. After all, a number of the works we read were not strictly chronological. Some jumped back and forth in time, some had multiple narratives or stories threaded throughout the book (some occurring in very different places at very different times). One thing I learned from the seminar was that narrative history is not as creatively constricting or structurally rigid as it might seem, particularly if you think of it primarily in terms of chronology.

      For me, I think of narrative history in contrast to works of history that are primarily analytical or thematic. In any given work, is the historian’s primary goal to provide an analysis or exploration of themes or is it to tell a story? Of course, that is not to say that narrative histories contain no analysis or vice versa, but it seems to be down to a matter of priorities, which we can over-think if we want but those priorities often are apparent by looking at a book’s TOC. At least from the course’s readings, it seemed that the more creative narrative works that we read this semester, are ones that combined both, i.e., using stories to draw out an overarching analytical point (Schama or Harline) or using a story to explore thematic microhistories throughout (Cohen or Kamensky).

      • I absolutely agree: no “narrative” is, or even could be, strictly chronological. By the same token, even the narrowest “analytical” history carries within it, explicitly or implicitly, a larger narrative. But that just begs the question, right? What is narrative, really? Indeed, how do you teach it?

        • That’s an excellent question. I don’t know that you do actually “teach” it so much as you expose the students to it. That seems to have been the goal of the course, both to expose us to these more narrative-based works of history by academics and to give us a chance to wade in the form a bit for ourselves in short papers.

          In terms of definition, it would be a rare work indeed that was either wholly narrative or wholly analytical, as I said before. So, again, my working definition of a narrative history, therefore, is one in which the primary purpose (or priority) is to tell a story. This gets complicated if you assume some kind of false holism on the part of the label, i.e., if when calling something a “narrative history” you perceive it as implying that it contains no analysis. We’ve both already conceded that almost no works are completely one or the other; hence, pushing on the label in that way (rather than the content) is the discursive equivalent to running on a treadmill (yeah, you’re running, but you’re not really going anywhere).

          If by “what is narrative,” you’re asking a more philosophical question, then you’d have to ask Hayden White (if you can drag him away from his treadmill, that is). 😉

  2. So it is like some of the cultural histories that have come out recently that describe say a murder in Gilded Age New York to prove that the period was more turbulent than we presume. However, the book I am thinking of reads like a murder mystery complete with many bios of each major player to introduce them as “characters.” I have to say, though, that I really enjoy reading books like that although sometimes I am not sure what the larger point is other than to entertain. Great write up, Michael!

    • Something like Cohen or Kamensky are emblematic of a sort-of meta-narrative/microhistorical approach. For example, Kamensky’s book, The Exchange Artist, tells the story of Andrew Dexter and his attempt to build the Exchange Coffee House. Along the way, however, she drops into these embedded microhistories. For example, when a fire breaks out, she then goes into a spiel on firefighting in the period. Obviously, the story also allows her to get at broader themes of public skepticism of printed money, the emergence of banking, and even issues of urban development all while the story of Dexter draws out a larger story about striving and social mobility in the early republic. That is what I meant when I talked about works explicitly combining narrative with analytical and thematic history.

  3. Last comment, and then I’ll shut up: my larger concern is that if we can’t say what “narrative” consists of, much less how to do it, urging academic historians to write more of it — especially if you believe “narrative” to be “the only path from academia to a popular audience” — seems like a path to nowhere. I’d suggest that if we want more readers outside the profession, we should write more readable history. It’s not complicated.

    And now, back to the treadmill.

    • LOL!! I get your point now, I think. You’re pushing back against the unstated assumption (on both my part and probably many others) that narrative history is inherently more readable than analytical history, which is totally fair. But aren’t you also making an assumption about readers outside the profession. Do they not read historical monographs because of the writing? Or is it that primarily analytical and/or highly specialized works (whether readable or not) don’t seem to interest the broader reading public very much. Readability is certainly an important issue, but is it the key to a broader audience?

      I don’t think people say, when considering buying a book, “I’m not really interested in this topic, but I’ll buy it anyway because it looks to be well written.” As historians, we want to think that readers would be interested in what we do, if only we were better writers. But I really wonder if that’s the case.

      Look at early American history. Out of the top 20 bestselling books on the Revolution at Amazon, pretty much all are either founders’ biographies or books about multiple founders. What I’m getting at is that people don’t just want to read good history. Most popular readers of books on the Revolution want to read a certain kind of history, i.e., primarily Whiggish and Great Man-based works. The kind of person who is reading and enjoying Glenn Beck’s “Being George Washington” would likely not have chosen to read something like “Albion’s Seed” if only it had been better written. No?

  4. As an independent researcher and narrative historian (THE ROAD TO GUILFORD COURTHOUSE: THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION IN THE CAROLINAS) may I add my two cents. Why spend money taking a course on how to write narrative history when our libraries are packed with great teachers? Edward Gibbon, William Prescott, Francis Parkman, Henry James, Samuel Eliot Morison (also Morison’s valuable essay, “History As a Literary Art), to name only a few, and not even mentioning the ancients on one hand and contemporary non-academic historians on the other. And as far as style goes, clarity above all, and if you’re naturally felicitous to boot so much the better. The great novelists also have much to teach the historian. Americans believe that everything not only can be taught in a formal classroom environment but must be. Nonsense. Save your money and hit the stacks.

    Jack Buchanan

    • We always appreciate adding a non-academic’s views to our discussions. Allow me to address your reply point-by-point. Being doctoral students we didn’t technically spend money on the course. Rather, we get paid to take the course. That said, your point is well taken. For years before I went to undergrad at the age of 32, I had spent years reading through the 973 shelves at the Brooklyn and New York Public Libraries. In those years, I read many nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century histories of early America (e.g., Bancroft, Fiske, Parkman, Fisher, McMaster, etc….). Having not attended more than a year of high school, I did the majority of my learning outside of a classroom. I too have loved that Morison essay ever since I first read a long but excerpted version of it at the beginning of one of the Harvard Guide to American History volumes (which I bought at a library sale for 50 cents!).

      In terms of the course, the purpose was not to teach us “how to write narrative history” but to expose us to recent trends in narrative-based academic historical writing. So much of our time as graduate students is spent coming to grips with the recent trends in so many various literatures and developing a sense of our own fields as a whole. That is not something required of, say, an independent historian looking to write a volume on a specific battle or events. Hence, we have less time than, I suspect, many of us would like to really focus on matters of writing style, which (sadly) have very little to do with either finishing our degree or getting a job.

      Thanks again for reading and commenting, Jack!

  5. This is a thoughtful post with lots of great comments. I also took a graduate course on writing narrative history, with the aforementioned Jane Kamensky, in fact, and I would argue that it was quite valuable because it gave me a setting in which to practice shaking up old writing habits and to try something new, with some great models as reading assignments and my colleagues in graduate school as a little writing group. I think Jack Buchanan is right that nothing beats reading good writing to make you a good writer, but there is a lot to be said for a course like this too, especially for historians-in-training.
    Following up on one of Michael Hattem’s points, you may be right that it would be difficult to write a “narrative dissertation.” I do think, though, that you can employ some of your newly practiced narrative strategies in your dissertation. Even if these don’t characterize the whole thing, I think you could be quite successful employing micro-narratives here and there. It’s already quite common, I think, for monographs to start a chapter with a micro-narrative. A dissertation could do that and more, I think.
    Finally, while I agree also with Michael Hattem’s suspicion that history of the founders and of wars are just plain more popular topics, I still entertain the hope that more narrative-style histories might attract a greater readership to less popular topics. I am trying this myself by writing a multi-biography of five people who either received or gave out poor relief in the early republic. Social welfare history is certainly not a widely-read subject, but I think there are great stories there and it could be a bit more widely read if told in a more story-like manner.

    • Thanks for your comments, Michael and Gabriel. Yes, Michael, you’re right, finishing your dissertation and getting a job is primary. That’s what Carl Becker did in the early years of the 20th century, in 1917 as I recall. Published his dissertation on the political parties of the province of New York, got his job, said never again, and became a great essayist as well as a fine historian. I also realize that the lay reader, cultured or otherwise, is attracted to books about great men and women and dramatic events. I think that’s always been true, even in the 19th century heyday of literary history. But to me Gabriel’s multi-biography sounds fascinating, a great story, and deserves good writing

      Good luck to both of you.


      • Michael, By sheer coincidence I had lunch today in NYC with Greg Brooking, his first time in the Big Apple.

        Gave him a tour of the 42nd Street research library afterwards. I told him about our exchange and he clued me in on why Ph.D candidates get paid to take courses.

        Have a good weekend, Jack Buchanan

        • HA! Greg is like my Southern alter ego. He’s lucky he had a chance to see the 42nd Street library before they gut it and turn it into a glorified hangout with a few bookshelves.

          Many of those late 19th- and early 20th-century historians we mentioned weren’t professional or academic historians. Unfortunately, graduate school is mostly about professionalization, which has little need and leaves little time for working on writing style. So when a program offers a course that focuses on writing (in any form), it’s something many graduate students jump on. The enrollment for the narrative class was very high and a lot of the writing done in that class was very creative history. What I learned about my classmates was that many are far better and more creative writers than one would’ve thought from their “straight” academic writing. I think that’s because there really is a singular academic historian’s voice (detached, authoritative, and, at times, somewhat pedagogically condescending) which we all try to emulate and reproduce in a bid for professional credibility, i.e., to sound like an academic historian, rather than developing our own voice like fiction writers or even the better non-academic non-fiction writers. One hopes that is something we could begin developing once our careers are on solid footing. In that sense, I envy independent historians like yourself.

          P.S. – I’ve put your Guilford Courthouse book on my summer list and I’m looking forward to reading it.

          • Michael, I think I understand now what graduate students have to go through to establish themselves. You do what you have to do. I filled in Greg on the awful plans for the 42nd Street library and the ensuing controversy. I’m with you — big mistake. I’ve used that main branch at 40th st., and the thought of incorporating it into the the 42nd Street building is mind boggling.

            I’m flattered that you’re going to read the Guilford Courthouse book. Let me know what you think, negative, positive whatever.


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