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.