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2.1 How to Read a History Assignment

The study of history means reading. There's no escaping that simple fact. And reading history can be a satisfying experience, regardless of what you might have heard. It all depends on the book you are reading. For instance, there are quite a few books that I have read which literally transported me in time and space. The medieval scholarship of Jacques LeGoff and George Duby fall into this category. In the field of intellectual history, the works of Peter Gay, John Herman Randall, Isaiah Berlin, H. Stuart Hughes and Frank Manuel have always impressed me. But what "works" for me may not work for you. Most often, it's a matter of personal preference.

I can't tell you how many times I've heard students admit that they hated a certain text because it was boring or too long or too complicated. What makes such a comment sometimes harder to accept is that often, some of the texts instructors assign are those books which made a difference in their own lives. Still, having been a student myself, and not a great one I might add, the reflection that a text is boring or too long is sometimes just.

A case in point. I often assign Modris Eksteins' Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age in my course on Twentieth Century Europe. It's a wonderful book which juxtaposes Stravinsky's ballet, "The Rites of Spring" with all those cultural, intellectual and psychological forces surrounding the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. But when my students first start reading the text, they become confused. Why? Quite simple. They expect a book about World War One. Instead, they begin reading about a ballet. What relationship could a ballet possibly have with a world war? Of course, they have to read further in order to grasp what Eksteins is really trying to do. That's why I assign this text: it makes the students think differently about war, a war they thought they all understood.

For my own courses, I try to assign books based on a number of variables such as: price and availability, length, closeness to both the general topic and my approach to it, and complexity. There's no sense assigning, say, E.P.Thompson's magnum opus, The Making of the English Working Class, in a survey class on modern European history. No, that would be a bit much. Also, I only assign four or maybe five texts per course because that seems a reasonable amount given the fact that most of my students work full time. My typical student is what I could call non-traditional. With an average age of twenty-five, the majority of my students hold down full-time jobs and many of them are married with kids. So, assigning more than 100 pages per week would be asking too much. I realize their limitations. On the other hand, as a graduate student taking an advanced undergraduate course in United States Cultural and Intellectual History, I well remember that all of us had to read nine or ten books.

In order to make the reading of history more satisfying and more purposeful, you must make an effort. This means that you must have a general sense of the subject matter. You can't just jump into a text and expect to get much out of it especially if the subject matter is genuinely alien to you. If you do just jump in, you will quickly become lost as the information presented will make little sense.

Okay, so it's the beginning of the term and you've been given your first reading assignment. Let's say you are enrolled in my 20th Century Europe course and you have been asked to read Modris Eksteins' The Rites of Spring. How do you begin?

1. Pick up the book, look at the covers. See anything interesting?
2. Who wrote the book? Does the publisher give you any information?
3. When was it written? Do you think this makes a difference? Why?
4. Scan the Table of Contents. See anything you like?
5. Read the Preface and Introduction.
6. Are there any illustrations? footnotes? a bibliography?
7. Can you determine the general thesis of the book?
8. Read the first sentence. Does it hold your attention? Or, do you then put the book down and say, "I'll start reading this tomorrow"?
9. Does it look like a good book? worthy to be read?
10. Why might your instructor have assigned this particular text?

That's actually quite a bit of investigative work on your part and you haven't even really started to read your assignment. Still, this is something you must do. Reading involves engagement. Reading is not passive. You must make the effort. If you don't, disaster, and that's what we're trying to avoid.

In the example above, the text under review is what is called a monograph. Written by a historian, the monograph deals with a very specific portion of the historical record. In Eksteins' case, the subject is World War I and the birth of modernism. In terms of chronology, Eksteins only considers the period 1900-1930 and his subject matter is specifically European. When reading a monograph, you need to pay special attention to the author's general thesis. Your instructor has assigned the monograph because (1) it covers the material he wants to cover and (2) it provides a specific interpretation. That interpretation may be an accepted one or simply one that your instructor agrees with. In some cases, your instructor may have deliberately assigned a book whose thesis is at variance with his own. Why would an instructor do this? Simple! To force his students to clarify their own position and to show them that there are indeed various historical interpretations.

The monograph aside, the most common history assignment, however, is the reading of a textbook. Textbooks are rarely exciting stuff and so you need to approach them a bit differently. For one thing, they are usually the work of several authors. This means that a variety of interpretations are at work. So many, in fact, that oftentimes, the end result is no interpretation at all. You are left with 1000 pages of "stuff" without an interpretive structure. Of course, like films and food, there are bad textbooks and good ones. Bad textbooks either cover too much material or just the opposite, they don't cover enough. As you might have guessed, the better textbooks make the attempt to balance length with coverage.

Check out the textbook the same way you checked out the monograph. Thumb through the book, look at the pictures, tables and maps. Anything strike your eye? Take a look at one chapter. How is the chapter organized? Get familiar with the layout because there's a good chance the textbook will be your main focus for the duration of the semester.

If you've been assigned a textbook you should always make every effort to read those chapters which are directly related to the lectures presented in class. If your instructor is any good, the structure of the class will follow the organization of the textbook. Underline and somehow mark information which seems to be important. However, you must be able to distinguish between what is truly important and the evidence the historian draws upon to fashion his conclusions. Don't underline everything!

If you like, make notes in the margins of the text. Look at the photographs, maps and illustrations. Do they help you in any way or do you just gloss over them as perhaps unnecessary?

You may also be tempted to make notes on your reading. While I guarantee that this technique will improve your chances for greater understanding, you will also be spending a great deal more time on your assignments, perhaps more time than is really necessary. Again, you really need to learn to "read" your instructor. You must ask yourself why your instructor is making you read this assignment. If you insist on taking notes from the text it is perhaps best to organize them into outline format, otherwise you will be re-writing the book!

It's also worth asking yourself how much time you plan to devote to reading your history assignments on a weekly basis. If your instructor has carefully organized the class, you should know, by a quick glance at the syllabus, just how many pages you are responsible for per week. So add up the pages for the assignment. You can then split the reading into equal sections or perhaps just plan on reading for a specified period of time per day. An hour per day ought to suffice although in the end it all depends on how quickly you read. And of course, reading a textbook takes a different kind of attention than does reading a monograph. Keep asking yourself, "What does my instructor want me to get out of this?"

You may also be assigned a book of readings for your course. I use this type of text frequently. These books usually contain a series of primary sources as well as secondary sources which help to explain the primary sources. These texts are sometimes called sourcebooks or readers. If you are assigned such a text your instructor expects that you read the selections and be able to highlight the general argument, for that is the whole point of the sourcebook. The primary documents usually become the groundwork for in-class discussions, hence their importance. Do not take these readings lightly. For example, in the past I have based an entire ninety minute discussion on a primary source as short as one paragraph.

To sum up, the only way you are going to get through all the reading is to approach it with the proper attitude, something I have already discussed. Approach the reading in a positive way--don't build brick walls! Most instructors assign readings because they want their students to read. (Then again, there are also professors who assign reading because they know they are supposed to assign reading!) Lectures are one thing. Books are another. And whether your instructor assigns textbooks, monographs, sourcebooks or even novels, the above rules all apply.

One last thing. Feel free to assess the assigned readings. Although end of semester course evaluations often contain a section where the student can assess the books, why not tell your professor as you are reading the text. Is it any good? Should it be used again? Why is it good? or bad? I've always had the habit of asking students about the books while they are reading them. After all, I need to know whether of not these books are worth using again. And by asking the students their opinion of a text is an excellent way to develop a relationship between instructor and student. I don't know about you, but I've always thought it a good thing when an instructor asks a class, "Well, what do you think?"

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Last Revised -- April 13, 2012
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