Tuesday, July 21, 2009

English for Historians

Stephen Pyne shares his experience of trying to help history grad students learn to write.

I hear rumours all the time of history profs thinking about the trade market for history books. If your discipline is so specialized that even your colleagues are not interested in what you write, where else can you go for some love (and fame and even a few dollars?)

The August-September Beaver is just out with my brief profile of China specialist Timothy Brook of UBC, recently the author of the international success Vermeer's Hat: The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World. As he says of history students, "we don't give seminars on how to craft readable historical writing. It's just not what we do, and I think it's too bad." The whole story is in the print edition only for the moment -- get to the magazine rack.

I'm more ambivalent than you might think. For sure, being able to write clear and fluent prose should be one of the hallmarks of an educated person, and that kind of mastery should be among the goals of a liberal education. It's the undergrads who should learn to write in school, and that so many do not is one of the university's great failings.

But specialist academic scholars, it seems to me, should have the freedom to write b books that are difficult, technical, hard-to-read -- and important. (It's all the difficult, technical, hard-to-read unimportant books that are the real problem in scholarship, not the dearth of pop histories.)
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