Tag Archives: research

Rules for Historical Writing.

We are approaching crunch time. Two months left in the semester. I have assigned research papers, and I hope the students are working on them. It is such a difficult thing to do, harder even than the students know. To start from nothing, and over the course of 15 weeks read enough to frame a meaningful question, to dive into secondary works that might be difficult for students to read, and, of course, primary sources, which can be extremely challenging. I tell them how difficult the process is. I tell them, half jokingly, because we give ourselves seven years to write something meaningful and they have just a couple of months. In a way, we hold our students to standards higher than we hold ourselves, especially as the demand on faculty to publish has become, sadly and apparently, old school. So some advice. This is not exhaustive. You might not like it. You might find it really helpful. If you want, place your own suggestions in the comments. I would love to read about how you help your students do this difficult work.

  1.  All historical writing begins with a question.  All good historical writing answers that question.  All good historical writing contains a thesis or an argument.  A sound thesis will provide an answer to the question under investigation briefly, in a sentence or two.  The rest of the text, whether it is a term paper, a dissertation, an article or a book, will demonstrate how that one sentence thesis is true.
  2. Some questions are better than other. Ideally, you will ask a new question, or answer an old question in a new way, or apply a broad question to a more narrow case where you can become an expert over that some piece of a larger whole. We value your perspectives and trust your creativity. When we read your papers, we hope to learn from you.
  3. All good historians read the footnotes or endnotes. Indeed, we are the people who read the notes.  We take notes on the footnotes, making sure we record sources, primary and secondary, that may be useful to us in our own work. We like footnotes to a degree that it makes some people uncomfortable.
  4. All good historians are interdisciplinary, or willing to become interdisciplinary. Historians are willing to do the grunt work for the other social science and humanities disciplines that are related to our fields.  
  5. Historians question nearly everything about the work of other historians. Historians are prone to disbelief—we are critical readers, and we should be ready to question all assumptions.
  6. Historians are relentless in their quest for sources, secondary and primary, and they recognize that the work of gathering sources and creating a bibliography is one that is never completely finished.
  7. No, you do not yet have enough sources.
  8. When your professor tells you to check out one source or another, you are obligated to do so.  It is not an option.  If you look at that source, and do not know how to make sense of it, it is your responsibility to learn, or to ask for help from your professor or from a library professional who might assist you. Those of us who are decent people love to talk to you about sources. Some of us especially love when you can explain why a source we recommend to you is not helpful. See? You are teaching us new stuff.
  9. Do not quote secondary sources unless your source says something so astoundingly clever that you cannot possibly do without it.  Leave historians in the footnotes. Some academic disciplines are really into quoting scholars. “As Dirk Broadaxe said in Logjam, his seminal monograph about lumberjacks…” and so on. It’s pretentious, does not read well, and, you know, footnotes. They are right there at the bottom of the page.
  10. History is a discipline.  There are rules.  Research papers should be formatted according to standards included in the Turabian Manual. If you do not know what the Turabian Manual is, you must learn.  Even if it seems to you that it is stupid. We are members of an undisciplined discipline, but you need to conform to some of these base level expectations. You must take the time to learn to format your footnotes and bibliography according to Turabian’s standards.  This is not optional.  It is required.
  11. As Collingwood said, (see above, No. 9), “nothing capable of being memorized is history.”
  12. Treat words like they cost you money.
  13. People with bad grammar hate America.

Onondaga, 1918: A Declaration of War, and Other Stories

In August of 1918, the following news story appeared in the Syracuse Post-Standard.   Under the headline, “Indians to Declare War Upon Germany,” and a smaller title indicating that “Gohl Says He Has Been Chosen to Draft Paper Because Stranded Onondagas Were Insulted” we learn something of an adopted Onondaga, a group of imprisoned circus performers, and inexplicably angry Germans and Austrians.

Edward M. Gohl, adopted Onondaga Indian and adviser of the tribe, announced tonight he had been delegated by the Onondagas to draft a declaration of war against Germany for the imprisonment of seventeen members at the outbreak of the war in 1914.

The Indians put in prison were a part of two German circuses and the Germans in the company joined the army. The stranded Indians were insulted and beaten by the Germans and Austrians.  They were finally imprisoned for their own protection, but later their release was obtained.

By the terms of a treaty between General Washington and the twenty-three chiefs of the Onondaga tribe in 1788 the Onondagas were declared a separate nation from the United States and both sides have always respected the treaty.

In his declaration of war Mr. Gohl states he also will call on every able-bodied man in the tribe to enlist on the side of their allies. 

Mr. Gohl’s Indian name is Tya Goh Wens.

There is, to say the least, a lot going on here, more than meets the eye. Though the Onondagas negotiated a treaty in 1788, it was with the State of New York and not George Washington, and there was little in the agreement that was worthy of respect. Gohl shows up frequently in the press as a representative for the Onondagas, though there is much about the relationship that I do not yet understand. And the passive voice: “their release was obtained,” but by whom, how, and when?  Documents like these, so suggestive yet so frustrating, I like to give to my students on those rare occasions when I teach my department’s required course in historic research methods, or when I teach a freshman writing seminar that I sometimes call “Life Stories.”  Stories like these, it seems to me, open a world of questions, a series of trails to follow that all are utterly enticing.



I’ve been working on my history of Onondaga as a place and a native nation for almost a decade now and I have still a couple of more years of research before I will be able to set pencil to paper and begin my writing process.  So many documents, and so much material, I still have to look at.  There are still a number of archives to visit and a large amount of evidence to collect and consider.  And so many of these small pieces of information, these bits of stories, raise questions that demand answers. They tug at me. They present alluring side trails that seem so worthy of investigation.  Down these by-ways and detours and secret paths we can find the human stories that, when they are told well, bring history to life.  Even when the answers are not certain, and the conclusions drawn are far from definitive.

In the summer of 1914, sixteen Indians from the Onondaga Reservation just south of Syracuse New York made their way to Europe to perform with a German circus company.  After they arrived in Berlin, they split into two groups.  One headed eastward toward Russia, the other south towards Italy.  Nobody at Onondaga had heard from them in several weeks the Post-Standard reported in August of 1914, and their friends at home were worried.  It was August, and the Great War had begun.

I have much still to learn about these sixteen Onondagas and their experiences overseas.  I do not know as of yet the name of this particular circus, how these Onondagas were recruited to join it, and what their lives were like once they returned home. I do not know how the sixteen Onondagas in 1914 became seventeen three years later.  I know little about what they saw in Europe, or how their journeys affected them.  I do not know where they performed, what they did, and what those audiences expected from them. I know that not all historical questions have answers.  We who write about the past are often left with only our ability to imagine, and that is just fine.

I know the names of the sixteen Indians from Onondaga, of course.  It seems likely to me that Jerry Homer, one of the Onondaga Jeremiah Homer Student Information Cardperformers, was the Onondaga Jeremiah Homer who, ten years before, had arrived at the Carlisle Indian School. He was one of five Homer children to attend Carlisle.  According to the school’s records, he was ten years old when he arrived. He was a tiny, tiny kid, just three-and-a quarter feet tall. He weighed only fifty pounds.  He may have arrived malnourished, though his older sister, who died young, was also reported to have had a very slight build.

The Carlisle School sent questionnaires to former students. They liked to know what their alums had done with their lives.  The students’ answers allow small glimpses into the lives of ordinary native peoples who lived late in the nineteenth and early in the twentieth centuries.  Jeremiah Homer did not say much in his response.  In 1911 he reported that he was living on the Onondaga Nation territory and that he wished that the school would send him copies of the Carlisle Arrow, the school’s newspaper.  He indicated as well that he was now married to Mary Cornelius, an Oneida woman whose family lived at Onondaga.

Mary Cornelius did not attend Carlisle, but she was enrolled for two years at the state’s Thomas Indian School from 1907 until 1909.  One of the sixteen Indians from Onondaga who went to Europe, and who was later imprisoned, was Mary Cornelius. Jerry met Mary, I would guess, sometime after they returned to Onondaga from their time at boarding school. Both were home by 1909. They were married by 1911, Jerry indicated, and the otherwise unnamed “Baby Cornelius” mentioned in the story must have been their child.

Mary Cornelius became an important figure in the twentieth-century history of the Oneidas.  You can read a profile here.  Jerry Homer is tougher to figure out. Mary and Jerry do not appear to have lived together upon their return to the reservation, and Jerry or Jeremiah Homer disappears from the reservation census records by 1920.   I wish I knew more about what happened to him, but at this point, that is as far as the trail leads. By-ways and detours.  Some times you wander down a path, only to realize the need to return to the main trail. The resources to answer the questions I have about this family, about their experience in Europe–they are not at my disposal right now.  I will have to travel, hit the archives once again, to finish telling this small story.

I am confident that I will be able to find the evidence that will help me flesh out these stories. Perhaps some of you reading this now know more than I and, if so, I hope you will share with me what you know.  If the evidence exists, I will find it.  It might take time.  Many paths I follow–that any historian follows–invariably lead to dead ends.

So why bother?  Is there something in this, as one of my professors used to ask, of more than mere antiquarian interest? I am writing a book looking at one small piece of land, and the people who lived there, over a span of more than six centuries.  Given the vastness of that story, why give so much time and thought to two individuals about whom it is possible, at the end of the day, to know very little?

It is fun, for one thing.  It is hard sometimes for my students to appreciate this. They have a lot to carry, and we compel them when we assign research projects to come up with something meaningful to say in a short, fifteen-week semester.  They do not have the time to wander down back alleys and by-ways in search of interesting stories.  I think that is something about which we need to be more aware.  I have no deadline on this project.  A lot of us do the work we do, which so often we do alone and in isolation, because it is so immensely satisfying.  we pour hours into our projects, into our attempts to find answers to the questions that bother us. Our work does not always result in publication.  But the work, for many of us, is its own reward.

But more than that, telling the stories of people like Jerry/Jeremiah Homer and Mary Cornelius allows us to paint a more accurate picture of the communities about which we write.  Being Onondaga, or being an Oneida living at Onondaga, or being Native American generally, meant so many different things to so many different people.  White lawmakers in New York State, federal officials, Christian missionaries, local law enforcement–they all had their own views of who Indians were and what they might become. And native peoples themselves always defied and complicated these necessarily limited understandings and racist stereotypes. Writing the history of a place like Onondaga, then, means looking not only at the policy makers and the nation’s faction-tattered leaders but the lacrosse players who tested themselves against Ivy League teams, or the members of the “American Indian Concert Band,” formerly known as the “Onondaga Indian Concert Band,” which was led by David Russell Hill and claimed to be the “only professional Indian band known to both hemispheres”; or the bricklayer who learned his craft so well at Carlisle and whose future seemed bright, only to come crashing down in the face of racism and discrimination when he went to Syracuse seeking work; and circus performers who went to Europe on an eight-month contract.  These native peoples went to Europe.  They were swept up in forces beyond their control.  They were incarcerated briefly, apparently for their own protection, and they returned home.  As America’s entry into the Great War approached, debates occurred over whether native peoples, who as yet were not citizens of the United States, could be drafted.  The Onondagas’ declaration, justified by the base treatment their friends and families had experienced a couple of years before, quieted the issue for a time, until 1940, when it would surface once again.


Biographies of great men and women fill my bookshelves, life histories of people who did great things.  They fought wars, won elections, discovered one thing, or destroyed another.  The lives of famous people are linked to the events that they shaped, and that in turn shaped us.  There is a place for books like these.  You read them and I read them.  We all have a list of them that we really like.

But think of your own life.  What are the events that made you who and what you are? Have you done things, or had things happen to you, after which nothing ever could be the same?  I ask my students this question each semester when I want them to consider the meaning of history. Always they ask for clarification.  They want to know if I am interested in some public event, something “historical,” or something personal.  I do not give them any guidance, for I want them to consider what constitutes a historical event.  They will struggle with this because they are young and they have not lived through a lot.  They might mention the attacks on 9-11, though all of them now are young enough that they  can have no memory of that terrible day. Some will say the election of Barack Obama, which most of them think they remember.  I will listen to them as they compare their lists.  But I come back to my question.

What are the events that made you who and what you are?

Was it a marriage? A divorce? A birth or a death or a relocation? A breakup? A particularly cruel thing said someone said to you or a particularly empowering statement of support?  What events in their life left an impression, or a scar?

In writing a history that covers hundreds of years and focuses on a relatively small piece of what has become upstate New York, it is easy to lose sight of individual stories, and to focus on the forest much more than the trees. But it is in the small stories, the brief snapshots of ordinary lives, where we can find answers to some of the most important questions about our shared histories, and our shared humanity, across space and across time.




We Are Teachers

Many years ago I served on a search committee for a position in the history of American Foreign Policy. For many reasons it was an odd search, and we ultimately did not succeed in hiring anyone for the opening.  We interviewed one candidate over the phone, with an exceptional record of publication, and a strong, Ivy League academic pedigree. He was doing a post-doc at some thinktank somewhere and, when asked about teaching said that, yes, he did enjoy it, and that it was for him a “nice break in the day.”  He would not have been a good fit for us. I teach in a department, and at a college, with a great number of very fine teachers, where teaching is Job One, and where we take great pride in the accomplishments of our undergraduates.

Don’t Be This Guy

I have served on many search committees since that time. It consistently strikes me how poorly served are many job candidates who come from elite research institutions.  The letters of recommendation, even when they are signed and printed on letter-head, are so long, with detailed and esoteric discussions of the significance of a candidate’s research.  In my view, they contain more detail than is necessary and, all too often, say little about teaching beyond expressing the belief that the candidate, based upon their personality, might be good at it.

Do not get me wrong. Research is important.  It makes you a better historian and, when done with eyes open, it makes for better teaching. It

…or this guy

forces you to remain engaged with the scholarship and to keep abreast of the developments in your field. Even at a college like ours, it is something that you are required to do in order to achieve tenure and promotion.

And even at a school like mine, with its heavy teaching load and limited travel funds, it is my view something that you are ethically bound to do. Were I to resign my position, and if my college was able to scare up the money to replace me and conduct a tenure-track search for a historian in Early American or Native American history, I would expect that at least a hundred people would apply for the job.  Many of these people would be fantastically qualified. Many of them would have published much more by the time they went out on the job market than my peers and I did back in the middle of the 1990s.

But, let’s face it, many of them will never land tenure-track teaching positions.  Because colleges increasingly rely on adjuncts to carry the weight of their college’s teaching obligations, or because public systems are strapped for cash and positions are not necessarily replaced, many of these outstanding young historians will never get the chance to do what I have done.  It is an unjust system, and no meritocracy.  Those of us with good jobs need to appreciate how privileged we are. We need to publish, and if we cannot, we should get the hell out of the way for those who can.  We cannot justly take up space.  Other people, were they so fortunate, would produce high quality work and in quantity if they could.  Many of them will never get that chance.

Many of those who apply for position after position and never find secure academic employment would make fantastic college teachers as well.  So those of us fortunate enough to have jobs have the obligation to put our best efforts forward, to realize that we speak to more students on any given teaching day than will likely ever read an article we publish or listen to a paper we give at this or that conference. We should realize that we can devastate a student with an unkind word or with criticism that is indelicate or overly harsh.

We should recognize as well that with words of confidence and encouragement we can change a young person’s life.  A student will remember us, and what we have said, perhaps long after we have forgotten that student’s name.  And to have that sort of positive impact as a teacher requires great effort and commitment and consciousness.  I once had a colleague when I taught in Montana who told me during my campus visit that being a college professor was “the best part-time job in the world.” He published shit, a bibliography here, a stupid article there.  He taught unimaginatively–presidents and scantrons in American history.  To do well requires an enormous amount of energy and sensitivity.  Teaching is the most important thing we do.

I have had many great teachers as colleagues.  Bill Cook, my medievalist colleague who retired a few years back, and who was adored by generations of students, told me that he reminded himself that every student he taught was the most important person in somebody’s life, and that they were entitled to the utmost courtesy, care, and respect.  His office for many years was across from mine, and I was always impressed by how much time he took with students, how much interest he showed in them.  It was a good lesson for me.

I had this student who took a couple of my classes–my Native American survey course and my course in American Indian Law. She wrote one of the finest research projects I had ever read. Her short papers were brilliantly insightful. They were well-researched and extremely well-written. They were theoretically sophisticated.  She was not a history major, but was the best student in each of the classes she took.  As she prepared to leave campus, having completed her last semester, she stopped by my office. She thanked me for the semester. I told her that I have been at this teaching thing a while.  I told her that I had a good idea of what it takes to succeed in graduate school and academia, and I told her that I am highly selective in who I recommend for graduate school–it is a tough job market, after all, and to succeed you need to be a hard worker, talented, and imaginative.  I told her that I did not know what her plans were after school but that I had every confidence that she could succeed in any endeavor she chose to pursue, and that I would be delighted to write a letter of recommendation for her.  She was visibly moved by this.

A couple of weeks later, I was talking to a colleague in her home department. I was sharing how talented I thought this student was, and thanked my colleague for sending her over to my department.  He said that she was a C student, that she did not seem that interested or motivated.  Damn.  That transcript.  Those grades.  Wouldn’t work for graduate school.  It was a conversation that left me deeply disappointed, and I feel it still, a couple of years later.  Was she really uninterested, or was he uninspired or ill-advised?  I wish I had the chance to meet this student earlier in her Geneseo career.  I have a feeling that I may have been the only professor she had who really let her know how exceptional and talented she was.

We teach. Sometimes, we get lucky, and we meet students who have such breath-taking talent that we learn more from them than they from us.  Sometimes students disappoint us, frustrate us, inspire us, and make us proud.  Sometimes they do not live up to what we believe is their potential.  But once in a while, you will change their life for the better, and, once in a while, they will make yours much better, too.