Wednesday, 27 November 2013

The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Historians

The self-help guru Stephen R. Covey died in 2012. His best-known book was The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Here is my own stab at advice for historians:

1. Take nothing on authority. Don’t believe what Professor X says just because he or she is a considered a leading specialist on the topic. Work out for yourself if the evidence and argument stack up.

2. Go the extra mile in the search for information. But also know when you have hit diminishing returns.

3. Listen to the evidence. Don’t just cherry-pick the bits that happen to suit your argument – or that fit with established interpretations. Embrace and try to understand the inherent messiness of the historical record.

4. Verify your quotations. Check a) that the person that they are attributed to actually said them, and b) that previous historians have not wrenched them out of context (see above).

5. Pay attention to the seemingly banal. If you neglect the everyday, you won’t be able to understand the exceptional.

6. Consider the form as well as the content of your sources. Ask not only ‘What does this document say?’ but ‘Why and how was it created, and what functions did it serve?’

7. Finally, remember that your mission is to explain. This inevitably involves a measure of simplification. The biggest challenge you face is to do this with integrity.

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