Religious Studies Faculty Publications

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Spring 2004

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The historian remains in many an imagination nothing more and nothing less than the purveyor of facts about the past. The historian's task appears simple, straightforward—to report the facts accurately. According to the logic of this image, once one has “the facts” about a selected topic, then the history nearly writes itself. Fortunately for the historian, even the most focused historical study demands more than setting the events in their proper order. I write “fortunately” because if the historical task were as straightforward as just described then a single history written by no particular historian would suffice on any given topic, and historian unemployment rates would rise even higher than they are now. Though most contemporary academics know the subtle and complex influences of social location, those whose work is other than historical tend to exempt history from such influences. They have little reason to ponder the many variations possible in constructing a historical narrative nor to consider the merits of each variation. The historian, on the other hand, must consider as many variations as possible in trying to figure out what story to tell about the given subject and how best to tell it. Even writing on a relatively focused topic like the fifty-year history of the College Theology Society requires careful reflection on exactly what story is to be told and numerous choices on how best to tell that story.

To convey to students what writing history entails, I often ask them to imagine producing a history of the preceding day as each of them lived it. Most immediately understand that even to write such a limited history would demand choices not only in terms of details to include and omit but also in terms of organizing those details within a framework selected to provide a particular view of the day. A single event or a special relationship might frame the narrative. Then again, a series of interconnected events organized conceptually might create the intended effect. Audience shapes these choices. Students admit that their narratives would change if the audience shifted from peers to parents.

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Cambridge University Press





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