How do we undertake a major historical research project for the first time? What should we do to ensure that a project’s completed? How do we best engage in debate about our own, and others’, work? How can we apply historical understanding to our professional lives, and what opportunities are available to us? In short, what’s it mean to be a historian?
In Becoming a Historian, Professors Penelope J. Corfield and Tim Hitchcock consider the steps and skills required, and how to manage the challenges of research. Supportive, pragmatic and ‘informal’, this is a guide shaped by its authors’ long-standing commitment to scholarly community and to training the next generation of historians.
Becoming a historian is hard – and can be weird. While the profession has made huge strides in creating space for more voices and different perspectives, the community of historical research can seem mysterious and even off-putting.
In our new informal Guide we seek to de-mystify the process and to extend the hand of friendship to all seeking to undertake a history research project. Becoming a Historian is frank about the pains and pitfalls in the long slog towards completion of a big project; and it acknowledges the structural failings that still mar the profession. But it also celebrates the pleasures and intellectual profits to be gained – both along the way and when eventually communicating the results to the wider world. So we hope to encourage more people to try their hands at writing – and completing –- a major piece of historical research.
The book is directed at both independent scholars and those undertaking formal research degrees at MA and PhD level. Mirroring the stages of starting – writing – and completing, the text is divided into three main sections, with a couple of addendums. The first section covers basics, such as finding a suitable research topic; identifying a compatible supervisor or mentor; and the excitements of assessing sources and suitable methodologies (including data management). Throughout, we take a broad view of the themes, sources and approaches that constitute history. All that, whilst firmly supporting the internationally shared values and procedures, which distinguish good history from ‘fake’.
A second section assesses the processes of writing, analysing and organising research chapters. It provides tips on shared monitoring of the timetable (working closely with a supervisor), as well as practical advice on how not to get stuck in the mire of a seemingly endless project. There are also key chapters on using social media effectively; and on Digital History. Here we provide a balanced overview between breathless enthusiasm for new technology, and an over-anxious rejection.
One chapter provides specific advice on coping with writer’s block; and, better still, on avoiding such mental / psychological blockages in the first place. It draws on the authors’ long experience of trying to foster a strong sense of research community. Attendance at welcoming seminars can play a good role to that end. As can participation in joint research projects; and sharing in other collaborative endeavours. All those activities can help to ward off intellectual isolation, self-wounding doubts and depression, which can readily turn into writer’s block. But should that unhappy state occur, Becoming a Historian details tried-and tested remedies for unblocking. (Of course, some mental conditions may need professional medical help, which is why we advise on pro-active research lifestyles to avoid blocking in the first place.)
Next, a third section details practical steps to overcome the difficulties of completion, which always takes longer than anticipated. The long slog is not helped by well-meaning but irksome queries from friends and family, who ask repeatedly: ‘Isn’t it finished yet?’ Technical chapters in this section, aimed specifically at PhD candidates, further review the final presentation of the PhD and the nature of the viva.
All researchers post-completion are then advised on the best steps to take for publication, to make the fruits of their research available in the wider world. The many other forms of civic engagement undertaken by historians are also explored – and welcomed.
Further chapters address the arts of giving a public presentation of original research; plus the techniques for asking and answering questions in a seminar or lecture; and, additionally, the skills of chairing a research meeting in a public forum. These abilities all assist the effective dissemination of good historical research – something that is worthwhile in itself and has the advantage of almost invariably finding eager public audiences.
In conclusion, a brief section explores the jobs characteristically undertaken by successful history postgraduates. The range is signally broad. Moving out of the academy and into the wider world has never been easier. History remains a ‘hot’ subject in public demand; and long may it remain so.
Becoming a Historian was built on a friendship, and the shared experience of watching generations of historians finding a voice in the Long Eighteenth-Century Seminar at London University’s Institute of Historical Research. Both of us welcome the long-term, if sometimes slow-moving, democratisation of the academic world, and of historical studies in particular. Widening access remains the key to the subject’s continuing updating and renewal; and this Guide explicitly seeks to hurry that process. Watching the trends, we contributed between us a mixture of critical haste and optimistic hope. One of us (TH) is relatively more frustrated by the slow pace of change, for example in widening the ethnic diversity of professional history. The other (PJC) is more optimistic and believes that the long-term trend in recruiting historians of different classes and backgrounds will inexorably continue to apply. The results of our mutual debates on this point are apparent in the text of this Guide.
Lastly, this volume is personal. It emerged from a shared love of the historical community, and profound belief in the importance of the project of writing history. We therefore hope that it may help others to journey into archives / museums / libraries / galleries etc; to emerge with completed histories; and to tell the wider world triumphantly all about it.
About the authors
Penelope J. Corfield is Professor Emeritus of History at Royal Holloway, University of London; Visiting Fellow at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne; Member of the Academia Europaea / Academy of Europe; and President of the International Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies (2019–). Her latest book is The Georgians. The Deeds and Misdeeds of Eighteenth-Century Britain (Yale UP, 2022)
Tim Hitchcock is Professor of Digital History at the University of Sussex and, until 2021, was Director of the Sussex Humanities Lab. He has published a dozen books on the histories of poverty, sexuality, gender and crime, including London Lives. Poverty, Crime and the Making of a Modern City, 1690–1800 (CUP, 2015), with Robert Shoemaker. With Robert, and others, Tim has also been responsible for creating a series of web resources, including the Old Bailey Online, London Lives, and Locating London’s Past, designed to give free public access to the records of the British past and lay the foundation for a ‘new history from below’.