When writing a history essay, applying a theoretical lens can help you make a sophisticated argument and earn high marks. You always want to be mindful of your essay structure and the substance of any original documents, but, particularly for advanced classes and seminars, bringing in different historical theories can elevate your paper to the next level.
Any good history essay rests on the thorough use of primary sources and on the organization of your argument. To go even further, however, historians often try to connect the themes of their sources to a broader debate, problem, or philosophy. Subsequently, historians create, verify, nuance, or disprove larger theories about the past and human behavior. Throughout time, the way historians talk and think about a particular theory may change; for example, feminist historical theory fifty years ago was primarily concerned with ‘rediscovering’ women whose stories had been forgotten and ‘proving’ that women had just as much of a place in history as men. More recently, the theoretical focus has shifted to questions about how people in the past understood gender depending on their context and circumstance. So whereas earlier works tried to uncover a female historical subject and bring her story to light, historians today examine what it meant to be a man or a woman in a particular time and place. Bringing this kind of approach into your own essays can make your paper stand out to your teachers or professors, and it is especially helpful to practice if you’re thinking about going on to graduate school.
But how do you begin to bring in theory to your essays? Start by thinking about what parts or themes of your paper interest you. What are you excited about? Are you fascinated by the workings of the Roman legal system, or are you drawn to the intricacies of Chinese trade under the Ming Dynasty? If there’s a particular area that grabs your attention, chances are that other scholars have also picked up on it, and a quick library search of similar themes can turn up a lot of their work. From there, when reading these books or articles, pay attention to how the writer sets up their argument and who else they cite when trying to prove their points. Footnotes and endnotes are your friends here, as historians are always building on past research, continually referencing the thinking of the academics before them. References are thus a great source for further reading and a kind of ‘genealogy’ for the themes and theories you might be interested in. Historians are offering these building blocks to you right up front, and you’re invited to join in the discussion!
Engaging with theory, even in a preliminary sense, can be a great way to elevate your history essays. Referencing the work of past historians will show your professors that you are eager to engage in a high level of debate, and that you too can be part of the scholarly conversation.
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