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developing writing skills

February 22, 2007

In one of my other lives, I write a local history column for the Milwaukee Shepherd-Express. I’ve been doing this for about a 18 months now, and I’ve slowly been learning some valuable lessons about writing in a different context than we historians usually do. My most recent column drove home the point that I still don’t know what the heck I’m doing when it comes to photographs. The column I write is a Q&A format; readers submit questions, and I provide answers. I’ve been trying in recent months to include more visuals in the columns–mostly photographs, but hopefully at some point maps, etc. The vagaries of copyright make these things more complicated than they might otherwise be–especially writing for a commercial venture rather than an academic journal. In any case, this time around, I wanted to use some pictures to show just what Milwaukee’s oldest documented house looked like. The story I wrote about concerned the early days of Milwaukee’s history and provided some background about the man who constructed this house, Alanson Sweet. Unfortunately, the photographs I took were of the house in its modern setting–surrounded by factories, hidden amidst industrial development. But the story I told was of days when the area was empty and first settled. This disconnect between images and writing caused some irritation on the part of a few readers, who felt that the photographs raised questions that weren’t answered in the text. And they were absolutely right.

This experience has reinforced to me that we as historians really aren’t taught to think about this sort of thing–to think of the reader as an audience. Our training is so focussed on talking to each other (“did I talk about gender?” “is the argument clear?”) that we (or at least I) haven’t spent a whole lot of time thinking about things like “what might this photograph say to someone who just happens by my writing?)

Apropos my post earlier today about PhD programs, I’d also like to register some support for a slow transition to “skills demonstration” in PhD programs–statistical analysis, media usage, public history, writing for style, etc–in replacement of language skills where appropriate (all U.S. History PhDs, I’m looking at you) as a way of helping historians relate to broader communities.

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  1. CM: Be careful what you wish for. My graduate history department contained a very strong public history component, and those students mixed with “regular”/academic aspirants like oil and water. And they did in fact mix in about one-half of the U.S. history courses (the public history program was tailored for U.S. jobs). Oh my goodness! I could tell you some stories about after class griping. Some of that was petty and snobbish, but other complaints were legitimate. The key lies in what you emphasized above: audience. The differing goals in communication created a number of awkward, often intractable classroom discussions.

    As for replacing language requirements with public history ones, well, that could have some merit. I took both a course on oral history and the required language class (French reading skills). I've definitely utilized the former more than the latter. But the French class, like all language courses, made me rethink my own English grammar and composition skills. Do we want to lose that? – TL


  2. Anonymous permalink

    Oil and water? You married a public history student!


  3. I married an exceptional public history student, not the norm!


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