Historians “Show Your Work”

I never liked it when a math teacher told me to “show my work.”  What do you mean, “Show my work?”  “I answered the problem in my head. There is nothing to show.”

Sometimes, however, showing your work as a historian can be a useful exercise, especially as a form of pedagogy. Students need to see that historical accounts don’t write themselves, that the sources don’t “speak for themselves” as the old adage goes. Instead, historians piece together their story slowly, with trial, error, and some guesswork. It can be frustratingly hard work.

At any rate, a few years back I published a chapter on a Wisconsin Dutch American named Gijsbert van Steenwijk. Mainly I worked from a collection of his Dutch language letters to build his genealogy and to map his connections with friends and family across time and space.

One of the end products was this genealogical chart:


The final product

I built the chart by relying on Van Steenwijk’s comments about his family. Online genealogical information was helpful but sometimes contradictory. The words of Van Steenwijk I took as authoritative. My attempt to build a chart started out a bit messy.


The first attempt


An improved chart

As I read and re-read the articles, I improved on the chart.


A third attempt


A final handwritten chart

A similar process led me to build this map of Van Steenwijk’s correspondents, largely his family members spread across the Midwest.


Final map

But again this map began as a messy attempt to sort out various persons’ comings and goings. (Ze gingen heen en weer en een beetje overal)


A first attempt


A final handwritten attempt

The lesson I think this exercise shows (and indeed illustrates) is that historians sometimes can show their work, not only for their own benefit, but also as a teaching tool to show students how they work.

Too often, students are intimidated because they can’t see how to go from the sources to a final well-written product. They might think that professional historians can simply sit down and process all their thought immediately, as if the pen flows smoothly on the page and thought just pour out. For me at least, it tends to be the opposite. Sometimes there is a flash of imagination or creativity and I can write pages on end. More often, writing history is hard work, one laborious sentence at a time.

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