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History vs. English Papers

Hi everyone! Mary and Amy here. This week, we kick off a series of posts that take a deep dive into the differences between papers in different disciplines. We talked to two of our tutors, Rachel Smith (English & History double major) and Brooke Ingram (English writing major), on what differences they've noticed between English and History papers. Let’s see what they had to say:

Question: First of all, what are the key differences that you see between history and English papers?

Brooke Ingram: Well, [for English] besides content, the sources and your approach to getting the sources and how you deal with those.

Rachel Smith: Yeah, so [for history] it's a lot of which focuses more on primary and secondary. When I’m writing a history paper, it’s gonna be a lot more reading heavy of primary sources because you’re having to juggle the arguments of the secondary sources but your first coding and reading and analyzing all these historical documents. You may have one primary source in mind but you’re having to find like letters, diaries, about that person, people similar to that person to back up your claims because you’re not only trying to assert your argument into like the conversation with other scholars but you’re also trying to make sure you’re factual and make sure that you’re very accurate as possible.

Q: Why do you think that is? Why do you think that it’s more important to have that kind of primary source based argument for history versus maybe English?

Brooke: Well, I think, especially for English, your focus is more on the state of the conversation. . .With history, you have to look at a lot more of the other facts of that time period, the primary. It’s just because it is different contextually.

Q: Are there any that we didn’t mention that y’all might think of?

Rachel: Well, I mean you’re going to have English papers that also are heavily involved in history so if it's something like Shakespeare, you’re going to have to be discussing the things that were going on at the time that impacted the theatre and gender roles and racial roles. But, that’s only sometimes, whereas like history you’re always coding for race, gender, religion, and things like that because you’re more targeting people groups in like a sociological aspect than probably English is gonna be a lot heavier in theory.

Q: What do you personally find most challenging about writing an English or a History paper?

Brooke: I think for [English] is that in finding my secondary sources sometimes I’m not always finding the things I want to find. Because if I have a certain topic that I’m looking for and I’m researching, I just have to trust that someone else has already thought of that or something similar to that. So, it’s not like a historical event or something or like fact-based that I know I can find something for, it’s I have to hope someone else has already done previous research on something related to this topic.

Rachel: Probably just the extensive reading you have to do [for history]. Secondary sources in general are a lot easier to read, because of course it’s a lot more factual and you’re skimming for the facts but the primary is just so intensive. You can be reading something that is very difficult to understand because it’s gonna be different dialects and different writing styles… trying to navigate that process of cutting yourself off from rabbit trails, getting the facts, and getting out real quick so you can get more primary resources then just that.

Q: With that, how do you think your analysis differs? Do you think that there is a different way that you discuss the sources, a different interaction with the sources? How do your arguments kind of build on the sources?

Brooke: Well… [with history] you’re always looking for the racial themes, the gender roles, things like that like there’s these key elements of history you’re always coding for that you’re always looking and breaking down. But for English, sometimes you are. It really depends; what you’re looking for really differs in that of what specific themes and elements that you're trying to focus on.

Rachel: I would definitely say… probably with the writing, it’s going to be a lot, I wouldn’t say flowery language with English, but every time I do write a history paper I think I’ve been like told “make it a little less flowery” so it’s like this whole different mindset of theorizing. And you’re a lot more generous with your ideas – I feel like that kind of comes into play with how you handle sources too. Are you entertaining other people's arguments as well?

Q: So, the breakdown I guess you could say for a source for History, you’re looking for those themes, you’re coding for those themes, you’re looking for key words, key experiences, whatever you want to say to kind of go with a pattern? Would that be a correct assumption?

Rachel: Yes, finding a pattern is definitely what you do across all the primaries because …You’re looking for “fact patterns” whereas in English you’re looking for similar arguments.

Q: How do you frame your arguments? Is it your opinion, is it someone else's opinion? How often do you use your voice in your discipline?

Brooke: I feel like quite often I do, even if it's more implicitly without actually saying “I think this”, but it’s very much carried out through my arguments in my papers. Most of them are opinion based, like through fact, with the fact supporting it. It is more of what I interpret from it with English.

Rachel: I feel like [for history] it's a lot less of interpretation. . . it’s you caught something maybe other people didn’t. Typically, you’re gonna do all your primary research and then secondary, so you’re not just seeing what everyone is seeing when you’re viewing the secondary. . . You just don’t want to come to the table unprepared.

Q: How often do you write papers within your discipline?

Brooke: Quite often, yeah. I feel like as I get into the upper level [English courses], it’s less papers but more work goes into those fewer papers. They’re just bigger papers, higher stakes but quite often.

Rachel: Weekly. . . and especially across both boards like probably 2 papers or 3 papers a week.

Q: Which do you find easier to write?

Rachel: Probably English but I wouldn’t call it easy because it takes so much analysis because you may be dealing with less texts, but it does take a different level of analysis.

Mary Margaret: I think we get a lot more practice with the mode of. . . English papers because we’re always told to have an opinion but back it up with facts… You have to be grounded in what was actually happening, the context of it, like understanding the viewpoints of the people whereas English it’s. . . my opinion is based off of this couple of sentences.

Rachel: Yeah, [history is] a much more legalistic and detailed kind of writing than English is, and so English just also comes a little more naturally so I would say history is a more learned discipline and English is more intensified.

Q: What is the typical format you use for writing papers? How familiar are you with other formats and what resources do you use to make sure your format is correct?

Rachel: I use Chicago for most of my History papers.

Mary Margaret: I’m using Chicago for the first time right now, it’s scary.

Rachel: It’s not bad.

Mary Margaret: I like footnotes a lot.

Rachel: No, I’m obsessed with footnotes.

Brooke: I use APA a lot, a lot, a lot. I feel like I’m more comfortable with that but Purdue Owl is my best friend because I’m always second guessing if I actually know. So, like I’ve done papers in some other kind of formats but I’m more comfortable with APA.

Rachel: I guess everyone’s most comfortable with MLA.

Mary Margaret: MLA is my go to but I rarely use it.

Rachel: I don’t remember the last time I probably wrote that, but I usually, no matter if I’m going across different format disciplines, I’m always double checking. Even in Chicago, like I don’t wanna tell someone wrong.

Q: Do you have any last thoughts for people who might be struggling with one or the other?

Brooke: That even though there’s different contexts, your claim can be opinionated but it does need something to support it. So, whether it’s like primary sources, facts, or secondary sources, or a few lines from a poem, something has to be supporting your claim.

Rachel: I’d say that they may be different modes of writing but if you’re putting in a lot of practice to either discipline and you grow your reading analysis and writing skills, that kind of takes you a lot farther than most people would think. Because I know that they’re seemingly abstract like majors but I think that they better prepare you for the workplace than a lot of people would think, just having a strong writing and reading background.

Mary Margaret: Alright, thank you Rachel and Brooke!


Thank you to Rachel and Brooke for their time!

We hope this helped clarify some points about English and history papers as you embark on your next essay endeavor.

Happy writing,

Mary and Amy

The Writing Center is located on the first floor of the Leland Speed Library across from the Gore Art Gallery.

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