Amongst all the turmoil of working full time, studying, parenting, volunteering, moving to a new house three times, and changing jobs, I also had the small task of writing my honours thesis to contemplate. As one could imagine, my time management has been a nightmare. I had completed around 2.6 percent of the required word count and was starting to feel a little overwhelmed about the task at hand.
Hence, I was eager to attend the HDR workshop: Genres of History, as it presented an opportunity for me be involved with the HDR cohort in person rather than online and to learn some crucial thesis writing tips from someone who has been through the struggle and come out on the other side as a distinguished successful academic and writer – Associate Professor Tiffany Shellam.
I found the workshop to be an excellent collaborative discussion. We looked at the different way history can be written and how styles of writing history change depending on the audience. Shellam made a key point by examining the Calibre Essay Prize (Winner): ‘Nah Doongh’s Song’ by Grace Karskens. This piece exemplified a style of writing history that I had previously found myself toying with, but was unsure whether this was a suitable style for a thesis. Karskens’ style revolves around the creation of double narrative, so not only is the author delivering the story of a thesis (or article), but also they are intertwining this story with the author’s own tale of discovering the facts. This method enables the audience to relate to the author and, subsequently, the audience wants the author to succeed in their discovery. This makes the delivery of the key historical points more gratifying and hit home for the reader as they have been following the authors’ hardships in attaining the information.
This is a very effective way to create a double sense of interest in the story, and also allows for two layers of narrative that can potentially reach a wider audience. The author’s own tale of discovery may provide a stronger connection with the audience and help the historical narrative feel more significant to the reader as they read about the lengths that the author had to go to discover the information.
This discussion highlighted what would be a key take away for me from the session. It showed me how important the story is when it comes to telling history. Historical discovery and delivering key historical facts could be all for naught if the information is not disseminated effectively. The ability to creatively write and deliver a story that the audience wants to hear is, therefore, crucial.
The conversation between the HDR workshop attendees brought up some interesting points. If creative writing is crucial to telling good history, then how do historians juggle that creativity with objectivity and a rigid upholding of the historical evidence? Shellam led the discussion surrounding this, and we discussed how creative writing was essential in engaging the audience. We also looked at how being honourable to the evidence can lend credibility to the writers’ work. For example, we considered how writers admit that although they do not know something for sure, this is what they believe to be true. Alternatively, how they might discuss several possible scenarios if the evidence does not suggest one particular result.
It was generally agreed in the session that by admitting when a writer does not know something for sure, it makes them seem trustworthy, as compared to a writer claiming to know all and every piece of information. This can also be tied into the creative writing and narrative side of the article enabling the writer to portray their own frustrations at not getting the definitive result they were after which again can help build an engaging sub-narrative and connect more with the audience despite the evidence providing uncertainty.
From there, we looked at differing ways authors can use writing styles and levels of evidence depending on the type of article being written. Articles for places like The Conversation, need to portray the key points of research being conducted and why this should be of interest to the readers. More specific scientific journals will require a more thorough source-based approach and are usually of more considerable length.
Although writing a thesis may seem daunting and overwhelming, it was very positive to hear how someone like Associate Professor Shellam had been there herself and pushed through to produce meaningful academic work. More so, by persevering with a thesis, even if it seems that the only people who will read it are the markers and supervisor, Shellam explained how her thesis was able to launch many other forms of writing, from academic papers, books and journal articles, most of which revolved around the original research and arguments of her thesis.
Shellam used her thesis notes to explain how her thesis changed in structure from the time it was being written to final submission. A large part of the changes reflected how her thesis would take the form of a mini-book, and this change allowed for subsequent publishing from her thesis as its form was already in a publishable state. This was another significant takeaway from the workshop and it was reassuring for a honours student like me to know that if you get your honours thesis written in a publishable format, then not only will a PhD thesis will be much easy to expand out from the original honours thesis, but other avenues to being published will be within reach. Adaptations from the thesis will be a way of moving forward in post-graduate academia.
I highly recommend this workshop to post-graduate students, especially to those like myself, currently undertaking honours studies. The lessons Shellam was able to impart encouraged me to consider how an honours thesis and subsequent PhD thesis are not only an arbitrary submission to completing post-graduate studies, but also a launching pad to a life beyond post-graduate study. I came away from the workshop much clearer as to the types of writing styles I will employ and the structure my thesis should take. Now, I simply need to find the time to write it.
By Jarrod Hodgson