Doing historical research: cherry-picking events to fit my narrative (at least I’m being honest)

History of Academic Writing(s)

I have approximately one year to come up with a history of academic writing(s). This post is an attempt to break the task down into self-contained coherent chunks that can still do justice to the narrative I would like to see emerge.

Needless to say, I feel like a ravenous rabbit: desparate, but frozen by the proverbial headlights.

I have the extremely good fortune of having inspiring supervisors who are solid, confident guides, and who provide hugely relevant disiciplinary perspectives to my research (one is an educationalist, the other an analytical philosopher). When I talk to them, I come away feeling that I know what needs doing: several readings later, however, I manage to single-handedly undo all the clear thinking they have patiently brought to my anxiety-ridden digressions and over-ambitions.

So, I have opted for the following robust and reliable academic strategy:

Cherry-Picking-600#1 establish my narrative (i.e. what do I want this history to flag up)

#2 rationalise my historical account within a relevant time frame, eg. from the first issue of the Royal Society’s Philosophical Transactions (1665) – why start here?

#3 circumscribe my historical account to a geographical area, eg. Europe – what’s special about Europe’s academic heritage?

#4 rationalise key events, eg. a) major printing/publishing moments; b) major social/technological happenings; c) major shifts in genre – why these? Because it is the ‘shifts in genre’ I am hunting for.

#5 dabble in discourse analysis to identify emerging patterns, eg. shifts in style/rhetoric/formats/lengths of written academic texts, and what was going on in the Academy/society/technology at the time

My plan is to map #4 on a timeline, hoping that #5 will speak for itself. The thing is, I will inevitably be selecting (aka cherry-picking) the key events in #4 that suit me, ignoring the ones that are “inconvenient” because they are exceptions or simply too complicated to deal with or difficult to classify.

Comments and reactions always welcome, especially if you know of any (free) software that will allow me to represent #1 to #5 above, and any relevant literature on the history of academic writing.

Back to the books ….

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