The Story of Mankind: What it takes to Write History

Half of her office is surrounded by books, several which are related to her specialty, while others are from reputable academic journals, such as the American Historical Review. After years of studying, writing, and interpreting history as a student, Elizabeth Lawrence now finds herself at Ball State University, teaching history to her own students while doing research for her academic work. With the mind of an archaeologist and the heart of a historian, Lawrence looks into the past by using artifacts as primary sources in her own lectures and research, connecting students to the present with ancient history. Through her own writing, she pieces parts of the past together to look at it from a new perspective and develop her ideas. Lawrence is able to interpret history in a different light in her lectures and her writing; amongst other things, it takes dedication, passion, honed research skills, and a dash of curiosity to be an accurate, compelling storyteller of the past.

Most, if not all of these traits are required to become a successful historian, as “they need the patience to work long hours tracking down elusive facts … [and] must have the ability to arrange many details into a convincing and coherent picture of the past” (Bonk, par. 3). After first achieving her bachelor’s degree at Grinnell University in Iowa, Lawrence then pursued her Master’s and PhD at Columbia University in New York. In 2014, Lawrence exhibited the same sense of dedication by working as a graduate student, where she completed her dissertation, The Chinese Seal in the Making, 1904-1937.

BSU history professor Elizabeth Lawrence in her office, room 232 in the Burkhardt Building.

Dr. Elizabeth Lawrence


Now as a professor, she is currently teaching “West in the World” and “The History of Modern China.” Lawrence spends a part of her time writing for not only her academic research, but for her students. “The main difference [between being a teacher’s assistant and a professor] was simply the preparation for each and every class,” Lawrence said. “At least right now when I’m still fairly new to lecturing, I like to prepare a full lecture. That was quite time consuming.” As the student has now become the professor, Lawrence focuses most of her writing skills in preparing lectures, communicating with students and faculty members, and continuing her work that she began in her dissertation last year where she explores more of her specialty, East Asian studies. Working as a teacher’s assistant and putting together a dissertation are both examples of the dedicated path most historians take to excel in their field.

Whether Lawrence is preparing for a lecture or working on her academic research, most writers have a system of sorts; some are meticulous note takers while others write freely. For historians in particular, “that thought process involves raising questions, marshalling evidence, writing narratives, and critiquing the narratives by others” (Staley 72). To Lawrence, there are simply two types of writers: those who plan their entire work before they begin typing, and those who figure out what they’re going to accomplish as they’re writing. “I think I tend to be a little more of the latter, which is why I probably say that revising is the key thing for me,” she said. “Oftentimes I do outlining, but I find that paper that I write will often diverge quite a bit from the original outline.” Lawrence also noted that she doesn’t follow the traditional form of an outline – they usually resemble simple lists. It is through her writing that she is able to first establish her ideas before revisiting and fully developing them.

It is also through effective research and open communication about the world of the past that students and faculty members alike can interpret clues from history while discussing each other’s ideas. “But while historians are indeed storytellers, we write particular types of disciplined stories,” David Staley wrote in A History of the Future. “Unlike fiction writers who enjoy many more degrees of narrative freedom, historians must adhere to specific methods that limits the types of stories we are permitted to write.”  Yet, historians and writers alike have to consider how to address their audience before they even begin writing. For Lawrence, that’s fairly simple, as she normally addresses either her students or fellow historians since the two “are largely separate.” She is hoping that as she matures into her career, “these two different spheres of writing [will] talk to each other” and will create a dialogue between the two. In doing so, it would allow for greater communication and, hopefully, more insights to the past.

While addressing her fellow peers in her dissertation, The Chinese Seal in the Making, 1904-1937, Lawrence utilized several different sources, including, but not limited to, images of statues, stele rubbings, and seal imprints (Lawrence 69, 63, 65). Research is crucial to any work a historian must do; typically, they “rely mostly on written records for evidence to support their claims,” yet Lawrence takes it a step further and “use[s] physical objects, such as photographs, costumes, and tools, to shed light on past lifestyles” (Bonk, par. 1). By emphasizing and basing several of her lectures in relation to different material items throughout time, Lawrence is able to connect her students directly to history. While many other professors might choose to focus their lectures on dates or people, Lawrence purposefully focuses on objects in order to draw students in. “Our society is so saturated with image that students respond well to thinking about and looking at images; it gives them sort of the opportunity to deal with the primary sources that doesn’t feel so distant and that also in a sense have gone through less stages of mediation,” she said. “It hasn’t been translated or edited, so that’s part of their attraction to me as a teacher; in a way they feel more immediate.” Having raw, untouched material to present to students allows them to connect to history in a different way than traditionally taught; it helps students to retain more information as they learn to associate different objects with different time periods throughout history.

Regardless of whether a historian is using an artifact or a manuscript as a source, the underlying goal remains: “work[ing] backwards from this present evidence to construct an account of a past reality” (Staley 84). As gratifying as it can be, Lawrence admits that there are some drawbacks to being a historian. Unlike various other jobs, there are no set hours that historians work: “You’re never not a historian,” she said. However, the reward is more gratifying for those who value the idea of learning something new every day – achieving clarity. “Maybe you have been trying to better understand particular historical events; then you find the perfect source that really helps you think through what was going on and you just have this moment where everything seems a lot clearer than it was before,” Lawrence said. “You feel like you have something important to convey and you know best how to do it all of a sudden — that’s an experience that I have both in my research and in my teaching.” It’s this drive for knowledge, that spark of clarity that leads many historians, including Lawrence, to continue their research and spread their insights, shedding a new light on the past.

Students looking to pursue this career should be aware that success in this field requires mainly two things: good writing and research skills, and above all, passion. Lawrence advises studying a foreign language; reading frequently “because you become a better writer if you’re a good reader”; revising everything, and “never assum[ing] something is finished the first time you write it. Study what is exciting to you and not what you think you should be studying because it’s such a long and arduous process. You will only fail unless you really do have the passion.” Dedication, drive, and hard work are things that will help in several fields; in this one, it’s a requirement.

Sitting in her office, Lawrence has made her own path to the position she finds herself in now – a new professor and historian, ready to rediscover the past. While her books may make reliable, accurate sources, Lawrence is a cultural historian who looks to what mankind has left behind: other objects and artifacts that tell their own story throughout time. In using these as primary sources in her research and teaching, she is able to connect to the millennial generation in a way that comes natural – through strong imagery. While her own writing process doesn’t reflect the work of all historians, it allows her to develop her ideas in a way that her peers and students can understand, as she hopes to bring the two different audiences together. She illustrates how important writing is in her field, and how even more important being passionate about it is. Writing isn’t just for novelists. It’s for the time recorders, the storytellers – and for Lawrence, the ones who tell the story of mankind.

Works Cited

Bonk, Mary. “Historian.” Career Information Center. 9th ed. Vol. 6: Engineering, Science, Technology, and Social Science. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2007. 130-132. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 24 Jan. 2015.

Lawrence, Elizabeth. Personal interview. 15 Jan. 2015.

Lawrence, Elizabeth. The Chinese Seal in the Making, 1904-1937. Diss. Columbia University, 2014.

Staley, David J. “A History of the Future.” History & Theory 41.4 (2002): 72­89. Academic Search Premier.Web. 25 Jan. 2015.


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