One rarely can find a discipline (apart, perhaps, from literature) where one must submit such ridiculous amounts of writing assignments. Well, maybe this true for all humanities. Yet research process in history sure has its own unique caveats.
Materials for research are difficult to access
One of those caveats is the difficulty of accessing the materials. Sources aren’t always readily available, especially if they are rare artifacts kept in archives. I once asked a friend to write my research paper for me only because at the time she had access to some valuable manuscripts in one of the big European archives. The topic fascinated me and was obligatory for my SAP. I would give much to be able to do the research myself but I had to be realistic. I had neither time nor money to make this journey and access those documents first-hand. She also couldn’t make copies for me, as this was forbidden due to the fragility of the originals and the tricky laws of the country in question.
Another problem is to find a way to search for those materials that can be possibly found online. Even if you believe that the information must be there somewhere, you struggle to find the exact phrases to search.
Writing papers is challenging
Let’s suppose you have all the information you need. Now you must develop an argument. Now, if everything had already happened, how do you argue about it? Was it right, was it wrong? How can one argue about solid facts that cannot be changed?
Then, again, if you find some arguable aspect in your topic, it’s difficult to offer an original interpretation because the topic has been researched by many before. Unlike mathematics, history is not a discipline where one can make a discovery simply sitting at the desk (unless your desk happens to be in an archive vault that your ilk haven’t discovered yet; or an archeological trench – this would also be nice).
Length requirements is another pet peeve – sometimes you have to inject loads of useless information into your paper just to meet the compulsory word count. Many students feel angered and frustrated by the fact that they have to write dozens of useless pages on the topic they are not even interested in. This frustration is only surpassed by the one you feel after wading through hundreds of pages that ended up being irrelevant to your research, although they seemed to be just what you’d been looking for. Not to mention the difficulties in typing on the computer, as there are many students who never got any free typing lessons for beginners.
It’s all about interpretation
However close we get to the factual understanding of history, it is still interpretative in nature. Different renowned historians, all being right to an extent, can still provide radically different interpretations of the same event. If you are but a student, this is very confusing.
As for the contemporaries who left their written evidence for us to inspect, how can we know to what extent what they stated as facts were influenced by their implicit bias? How can we know if something never was mentioned because it never took place or because it was consistently overlooked? The further away, the more difficult it is to find any material evidence to support or overthrow the documental evidence – and each evidence always has its spin.
When it comes to that, how can one detect one’s own bias and distance from it? Sometimes, when you feel deeply about your topic, research becomes personal. It’s very difficult to put aside all your feelings and not to use emotionally charged lexis. Critical analysis of the sources becomes intellectually challenging as much as emotionally taxing.
It’s impossible to understand the past fully
This is a unique epistemological problem of history as a discipline. I am sure you will agree that it’s impossible to understand life a hundred or a thousand years ago as one understands the contemporary. Time after time, you must deal with the impossibility to pick the brain of your favorite historical figure or live at least one day in a chosen period to know what it was really like.
Still, all of those challenges are an integral part of studying history – just like the fun side of it, which we love! This makes all the efforts worth the trouble.