A Balanced Argument? Communicating the Power of Argument to History Undergraduates



“But you can’t say ‘I argue’ in an essay.” In a recent tutorial, an undergraduate History student echoed a sentiment that I have heard many times in the past several years. This student was keen to know how to develop their written work to enter a higher mark bracket. They had done some appropriate reading, they had expressed a clear and analytical answer, their points were nuanced. What was holding them back, I maintained, was the lack of themselves in their piece. Engaging with historiography is, I suggested (echoing the advice of my own brilliant teachers and colleagues), a conversation between you and other historians. When I read your work, telling me what others have said is not enough – what you think, and what you are bringing to this scholarly conversation, is crucial to creating a convincing, nuanced argument.

I want to know, I affirmed, what you are arguing. It is the ability to craft and communicate your own argument that empowers you as a historian. It is our very central skill. The refrain that you should not say ‘I’ in an essay seems to be a common one, and crucially, I think, goes beyond a stylistic phrase of A-Level exam boards. The idea of disagreeing with a historical interpretation, or siding with a specific school of thought, or offering an alternative viewpoint in seminar discussions, seems more difficult than ever before. For my students, convincing them to have confidence in themselves and in their arguments – that their arguments are worthwhile, deserve to be heard, and are taken seriously – is increasingly difficult.

 Our students do not need to be convinced of the value of the discipline; instead, they need to be convinced of their role within it. 

When we think about communicating History degrees to undergraduates, potential students or the wider world, the conversation often focuses – and rightly, depressingly so – on the inherent value of such degrees; why History as a discipline is important for civic responsibility and global awareness, what someone will gain from both a knowledge of the past and the skills to interpret it; how the expertise of a historian can and should be utilised to make worthwhile contributions to the world.



These justifications are, of course, especially relevant in 2024, as the RHS has previously pointed out. The Prime Minister’s call last year for an end to ‘Mickey Mouse’ degrees and the erroneous conflation of the Humanities with low-earning graduate positions is the latest round of governmental belittlement of these degrees. At a time when the sector is facing unprecedented financial pressures, when jobs are at risk and departments face closure — and when the success of degree programmes is judged predominantly by the short-term economic gains of their graduates, rather than their longer-term earning prospects or less tangible outcomes — the need to communicate exactly how and why History is valuable to individuals and communities has never felt more necessary.

We are teaching a generation of students whose educational and personal development has been more disrupted than any in recent times. 

Yet for students already undertaking a History degree, such arguments are, we would like to think, mostly unnecessary. At every Welcome Week at my institution, York St John University, our incoming first-year undergraduates fill in a survey that asks why they chose us as an institution and for their degree program. The results, every year, are almost uniformly similar.

Our students are passionate about their subject; they want to study it in a supportive environment; and they wish to learn more about it in a historic place. They do not articulate the many and varied transferrable skills and experiences that a History degree offers, and are more concerned with the more immediate worries of managing money, new friendships, deadlines and independent learning. The past is interesting to our students for its own sake; their curiosity and engagement fuels their study. Our students do not need to be convinced of the value of the discipline; instead, they need to be convinced of their role within it.

As historians and educators, we can only encourage and support our students to develop their argument creation and research skills. Presenting opportunities to articulate arguments in different ways, and to different audiences; to advocate for themselves using evidence; to ask questions that challenge their thinking to craft stronger assertions, are all opportunities that students need not necessarily take, but that they deserve, and we need to offer. To make an argument, to craft a well-expressed, well-supported and convincing case in answer to a question, to be active and present in the debate and in debates about the future because their voice is worth hearing, is surely the ultimate goal of our learning and teaching.



Yet achieving this sometimes feels very difficult. We are teaching a generation of students whose educational and personal development has been more disrupted than any in recent times. Many first-year students starting in Autumn 2023 spent the majority of their GCSE studies during the Covid-19 pandemic; many who graduate this summer took their A-Levels during national lockdowns. Studies addressing children and young people in the last few years have pointed to a surge in cases of social anxiety, depression and isolation. Many students are working far more than part-time hours to offset the cost-of-living crisis. Students who are first-generation university attendees, or who are from widening participatory backgrounds, may lack the cultural capital and associated confidence of undergraduates of the past. These combined elements mean that for some, a sense of confidence and empowerment feels far removed from their educational experiences.

And such confidence has never been more necessary once these students have their degrees, given the old-fashioned but pervasive view of Humanities degrees as divorced from the skills necessary for ‘real world’ employment. The HE strategies for graduate employability do not always marry together coherently with the important need for an inclusive, fair-for-all learning experience. These contradictions can be difficult to negotiate. I wonder if it is in the inherently empowering ability to build, and the skill to assert, arguments that an ideological and practical middle ground exists.

“Historians are dangerous and capable of upsetting everything.”  – Nikita Khrushchev, 1956

The training a History graduate receives, after all, can be applied to any evidence in any situation. Confidently making arguments goes far beyond crafting analyses about the past. History graduates are ideally placed to advocate for themselves; their skills and experiences are the very primary sources necessary to make an argument as to why they deserve an interview, why they ought to get the job, why they have earned this promotion. The ability to make, and recognise, thoughtful, well-evidenced arguments are essential in a world of fake news, deep-fakes, and misinformation. Appreciating the nuances of an issue, to interpret and communicate complexity, and to engage in evidence-based persuasion, is indispensable when addressing increasingly polarised and emotive topics. These are fundamentally ‘real world’ attributes – inherent to, rather than additional, to the learning experience and skills of History graduates.



In their Welcome Week talk, first-year historians will hear me quote the (in)famous 1956 line attributed to Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev: ‘Historians are dangerous and capable of upsetting everything.’ It is a theme I try and come back to often, explicitly and implicitly throughout their degree – you can upset the status quo because you have powerful skills. Without appropriate evidence, an argument looks weak and assumptive. Weak and assumptive arguments will not convince anyone. How can we bolster this argument? Why are you arguing the way you are? What nuances can you draw out? When we communicate the power of a History degree to students, we are communicating the power that they themselves have the potential to hold. Their skills in and experiences of argument creation and communication are not just valuable, but inherently, emphatically, powerful.

You can – and you absolutely should – say ‘I argue’ in an essay.



About the Author


Dr Elizabeth Goodwin is a Senior Lecturer in Late Medieval and Early Modern History at the York St John University.

She completed her PhD at and taught at the University of Sheffield, as well as teaching at the Universities of Birmingham and Loughborough, before starting at York St John in 2018.

Currently, Elizabeth is the Learning and Teaching Lead in the School of Humanities at York St John, and holds Senior Fellowship of the HEA.







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