Back to work…

August 27th, 2011

After something of a hiatus resulting from a flurry of personal, professional, and geographical changes, I am once again in the mood to get back to writing on this blog. I’m not entirely sure what direction I will be taking it this time around, but time will tell.

Some notes for anyone interested in historyhelp.ca services:

  • Due to my current ‘day job’ I am no longer able to offer research services to either Governments or First Nations. There would be just too much potential for perceived conflict of interest.
  • Academic Proofreading and Editing as well as Tutoring are once again be on offer! Tutoring is offered specifically to students of history (and related disciplines) while academic proofreading and editing is available for any English-Language academic work.
  • I do not anticipate any upcoming offerings of University Prep courses, but if you have a long-term vision for any such course to be run next summer, let’s talk!

If you are about to start or return school – good luck and have fun! Remember to give yourself the time to do things right. Don’t rush your work, try not to fall behind early on, and whatever you do don’t even consider cheating/plagiarizing! It is never worth it.

Also, don’t hesitate to talk to your profs. Far from being bothered by students, most academics welcome the chance to talk about their subject outside the classroom.

Summertime, and the study is hectic…

May 19th, 2010

Are you taking some courses over the summer? If you are, and especially if this will be your first experience with summer semester courses, there is one vital fact that you should bear in mind:

It will be intense.

In fact, classes taken during the summer will probably be twice as demanding as any classes that you have taken during the rest of the academic year. Why? At most universities, the summer semester is an intensely condensed period in which the same amount of material is presented in roughly half the regular time. For example when I taught at TRU, a typical class would meet for three hours (two lectures and a seminar) each week over the course of a thirteen week semester. That same class in the summer would meet for six hours each week for six weeks. Weekly class time was doubled, but the amount of material presented each week was in fact more than doubled (39 hours of material was presented in 36 hours, over the course of six weeks instead of thirteen). Any way you look at it, the summer version of the course was much more intense.

Some of my students came into the summer semester expecting the course to be easier that it would have been in the fall or winter semester. Don’t do this! There are some aspects of the summer semester that can be more relaxed and informal. Campus will be quieter. Weather and prof permitting you may have classes held outdoors. And hey, it’s summertime, so the living should be easy, right?

Don’t make that assumption. Summer courses can be very rewarding, and the intensive nature of the schedule may allow you to become more involved in the material. But there are also pitfalls. Slacking off for a week in the summer is equivalent to slacking off for two weeks during the rest of the year, and letting your work slide and getting behind will be twice as difficult to recover from in the summer.

My advice is this. Right now – don’t delay! Grab your course outline, sit down and read or re-read it. Make absolutely sure that you know exactly what is required of you in the course.

  • What do you have to read before each class?
  • Do you have any mid-term exams, tests, or quizzes? What will you have to do to be prepared for them?
  • What are your assignments? When are they due? What are the exact requirements for them? What will you need to do to complete them on time? How much time will that take?
  • If you are doing more than one class, how do their schedules coincide? Will you have to complete an assignment for one class early in order to give time to work on another assignment from a different course?

By doing this you will ensure that you are not caught out or surprised by anything that the course throws your way.

Plan out your summer course work load. Work out a time management system that works for you, something that allows you to map out the big picture as well as setting short-term goals and listing tasks that you will need to complete. If you are not sure where to start with this, just google ‘time management’, ‘project management’, etc., and you will find many tools, approaches, and systems available to you.

It doesn’t really matter which system or tool you adopt. The important thing is that you settle on a system that fits with the way that you think and the way that you work, and, most importantly, that you actually make use of it!

The bottom line is that if you don’t keep on top of your work load in the summer, it will definitely get on top of you. Don’t let that happen! Get organized, stay ahead of the game, and have a great successful summer!

Proofreading 2: check those references!

January 18th, 2010

Last time out, I began to run you through my usual proofreading process. Step one was to give your work a quick read through, keeping an eye out for things like non-sequiturs, the flow of your essay, and misplaced or awkward sentences. The goal was not to fix or even identify all of the mistakes, typos, and omissions that have crept into your work, but rather to focus on how the essay reads as a work of historical prose.

Hopefully you have by now read through your essay, fixed any problems that were identified, and now are ready to move on to step two: checking your references.

Please note that at the proofreading stage you should be checking your references, not adding them! If you are still adding references to your essay it is far from complete and you are still writing it, not proofreading it. This stage of the process may identify places where you need to insert additional footnote, but the bulk of your referencing should be done as you write.

Again, this is a process that I use. Feel free to change it around and adapt it to the way that you yourself work.

When checking references, the first thing I do is to carefully work through all of my footnotes, checking that they are correct in form. Historical writing, like all academic disciplines, has particular standards and conventions that must be observed. The style most commonly used in historical writing is the Chicago style. Several variations of the Chicago style have been developed, but in essence they are the same. The examples below follow the Chicago style convention. You should check with your prof to be sure that this is the appropriate style for your essay. If it is not, ask him or her which style convention to follow, and whether you can have some examples of footnotes and bibliography entries to guide you.

Footnotes
The basic form for a footnote reference in the Chicago system is:
Author(s) name, title of the work, place of publication, publisher name [optional: check with your prof], date of publication, page number(s)

For example:
Chris Given-Wilson, Royal Household and the King’s Affinity: Service, Politics and Finance in England 1360-1413 (London, 1986), pp. 229, 312

Note that the title has been italicized. It is also acceptable to underline titles rather than italicize, but I strongly suggest that you get into the habit of using italics. Why? As footnotes increasingly make use of online sources there is increasing potential for confusion between book titles and URLs.

In footnotes, the author’s name (or authors’ names) follow the form First Name Last Name. Note that bibliography entries follow Last Name, First Name.

You will note also that my footnote above does not include the name of the publisher. This is an example of variation within the Chicago style. I normally do not include the publisher’s name, but would of course add it should a journal or book publisher require it. Similarly, you should add it if your prof requires it.

It is also acceptable to abbreviate second and subsequent footnotes that refer to the same source. These abbreviated footnotes follow the following form:

Author(s) Name(s), Title (an abbreviated version is acceptable here), Page Number(s).

For example if I were to make additional references to the above book, it would look something like this:

Given-Wilson, Royal Household, pp. 17-21.

Immediately following references to the same source can be shortened by using ibid. For example, if the second note above appeared in the footnote immediately following the first one, it would be acceptable to further abbreviate it thus:
Ibid., pp. 17-21.

However, I suggest that you avoid the use of Ibid altogether, and use abbreviated references instead. If you use Ibid for a number of footnotes, then make changes to your essay that adds or moves footnotes, you will then have to go through and change your footnotes from Ibid references to abbreviated references anyway. Save yourself the hassle, and get into the habit of just using abbreviated footnotes. It will save you much time, energy, and frustration.

At this stage, you should work through your essay, carefully reading your references, and ensuring that they are all correct in form. It may sound like a little thing, but shoddily done footnotes can at best loose you marks, and at worst open you to accusations of plagiarism.

  • Do all of your footnotes contain the required information?
  • Are your abbreviated references only in second or subsequent references to a particular source?
  • Are your authors’ names, titles, etc., spelled correctly?
  • Are any footnotes missing page numbers?
  • Have you been consistent? In other words, have you consistently abbreviated or not abbreviated subsequent references? Have you consistently included or consistently omitted the publisher’s name?

Having gone through these steps, you should be confident that your footnotes are at least correct in their form. The next step is to check your bibliography.

Bibliography

The bibliography is a list of *all* sources used in the writing of your essay. All sources that appear in your footnotes must also appear in your bibliography. Any sources that you read or consulted while working on your essay should also be included even if they did not make it into your footnotes. The bibliography is structured alphabetically, sorted by authors’ last names. The individual entries take the following form:

Last Name, First Name. Title. Location, Publisher [as with footnotes - optional]. Date.

If you have multiple entries for individual authors listed together, you can abbreviate your entries. For example these are the first eight entries in my PhD thesis bibliography. As it stretched over approximately 20 pages, I won’t include the whole thing here, but if you are interested, or want to see examples of how to list articles, theses, manuscripts, etc., I have uploaded a copy of it here.

ALLMAND, C.T.
Henry V. London, 1997.
The Hundred Years War: England and France at War, c. 1300-c.1450. Cambridge, 1988.
ARCHER, ROWENA.
Crown, Government and People in the Fifteenth Century. Stroud, 1995.
ARMITAGE-SMITH, S.
John of Gaunt. Westminster, 1904.
ARVANIGIAN, MARK.
— ‘Henry IV, the Northern Nobility and the Consolidation of the regime’. in Gwilym Dodd and Douglas Biggs (eds.) Henry IV: The Establishment of the Regime, 1399-1406. Woodbridge, 2003. pp. 117-137.
ASTON, MARGARET.
— ‘The Impeachment of Bishop Despenser’, BIHR, xxxviii (1965), pp. 127-148.
AUTRAND, FRANÇOISE.
Charles VI, la folie du roi. Paris, 1995.
— (ed.) Saint-Denis et la Royauté. Paris, 2000.

As with footnotes, make sure that your bibliography entries are complete and accurate. Don’t mis-spell names or titles, don’t forget the publication date, and be consistent!

Proofreading 1: non-sequiturs and flow

January 12th, 2010

A recurring theme on this blog and in any conversation I have ever had with students about their essays is proofreading. Proofreading is a very important step in the writing process, and one that is too often neglected by students. This will be the first in an ongoing series of posts about proofreading and editing your written work.

What is proofreading? Proofreading is simply a process in which one searches for, identifies, and corrects errors in written work. Taking the time to carefully go over your work before submitting it to your prof can make the difference between a pass and a fail, a C and a B, or an A and an A+.

That sounds simple enough, but how does one actually go about proofreading an essay?

Methodically and very, very carefully.

If you ask ten writers how they proofread their work, you will likely get ten answers. Remember as always that the secret is to develop a system that works well for you. What follows here is an example of a proofreading process that I have made use of in the past.

The first step is to read through your essay from beginning to end. The goal here is not to find and correct mistakes so much as it is to see how the essay reads. Is it well organized? Does one sentence flow naturally into the next? Does one paragraph follow on naturally from the previous one? If anything is amiss, if a sentence seems out of place, if a paragraph seems to come out of nowhere, or if any part of your essay seems awkward and poorly written, mark it, and move on.

Some things to watch out for:

  • non-sequitur: [Latin: "it does not follow"] a non-sequitur can be many things, but in historical writing non-sequiturs normally takes the form of a logical mis-step. If A=B and B=C, you cannot then assume that A=D. For example saying that all Benedictine monks are human, and all Swedes are human, therefore all Swedes are Benedictine monks is a non-sequitur.
  • statements that simply do not follow on from what has been written before: For example: ‘Arsenal Football Club, formed in 1886 as “Royal Arsenal” enjoyed its first period of great success under manager Herbert Chapman in the 1930s. His tactical innovations, changes to the club kit, and alterations to the stadium took the club from mid-table obscurity to the top of English football. Alan Smith scored the winning goal for Arsenal in the 1994 Cup Winners Cup final in Copenhagen.’ The last sentence is true, it is vaguely related to the preceding two sentences as it is part of Arsenal’s history, but it simply does not flow smoothly. This is not a logical error, but a stylistic one.
  • lack of flow: this is related to the previous example, but may not be quite as jarring. When you read through your essay, ask yourself whether the text flows naturally from sentence to sentence and from paragraph to paragraph.

Once you have read through your essay, it is time to start making repairs to the essay’s organization and structure. There are no shortcuts here. The only way to fix an essay with poor structure and organization is to methodically work through it and FIX the problems.

First, non-sequiturs must be eliminated! If your argument is based on a logical fallacy then no cosmetic repair will be able to gloss it over. If you discover a non-sequitur, you really have no alternative but to revisit your research, reconsider your conclusions, and give serious thought to how you can repair your argument. This is not a happy discovery to make, but it is much better that you find it in a draft essay rather than your prof finding it in your submitted work. If you are facing a short deadline, try talking to your prof to see if an extension is possible. Extensions are often given at the discretion of the prof (depending on the policy of your school/department), and if you take the time to carefully explain that you discovered a problem when proofreading your final draft, and that you would like some extra time to work it out, your prof may be receptive to an extension. It is one thing not to submit on time because you left everything to the last minute, quite another to discover an error in an otherwise completed work before the due date. Remember though that you are NOT owed an extension on your essay. Your prof is completely within his/her rights to deny your request.

Second, if you found any sentences that stick out like the Alan Smith example above, you can alter the structure of your paragraph to make them fit, you can change the sentences themselves, or you can delete them. This will depend on why the sentence is there in the first place. If in this example, I wanted to write about 1930s Arsenal, I would delete the sentence entirely. If I wanted to write about famous Arsenal goals, then I would have to introduce the subject, and no doubt introduce many earlier examples, before moving on to the 1994 CWC final. In this case it would be very difficult to make the sentence fit by changing it and not making extensive changes to the essay itself. However there are many instances in which a simple change to one sentence can greatly improve an essay.

Having eliminated non-sequiturs and removed or repaired sentences that do not fit, it is now time to make sure that your paragraphs flow naturally and that your essay reads as a coherent whole rather than a series of unconnected statements. The previous sentence is an example of one technique to improve flow. It is a connecting sentence that links this paragraph to ones that preceded it. Using sentences such as this is a simple but effective way to improve the flow of an essay. Paragraphs are used to group together similar ideas, concepts, or arguments within an essay, but that does not mean that you should ever forget that the individual paragraphs must come together to form a single coherent essay. If you find that a paragraph seems out of place, think about how you can make it fit. You can add an introductory sentence, rewrite the paragraph itself, or possibly move the paragraph to a different part of your essay where it fits more naturally.

Remember at this early stage of proofreading that you are focusing on structural and organizational problems. If at this stage a typo or mistake catches your eye, you can mark it quickly, but keep reading. If you recognize that a footnote is missing or incorrect, mark that too and move on. You will come back to these things later. The reason for this is simple: in the process of making changes to your essay’s structure and organization, there is a good chance that new typos and mistakes will be introduced. Don’t worry about that; it happens to all writers. For the time being, when you find a typo or other mistake, just mark it and move along, secure in the knowledge that you will fix it later. Also, a very thorough review of your references (footnotes, endnotes, etc) will be done before you submit your essay, so mark any such errors too, and remained focused on your structure and organization.

One last tip for this section that applies to all others as well: don’t be afraid to have someone else read your work. This can be a friend, classmate, parent, or historyhelp.ca. The reason for this is that once a person has written, re-written, edited, proofread, re-written, etc., an essay multiple times, his or her capacity for critical review is severely diminished. Put simply, we all lose the ability to spot errors in our own work after we have worked on it too many times. I guarantee that even if you think an essay is perfect, a critical reader with a good eye for detail will find errors that you have missed.

Blast from the past

December 18th, 2009

About 15 or so years ago I was an undergrad at Memorial University of Newfoundland, studying history and medieval studies, and working at a camera store called Tooton’s to earn some cash. It was a very small store in a terrible location, so I had a lot of time on my hands. This time was filled with reading, working on essays, more reading, and listening to the radio. And so it was that I found myself listening to CCR’s song “Travelin’ Band” while learning Old English by reading Beowulf. This was the result. It’s not quite up there with the wonderfully bizarre rock opera version of Beowulf (”…armless, charmless, harmless Grendel…” great stuff!) but it’s still fun. Enjoy the holidays everyone.

A monster named Grendel just ate another Dane
Take me down to Denmark so I can win some fame
I wanna move
Me and my travellin Geats, ooh yeah
I can beat them all
Win back the mead hall
Me and my travellin Geats

Here we go again on a Saturday night
Grendel’s mother wants to take up the fight
I wanna swim
Me and my travellin Geats, ooh yeah
Now I’m fighting under water
Hope he didn’t have a father
Me and my travellin Geats

Now I’m in Geatland, it’s great to be back
Gotta tell my story to my uncle Hygelac
I wanna boast
Me and my travellin Geats, ooh yeah
Uncle, here’s my treasure
Use it at your leisure
Me and my travellin Geats

<Saxon harp solo…>

Fifty years on it was so peaceful I was bored
‘Til some theif disturbed a great big dragon’s hoard
I’m gonna fight
Me and my travellin Geats, ooh yeah
He should have just left it
What a silly git
Me and my travellin Geats

The Dragon’s quite upset, all but one go run and hide
Only one – Wiglaf – who will stay here by my side
I’m in a fight
Me and my faithful Geat
Is he brave or stunned – don’t care!
‘Cause the Dragon singed my hair
Me and my faithful Geat

Back to the Dragon when I tried to run him through
My sword, it just broke – should have bought a new Ginsu
I wanna win
Me and my faithful Geat
Wiggy’s shield is burnt to heck
Got a big pain in my neck
Me and my faithful Geat

Wiglaf got the Dragon with a good stab clean and true
A very nast cut from the Dragon’s point of view
I need a drink
Me and my faithful Geat
That was a battle hard
I seem to be quit charred
Me and my faithful Geat

Hwaet! The kingdom now is safe no more evil dragon scare
Dammit I just wish that I had myself an heir
I wanna son
Me and my faithful Geat
Make a great big pyre
Throw me on the fire
Bury me right over there.

The Importance of Backups

December 8th, 2009

How safe are your documents, your data, your media, your computer ’stuff’? When did you last back it up? If you have an answer to that last question – well done! You’re a step ahead of most people out there. If you don’t have an answer, or if you are wondering what I mean by backing up your stuff, then please read on.

The importance of backing up one’s computer – or at least the important stuff – was a lesson driven home while I was a grad student in Scotland. One of my friends and colleagues, who was in the middle of the third year of his Ph.D., developed a problem with the hard drive in his computer. He had no backups. Nothing. Not a single note from his research, not a single chapter of his thesis. Nothing. If the university’s IT department had been unable to run some recover utilities and extract his data from the dead drive, the work of two and a half years of his life would have been wasted.

Not all drive failures are as dramatic as his nearly was – but they can still be disastrous. What would you do if, the day before an essay was due, your computer died or was stolen, or was dropped, or damaged/destroyed/disappeared in some other way? Would you go begging to your prof, desperately hoping for an extension? Would you then be surprised to find that most profs would not give an extension in such a case?

Incidentally, why would a prof be unlikely to grant such an extension? Simply because it is your responsibility to submit your work on time. Part of this responsibility involves taking care of your work. If you fail to protect and care for your work, and this result in it being late, then you frankly have no one to blame but yourself. Don’t run this risk: protect yourself by backing up your work!

So what should you back up, and how should you do it?

What should you back up?

Anything and everything that matters to you. This can include, but is certainly not limited to:

  • your documents: essays, notes, letters, resumes, etc. Any file whose name ends in .doc, .xls, .ppt, .pdf, .odt, .txt, .docx, etc. Any file that makes your life, your work, and your learning easier. There are many, many other document file types. Document files tend to be smaller, and so are more easily backed up.
  • your email: do you have copies of your important email securely saved, or is it all ‘in the cloud’? If you lost access to an email address tomorrow, would you be able to access old messages?
  • your website/blog: if your website or blog host went up in flames, would you be able to resurrect your online presence, or would you have to start from scratch?
  • your media: photos, music, movies, etc. Depending on what you do for a living, loss of media files can range from utter disaster to minor irritant.
  • software: not just the programs themselves – these can often be easily replaced – but user-generated or user-specific information as well. Software keys and serial numbers, saved game files, passwords, etc.

How should you back it up?

Everyone has a different set of priorities, and everyone will have a different set of types of files to back up. The suggestions I offer here work for me, but they may not work for you. Take some time to investigate the options and find a solution that works for you.

These are ways in which I deal with some of these issues:

  1. DROPBOX: dropbox is a wonderfully useful cross-platform (ie works on PC, Mac, and Linux) cloud-based backup and storage solution. It also happens to be very handy for document sharing. They have a free version that gives 2gb of storage. When you install dropbox it will set up a folder on your computer that is linked to their servers. Any file you drop into the folder will be synced with the cloud. When files are updated on your computer, they are also updated in the cloud. If your computer dies, you can access your online files from any computer, and even perform a full restore of all files to your desktop.

    I will probably one day upgrade to their 50gb or 100gb storage option, but for the time being have stuck with their 2gb option. All of my important documents, text files containing things such as my software keys and serial numbers, and anything else that is important but not too big is securely stored in my dropbox.As mentioned above it is also handy for document sharing. You can set up specific folders to be shared with specific people, and the documents therein will be automatically synced between the two users’ dropboxes. Very handy for any project that involve collaboration. .

    The thing I really like about dropbox is that is it neither exclusively cloud-based nor desktop-based. If their servers die or if their service stops, no worries – you still have copies stored on your desktop. At the same time if your computer is unavailable, you can retrieve your files online.

  2. WEBSITE/BLOG: Over the last few days I have been migrating my website and blog from one webhost to another. While I chose to rebuild my site pretty much from scratch, the process was made a whole lot easier by the fact that I had backed up all of my content (in a text file which was then stored in my Dropbox). This blog on the other hand has a lot more content than the historyhelp.ca site, and there was no way I was about to rebuild it by hand!

    Luckily I have developed a good habit of regularly backing up my content. I generally do this about once per month, and the resulting small backup file is securely saved in – you guessed it – my Dropbox. Because I had this backup file, the process of rebuilding my blog content took about five minutes.

  3. MEDIA: While I do have my music and photos backed up on an external hard drive, I have to confess to being slightly lax on this part of the backup front. I could also back them up online. In fact I should back them up online. But that takes time and bandwidth. I have not taken the time, and as I am on a slightly wonky satellite connection, I simply do not have the bandwidth.

    When I do get around to tackling this, I will probably opt for an online backup solution like Mozy, Carbonite, or iDrive. While these services are not free, is it worth a small fee to securely protect the thousands and thousands of songs and pictures that I have? Absolutely. I briefly used Mozy last year and found it to be very useful, but switched to Dropbox as it served my document-based needs better. I have not used either of the other two services mentioned above and so cannot recommend one. As ever, do some research, read some reviews, figure out what pricing system is best for you, and pick the solution that works for your needs.

  4. EMAIL: Do you use gmail, yahoo mail, hotmail, or any other cloud-based email service? Do you have a university/college/work email address? Did you know that email providers occasionally lose their customers’ mail? Or that they can permanently lock you out of your email? What will you do when you leave your university/college/job and need access to messages sent to or from that email address?

    The solution to this is pretty straightforward – install a desktop email client and use it to download your email and store messages locally. You don’t even have to use the client to send email. If you prefer gmail’s web interface, then keep on using gmail’s web interface. All you have to do is install an email client like Thunderbird, set up your accounts, occasionally start it up, and download your messages.  Every time you do this, you will save a permanent, personal copy of all your messages. And if you set up Thunderbird to save your messages to your Dropbox, you will have a recoverable backup of your email backup. In this case, redundancy is very good!

These are just some of the things I do to protect myself from computer failure, damage, or theft. The things that truly matter (in my case these are my documents) are securely backed up, as are my website, blog, and emails. And I am at least thinking of doing the same with my media.

If you have not backed up your computer recently, please do not put this off. Sign up for dropbox, download your emails, backup your website / blog, and check out your options for larger-scale media backups. All it takes is one simple hardware or software failure, and this will all be very worth the effort!

Changes are afoot…

December 7th, 2009

historyhelp.ca is in the slightly complicated and messy process of moving to a new web host.  Just to complicate things, I am also taking the opportunity to change things around a little bit.

For the next little while, things might be a little wonky around here (for example those who have registered may be unable to log in – I’m working on that!) but hopefully all will be well again soon.

Thanks for your patience,

Kris

In celebration of fee and open source software…

November 26th, 2009

Lifehacker has just released its list of “61 Free Desktop Applications, Webapps, and Tools We’re Most Thankful For.”

If you are new to the world of free and open source software, take a look at the list – you may be surprised how many excellent free applications there are out there. This is by no means an exhaustive list, and there are many others that I would have liked to see included (Drupal, Wordpress, Inkscape, and Scribus for starters) but it is a good introduction to the potential of free and open source computing.

If, like me, you are a free / open source enthusiast, you may find some new tools, or just smugly count how many of them you either have used or currently use. My total was 39 out of 61. It may also remind you to check for newer versions of software or tools that you haven’t tried for a while.

I’m off to see if Songbird has figured out how to deal effectively with podcasts yet…

Google Wave and History

November 23rd, 2009

I am in an odd place, technologically speaking. I have at my disposal one of the most interesting, exciting and potentially useful pieces of new technology. And it is for the moment completely useless to me.

The technology I am talking about is Google Wave and it is at the same time fascinating and infuriating.

Why do I think Wave has so much potential? Because it can be used to collaborate, to communicate, to create, and to share ideas, documents and conversations in a way that has never before been possible.

Why is it completely useless to me at the moment? Because not one person I know is currently using it! This means that I can play around in Wave, add and remove extensions (I especially like the mind-mapping and whiteboard potential!) and wade into the sordid world of public waves to which every registered user can contribute. But thus far I have not been able to actually do anything productive or remotely useful with it, and this is simply because the people I would like to collaborate with are not yet using Wave.

But what would I like to use it for? Here are some ways in which I think Wave has great potential for the historian, author and editor in me:

  • collaborative organization. I would love to organize a conference on medieval concepts of time, and I think that a tool like Wave would be ideal for bringing organizers together to share ideas, and collect our documents in one secure central location
  • essay feedback and discussion. Once Google has added more and faster servers to the Wave service (there is a pretty bad lag at the moment) I believe it has the potential to be an excellent tool for any service where feedback and discussion of a document is necessary. As historyhelp.ca teaches students how to become better at research and writing, this could be an excellent fit. It is not there yet, but there is definitely potential
  • online tutoring. Not only would Wave provide a secure and private forum for tutoring, it would also provide the student with a permanent record of the tutoring session. As any number of people can be invited to join a wave, this opens the possibility of group tutorials that would previously have been completely unwieldy in a text-based setting (i.e. dozens or even hundreds of emails bouncing between participants)
  • Collaboration on articles or books

How can it benefit you as a student?

  • collaborative note-taking. For as long as students have been taking notes, they have been sharing notes. This can be a great way to learn as you are able to benefit from multiple ears and brains – all of which may have picked up something completely different than you from a lecture/book/whatever. If you have a group of friends who regularly share notes, you could start up a wave with all group members invited, and collaborate in real-time on note-sharing
  • Project management. If you are part of a group assigned to complete some kind of project, Wave might be an ideal solution

To be honest, I have only just begun to think about ways to use Wave. These are just some initial suggestions about ways to use it, and I am certain many, many more will follow. But this all depends on assembling a critical mass of Wave users. Right now Wave is restricted to invited users. You have to apply to join the preview, and once you have joined, you are then given a number of invitations that you can use to get your friends/family/whoever started on Wave.

So how do you get an invitation?

  • I still have a few invitations to share: the first five people to email me will receive one: kris@historyhelp.ca
  • go to wave.google.com and add yourself to their waiting list
  • visit the good folks at Lifehacker who have been generously sharing their invites for several weeks now. If you receive your invitation from the Lifehacker community, please do the right thing and share some of yours there as well. Remember, the more users there are, the better it will be for all of us!

And finally, once you are up and running with Wave, look me up: ktowson@googlewave.com

History and the movies

October 19th, 2009

A recent post on wondersandmarvels.com has reminded me about a topic I have been meaning to address for quite a while: history and the movies.

What role do movies play in the formation of our understanding of the past? Can movies be useful learning tools?

My personal belief is that the only way to approach historical film is as entertainment. When they are well done, they can certainly help give an impressionistic overview of a time and place, but to rely too heavily on them for ‘fact’ is an extremely bad idea.

My favourite example of this is Braveheart. It is a good movie, great entertainment, but absolutely horrible ‘history’.

It begins with a title reading: “1280 A.D.” and the narrator’s voice: “The king of Scotland has died without a son and the king of England, a cruel pagan known as Edward longshanks claimed the throne of Scotland for himself.”

  • The scenery resembles the western highlands of Scotland – an area that had really nothing to do with Wallace nor with the uprisings against English rule
    • This is like starting a film about a Manitoba wheat field with a panoramic shot of the Newfoundland coast
  • In 1280 not only was the Scottish king (Alexander III) very much alive, so were his sons and daughter
  • King Edward I of England never claimed the throne for himself and while he was many things, he most certainly was NOT a pagan
  • In the 13th century no Scots wore the kilts that everyone seems to favour in the film
  • The Scottish nobility was culturally very much like their English counterparts
    • they had common backgrounds
    • they were drawn largely from the same families
    • they spoke the same languages, read the same kinds of literature, and often held lands on both sides of the border
  • At no time did Edward invite the nobles to talks “no weapons, one page only” where he summarily executed the lot of them
  • And even if he had, he certainly would not have invited them to a place that looks suspiciously like Glen Nevis in the north-west highlands
    • Again, Manitoba/Newfoundland
  • Wallace’s father was no mere peasant farmer – he was a knight who held lands
    • Incidentally, his  father was killed in 1291 by which time William Wallace would have been around 20 years old
    • yet again, the setting for the Wallace farm itself is also completely wrong – gently rolling lowland country vs. Glen Nevis
  • The children of knights did not dress in rags
  • Even poor people knew how to look after their clothes – they had to after all as they couldn’t afford to let them disintegrate into rags through neglect
  • there is no evidence to sugget that 13th century men favoured mullets
    • but they did use combs!

These are some of the errors that appear in the first three minutes of the film! Sadly, it goes steadily downhill from there.

Here is a small sample of some of the historical lowlights of this film:

  • Marriage of Edward II and Isabella – much too early
    • in 1303 England and France secured a non-aggression pact. Part of this agreement was that Prince Edward and Princess Isabella would wed. The wedding took place in 1308.  Edward was born in 1284, Isabella ca. 1295. You can do the math re their portrayal in the film
  • Edward I: “Scotland – my land” – never really saw it as such
    • he wanted to control scotland, not become its king
  • “Prima Nocta”: thankfully this is a complete myth
  • Isabella and her lady in waiting spoke in French, apparently to keep secrets from the English
    • This is ridiculous as Anglo-Norman French was the first language of the English nobility.
  • The mad Irish guy didn’t exist
  • The battle of Sitling Bridge is all wrong
    • the topography is wrong wrong
    • the battle itself didn’t happen like that: where is the bridge??
  • Woad, the blue stuff on their faces, had probably not been used since 6th century
  • “Beg forgiveness for 100 years of theft, rape and murder”
    • I hate to break it to the nationalists on both sides of the border, but prior to the “Great Cause”, Anglo-Scottish relations were really very good.
    • they were close political and economic partners, and their rulers were often the closest of friends
  • English archers going into battle with 3-4 arrows each
    • archers were capable of having more than this number of arrows in the air at one time
    • sending archers into battle with such a small number of arrows would have been a complete waste as entire units of archers would have  been rendered useless in seconds
  • York: Wallace did not sack York. Ever. He probably would have liked to, but he didn’t.
  • Edward I didn’t throw Gaveston or Despenser from window – who is this “Phillip” guy anyway?
  • Isabella as diplomat and all that followed – this simply did not happen
    • see comment re. age above, not to mention the fact that sending her to meet his greatest enemy would have been a colossally stupid thing for Edward I to do. He was not a stupid man!
  • Wallace did not go on rampage assassinating members of scotting nobility. Again, at times he may well have wanted to, but he didn’t.
  • Bannockburn – as with Stirling Bridge, the setting is all wrong

In short, the physical setting is wrong, the political situation in the film is laughable, the personal relationships in the film are equally ridiculous. Characters are invented (mad Irish guy, ‘Phillip”), while others (where is Andrew Moray?) are omitted. Battles are wrong, clothing is wrong, knowledge of Anglo-Scottish culture is almost completely absent.

So should students of history watch Braveheart? Of course. What they should never, ever, do is assume that what appears on screen bears any resemblance to historical reality.

This is a pretty extreme example, and I use it partly for that reason and partly because it falls into an historical time and place with which I am well acquainted. Not all historical films are this wildly inaccurate. But the same advice applies: caveat spector. Watcher beware.