Archive for the ‘general’ Category

Summertime, and the study is hectic…

Wednesday, 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!

Cleanliness is next to…

Friday, August 28th, 2009

A lot is being written these days about embracing a minimalist approach to life, about clearing one’s desk, about emptying one’s inbox, and about uncluttering one’s life in general. There is a lot to be said for this, and there are many reasons why leading a simpler, calmer, less junk-filled existance can be good for us and our lives, not to mention our environment.

I was first introduced to large-scale de-cluttering by my ex-girlfriend who on occasion would ruthlessly go through her stuff and simply rid herself of things that were not being used. At first I didn’t ‘get’ this. Why would you recycle/throw out/give away things that you have worked to obtain? But when I saw the end result, I realized that it did make sense. [I should note here that I am a natural packrat: whether it is books, tools, or antique Soviet rangefinder camers (I especially like the Kievs...), I have a knack for accumulating stuff.]

But there were always exceptions to the de-cluttering process…

My desk was, is, and probably always will remain, a minimalist’s nightmare. Right now my desk is littered with books, pens, miscellaneous papers, coffee paraphernalia of all description, cds, an ipod, various kinds of office supplies, a radio, a couple of watches, some dvds I want to rip to the ipod, a camera, an external hard drive, a few moleskine notebooks, a printer/scanner, a graphics tablet, my Klean Kanteen water bottle, a multitool, headphones, a guitar capo, paint brushes, blank cds & dvds, and more books.

This has always been a guilty pleasure of mine, and I choose to believe that it is a genetic pre-disposition from which I cannot escape – a theory supported by a quick glance at my Dad’s workshop.

The state of my desk is a cyclical phenomenon, and one not fully understood by science. Occasionally, and for reasons I have never fully grasped, I will feel the need to tidy it up, and for a few days it will remain a pristine clear and open workspace that should boost my productivity no end. But that doesn’t always happen. What does always happen is that it will gradually return to its natural state of ordered chaos. Much like water always runs to the sea, Towson’s desk tends towards clutter.

But it works for me. When I think back on the times when I have been most productive at a desk – whether it has been doing research, working on my PhD thesis, writing lectures, or working on a novel, a messy, cluttered, chaotic desk has usually been involved. This is just the environment in which I seem to work best. It is the environment in which I am most comfortable, most effective, and most creative. To the casual observer it probably looks as though someone tossed a grenade on my desk, but I actually know where everything is. It is when I clean my desk that I lose things.

My point here – especially for those of you about to embark on a new university career – is that each and every one of us has to discover systems and situations that work for us as individuals. If you work best in tidy, minimalist workspaces like this, go for it! If, like me, you work best in a more organic, lively, and frankly cluttered space, then embrace it and be productive on your own terms.*

My high school biology teacher the late Mr. Houstson was a wonderful source of knowledge, fun, and inspiration. He was also the crafter of the finest exam question I have ever come across: “Why are pickles?” [answer: osmosis]. I will also always remember a sign that he had up on his wall:

Cleanliness is next to impossible.

Try out different things. discover what works best for you, and run with it. If you need a cluttered workspace to be more effective, then work in a cluttered workspace. And don’t feel as though you should need to apologize for it or to justify it – you are not alone!

*If you are looking for inspiration for changes to your own workspace, Lifehacker.com has an ongoing “Featured Workspace”, well, feature.

Get your school brain back in gear: ideas from Lifehacker

Tuesday, August 18th, 2009

It is getting close!

The time has nearly arrived when students & educators will once again be hitting the books and returning to school, college, and university. While I hope you are all enjoying what is left of the summer, it might be time to start getting that brain back in gear and getting ready for the start of class.

One of my favourite sites – one of the very few that I check every day – is Lifehacker.com. Started by Gina Trapani, and now edited by Adam Pash, Lifehacker is a wonderful resource for anyone who is interested in increasing their productivity and improving the way that they get things done. Last week, they ran a series of articles intended to help students who are either returning to school or attending college/uni for the first time this year. Not only are the articles themselves well worth a read, the comments that follow are a great source of debates, arguments, and rants that should help get you thinking about back-to-school solutions that can help YOU.

Click here for the Lifehacker ‘Hit the Books’ special.

Having taken a break from updating this blog, it is time to get to work on it again. I have some ideas for upcoming articles, but if you have any suggestions, please send them to me!

Summer break

Friday, May 1st, 2009

I will be taking something of a break from the historyhelp.ca blog over the summer. Things should get back to ‘normal’ in the fall.

In the meantime, if you have any questions, comments, or suggestions for future posts, please get in touch.

Have a great Summer,

KT

Historiaster how-to

Tuesday, February 10th, 2009

Although I have adopted the word historiaster, I want to help you to avoid becoming an historiaster yourself. In this spirit, here are some things that historiasters do:

  • Plagiarize! There is no better way to be thought of as ‘a contemptible historian’ than to steal others’ words and ideas. Plagiarism is theft and there is simply no excuse for doing it. Take a look at your school’s course calendar. It probably has a section in the policies chapter that outlines your school’s policies and procedures regarding academic dishonesty, cheating, and plagiarism etc. Read this section. Then read it again. It is important, so make sure that you understand it fully. If you do not, talk to your prof about it.
    Schools, colleges and universities take these things very seriously, and they are right to do so. Penalties for plagiarism can range from a reduced mark on your assignment to a failing mark in your class, to suspension or expulsion from your school. I cannot stress this enough: do not plagiarize. If you do, you deserve whatever penalty is imposed by your school.
  • Be lazy! There are many ways to be lazy when writing an essay, and they will all hurt you in the long run. For example, you can simply use the first sources that come to mind without evaluating them or spending the time required to find good sources. The most obvious example of this is Wikipedia. These days, the first place that many people go for information is Wikipedia. Students are particularly prone to this kind of laziness! Wikipedia is in many ways a wonderful idea, and it is slowly getting to be more reliable. But the fact remains that anyone can edit Wikipedia entries. This means that you never really know what the source of the article’s information is, what the biases of the editors are, or whether the entry is entirely bunk. You may even find out the hard way that your prof has edited entries on your topic just to see if you use Wikipedia blindly. Trust me – I know that this has happened!
    But Wikipedia is not the only online culprit. One of my students made use of this page as a source for a medieval history essay. While it may well be an excellent source of information on “metaphysics” and “science” (and messages from other realms!), it is certainly not a reliable source for an essay on medieval Europe! This particular student Googled something to do with his topic, grabbed the first website that he found, made extensive use of the “information” contained on the site, and failed his essay. Incidentally, his essay also made reference to this game. While it is an outstanding game, it is completely unsuitable as a source for an essay! Here is a hint: unless you are writing an essay about video games, you should not make use of video games as historical sources!
    You can also be lazy by not taking the time to carefully edit or proofread your essay. If you want a professional to proofread and error check your essay, historyhelp.ca can help you. But at the very least, proofread your essay, pay attention to the language that you have used, and check your footnotes carefully. This all takes time, and it all takes effort. But like anything that requires hard work, the end result will be worth it.
  • Be sloppy! This is not unrelated to the point above re laziness. If your language is sloppy, your essay will be poor. If your arguments and analysis are sloppy, your essay will be poor. If you do not follow your prof’s instructions regarding formatting, font size, spacing, etc., your essay will be poor.
    Don’t simply trust the spell-checker in your word processor. For example, if you type “its” instead of “it’s” or “their” instead of “there”, it will not recognize the mistake.
    To cut down on spelling mistakes, and improper use of words (ie. “their” instead of “there”, “council” instead of “counsel” etc.) there is really no substitute for a couple of good reference books sitting within easy reach of your desk. Two to consider are:
    The Concise Oxford English Dictionary

    and
    A Guide to English Usage
    You don’t need these specific volumes, but a good dictionary and a dictionary of usage are essential tools for anyone who values accuracy of language. Yes, there are online dictionaries available, but they do not offer the depth of information available ina¬† good printed edition and, even more importantly, they do not offer the possibility of browsing for the perfect word!
  • Be inconsistent! I have already touched on the importance of being consistent in your use of the past tense when writing history. There are other facets of language where consistency can be a problem. For example, what kind of English are you using? Canadian? British? American? Unless your prof says otherwise (and this is something worth checking with him or her), it usually does not matter which version of English spelling and usage you adopt. But it will look terrible if your spelling flips randomly between “color” and “colour”. The point here is that you should be consistent. Consistent in your use of tense. Consistent in your spelling. Consistent in your formatting, and so on.

So there you are. If you are intent on becoming an historiaster, then by all means plagiarize, be lazy, be sloppy and be inconsistent. If you aspire to being something other than contemptible, then do all that you can to avoid these things!

Welcome to the historyhelp.ca blog

Sunday, December 7th, 2008

The historyhelp.ca blog will become a hub for ideas about history, historical research and historical writing. If you have any questions or suggestions for future posts, just leave a comment on this post, or get in touch by email: info@historyhelp.ca