Archive for the ‘Process’ 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!

Proofreading 2: check those references!

Monday, 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.

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.


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.

Henry V. London, 1997.
The Hundred Years War: England and France at War, c. 1300-c.1450. Cambridge, 1988.
Crown, Government and People in the Fifteenth Century. Stroud, 1995.
John of Gaunt. Westminster, 1904.
— ‘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.
— ‘The Impeachment of Bishop Despenser’, BIHR, xxxviii (1965), pp. 127-148.
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!

The Importance of Backups

Tuesday, 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 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!

Google Wave and History

Monday, 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 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:
  • go to 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:

History and the movies

Monday, October 19th, 2009

A recent post on 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.

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, has an ongoing “Featured Workspace”, well, feature.

Before you start to write an essay

Thursday, August 27th, 2009

Effective historical writing involves much more than simply sitting at a computer and typing. To write an excellent essay requires focus, planning, detailed research, critical thinking, writing, editing, and re-writing.  Here are some tips to get you started on the right track:

  • Start your research early. This is not a process that can be rushed, so the first thing you should do is give yourself plenty of time. Leaving an essay to the last minute will result in a poorly  researched and poorly written essay that will receive a poor grade. Yes, it is possible to write an excellent essay at the last minute, but it is not likely. A well-considered, well-written, and thoroughly edited and proof-read essay will always be better than a rushed job. Don’t force yourself into a corner: get started on it as soon as possible.
  • Choose your topic well. Always choose a topic that is interesting to you. If essay topics have been assigned but you have a particular interest in another topic, talk to your instructor. It may be  possible to write on a topic other than those assigned. This however is not always the case and you should not simply assume that choosing your own topic is acceptable. I know profs who will give a mark of 0 on an essay written on a non-approved topic. Don’t take that risk: ask!
    • It may be advantageous to narrow or broaden the scope of your essay. Again, check with your instructor as to whether this is acceptable, and don’t assume that you can narrow the topic as you wish without permission.
  • Be aware of your own biases. It is important to realize that everyone is biased. We are all the products of different cultural, social, political, family, educational, religious, etc backgrounds, and therefore will approach any topic with our own particular biases. Being aware of your own biases will make it much easier for you to write a balanced essay.
    • an example: a former student who was a devout Evangelical Christian wrote an essay about the mediaeval Church. This was in a period before Wycliffe, Hus, Luther, and the Protestant Reformation. A period during which the established “Church” in Europe was by default the Roman Catholic Church. His first essay draft was completely overshadowed by his own personal faith, leading him to repeatedly state that the Roman Catholic Church did not exist. This completely ignored the historical reality of the time and place that was the subject of his essay. As such, it was anachronistic and not a valid historical enquiry. There was no attempt to understand past human society, which is the reason for ‘doing’ history in the first place. Two drafts later, he had tempered his polemic style and had made a genuine attempt to understand medieval religion without imposing his own views. He got an A.
  • Think! Always remember that the purpose of an historical essay is to put forward your interpretations and conclusions regarding your topic, and to back up these interpretations and conclusions with historical facts and evidence. Don’t simply parrot what has been written by others. Read what has been written by others, think about it, consider the evidence, then come up with your own informed opinion.
  • Context: Remember to consider historical context and consider past events on their own terms. A principal task of the historian is to understand the historical context of the topic being studied.
    • For example, any attempt to understand the origins of the Crusading movement without also understanding contemporary religious, political, social and economic factors would be doomed to failure.  Just as important is the necessity not to impose our own contemporary views and societal concepts on the past. To simply condemn the crusades on the grounds that they ignored the individual and collective rights of Muslims in the Holy Land to freedom of religion and self-determination would be anachronistic as such concepts simply did not exist at the time.

Do you trust your spell-checker?

Tuesday, August 25th, 2009

Something that I have always tried to instill in my students is a healthy skepticism of the abilities of the spell-checker. Having a button that will catch most spelling mistakes in a document is a wonderful thing. It saves time and improves accuracy, both of which are good. But it is far from infallible, and far from perfect.

For example, it will not differentiate ‘their’ from ‘there’ or from ‘they’re’. It will not be able to tell a ‘councillor’ from a ‘counsellor’. It will not be able to tell you that Jack Kerouac was ‘on the road’, not ‘on the rode’. Similarly, it will not tell you that you wrote ‘dog’ when you meant to write ‘god’, which can make for interesting theological discussions. There are many, many examples of such words that sound alike but have completely different meanings, or which are one misplaced keystroke away. If you are lazy with your proof-reading, it is very easy for these errors to slip through into your written work. Even the New York Times is not immune from making such errors.

So how can you avoid these mistakes?

  • Most importantly: proof-read your work carefully. By this I do not mean simply skimming over an essay before it is submitted. I mean taking whatever time is necessary to carefully and methodically read through your essay:
    • Go word by word. When we read, our eyes naturally skim, taking in several words at once. Try to avoid this when proof-reading, focusing instead on each and every word.
    • Many people find it helpful to use some kind of marker (finger, pen, whatever – it doesn’t matter) that moves along under the words as you read. This will help prevent your eyes from jumping ahead
    • Remember that you are focusing on accuracy here, not speed – do not try to proof-read in record time!
  • When proof-reading make sure that you are armed with the necessary tools and information:
    • As suggested here, you should always have at least a couple of good reference works handy when writing such as a good dictionary and a guide to English usage.
    • That way, if you are unsure whether you mean to write ‘eminent’ or ‘imminent’, you can quickly find out
  • If your word processor has a grammar-check feature, use it.
    • Grammar-checks will catch some, but nowhere near all such errors.
    • Grammar-checks can also be deeply annoying, finding errors where there are none, so use it as a tool, but do not let it re-write your essay
    • Incidentally I lost a little faith in grammar checkers when one told me that a chapter from my PhD thesis was written at a grade 7 level. That was not encouraging.
  • Have someone else proof-read your work
    • There is often no substitute for fresh eyes
    • If you have written, edited, re-written, proof-read, re-edited, etc., your essay, you will miss mistakes. Having someone look at your work with fresh eyes will usually catch mistakes that you have seen and ignored multiple times. Don’t feel bad about this – it happens all the time and is one of the reasons why authors work with editors
    • If you do not want a friend or family member to see your writing, offers a proofreading service.

To sum up:

  • Be aware that all writers make mistakes – to borrow a line from the Blues Brothers, this includes me, you, them, everybody.
  • Before submitting an essay, take the time needed to carefully proof-read it
  • Arm yourself with the tools necessary to answer questions about spelling, meaning, and usage of words
  • Give your grammar-checker a shot. It may help, it may not
  • Have someone proof-read your work for you. If you want a professional opinion, can help.

Some thoughts on ‘creative’ vs ‘academic’ writing

Wednesday, August 19th, 2009

I have taken something of a hiatus from updating this blog as I have been focused on what most people would call ‘creative’ as opposed to ‘academic’ writing. I am writing an historical novel, and have been thinking lately about the differences between the kind of writing that has mostly occupied me in the past (i.e. academic essays, papers, articles, thesis, etc.) and what is for me a new form.

For me, the study of history is something akin to a semi-futile search for objective truth. It is based upon careful research, and fanatical attention to detail when it comes to documenting sources and backing up one’s statements. Why semi-futile? Simply because evidence is often incomplete, contradictory, or absent; because historians are subject to prejudice and bias; and because it is impossible for anyone to truly know everything about past things, people, and events. See, for example, Historians’ Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historical Thought: 300+ pages that have left many historians wondering why we ‘do’ history at all!

Whatever its shortcomings, the academic study of history is one of the most important fields of human enquiry. It is not a collection of names and dates. Rather, it is a deep study of human society that seeks a greater understanding not only of the past but of the present as well.

The detailed study of past human societies has deep roots in many cultures and civilizations, but the professionalization of history really only dates from the 19th century. As with the professionalization of any discipline, there gradually evolved a number of standards, requirements, and expectations that now accompany any ‘professional’ or ‘academic’ work of history. (My thanks go out to wonderful historians like Richard Gyug, Gerhard Bassler, Stuart Pierson, and Chris Given-Wilson who helped me understand how to ‘do’ history.)

Among these standards and requirements are things such as:

  • whatever you put on a page, although it is the result of analysis and independent thought, must be based on evidence
  • this evidence must not only be collected, it must also be studied,  placed into context, and evaluated.
  • when something you write is based on a  piece of evidence, you must clearly indicate this, usually in the form of footnotes or endnotes

Therefore in my thesis I could not simply state out of the blue that the first earl of Northumberland owned waffle irons. He did, but I could not simply state this as fact without backing up the statement with evidence. (The beautiful thing about historical evidence is that I can with certainty say that in July 1405, he owned a set of waffle irons worth 4s., and that they were sold at auction by one Hugh Worschip. See Calendar of Inquisitions Miscellaneous, 1399-1422, no. 431 if you would like to look it up…)

Nor could I say in my thesis that he was mildly addicted to waffles, that in 1376 he owned a smaller set worth 2s., that a Flemish cook named Aliet used them at Alnwick castle, and that while he was being wined and dined by the Abbot of Alnwick abbey, his men were busy crushing a nascent rebellion with the assistance of his cross-border rival the earl of Douglas. Yet all of these things feature in my novel.

This is the wonderful thing about writing historical fiction as opposed to academic history. The freedom that it offers is almost overwhelming to someone used to the discipline of academic history. If I wanted to write that the earl had a fondness for roast chicken but really couldn’t stand beef, I would be free to do so. If I wanted to write that his brother Thomas had been castrated during the battle of Najera, I would be free to do so. Heck, if I wanted to write that he had Northumberland’s largest collection of  amber jewellery, I would be free to do so. There is no historical evidence whatsoever for any of these things (although there is reason to suspect that for some reason Thomas was unable or at least unlikely to have children) but that is no impediment to their appearance in an historical novel.

All of which helps to underscore the point that an historian (and if you are writing an undegrad history essay, you are an historian) should never, ever rely on works of historical fiction as historical sources! For example, my novel has as its foundation over six years of research into the life of the first earl of Northumberland. It is probably fair to say that I know more about him than anyone has for over five hundred years. I also know more about those who surrounded him, and how they interacted. But in my novel this careful research simply provides the skeleton on which is hung a tremendous amount of invention. While I am trying to make my novel as historically accurate as possible, the fact remains that it is a work of fiction and should be regarded as such. If you want to enjoy a well-informed but ultimately fictional account of late 14th-century Northumbrian society, read my novel. If you want a factual account of the life of the earl of Northumberland, read my thesis.

Don’t get me wrong – I love historical fiction. But it is important to recognize the distinction between fiction and ‘proper’ historical sources.

Quotations in historical writing

Tuesday, April 14th, 2009

Note: “Quote” is a verb. “Quotation” is a noun. Therefore, while you may quote someone in an essay, the actual passage of text that you insert is a quotation. It is therefore incorrect to speak of “quotes” in essays.

For some reason many students assume that writing a history essay involves nothing more than stringing together a bunch of quotations. This is nonsense and it makes for very bad essays. Remember that what your prof wants to know is what you think about your subject, not what other historians have already written about it.

“But”, you may ask, “don’t I base my conclusions on the works of others?” Yes, you do. But this involves much, much more than cutting and pasting a series of quotations. What you have to do when researching and writing history is read, understand, and analyze what others have written, then come to your own evidence-based conclusions which are presented in your essay. When you reduce your essay to nothing more than a series of quotations, you fail to demonstrate the second, third, fourth, and fifth of these parts of this process. In short, you are telling the person reading (and probably marking) your essay that you have done nothing more than find a source that you have copied from without taking the time and effort to fully understand and analyze it, let along coming to your own conclusions. This will lower your mark!

What did I mean when I said that what you think is what matters, not what others think? Let’s say for example that you are writing an essay about the WWII battle of Kursk, and you have found a book about the article. The temptation is to simply take a number of quotations from the book, and then arrange them into an essay with a handful of words of your own thrown in. If you do this, even if you give full credit to the book that your quotations are taken from, then you are not submitting an essay that is the result of your own historical research. You are simply demonstrating your ability to copy and type.

What you should do is find several different primary and secondary sources, read them, understand them, think about their arguments, consider which ones you agree with, which ones you do not agree with, and why you agree or disagree, then present your analysis backed up with references to your sources.

Let’s take this example a step further. Let’s say for the sake of argument, that your one sources argues strongly that the only reason the Soviets won the battle of Kursk was the tactical superiority of their officer corps. Your essay will therefore do nothing more than parrot this one interpretation. When you read more widely you will find that there are many other possible explanations. Different historians have argued that factors as diverse as terrain, timing, strategy, quality of armour, quantity of armour, weather, and luck all combined to influence the outcome. By reading these other historians, as well as contemporary first-hand accounts, you will be able to come up with your own analysis, and this analysis will be much better informed, much more complete and much more suble and nuanced than simply saying that it was down to officers.

Now, having done all of this reading and analysis, you may still come to the conclusion that the Soviet officer corps was the decisive factor, but having considered these other explanations, you will be able to say why it was the defining factor.

This is how historical research moves forward. As people reinterpret the historical evidence, reconsider what has been written before, and then come up with their own original analysis, we gain new and deeper understanding of the past.

You should therefore try to limit your use of direct quotations, particularly quotations of secondary sources. Your essay will flow much more smoothly if you paraphrase what your sources have written and put it in your own words. Quotations of secondary sources should be limited to instances when you want to emphasise an author’s particular use of words.

You may want to make more extensive use of quotations from primary sources, but be sparing in this case as well. As a rule of thumb: only quote when you plan to analyze or interpret the quoted passage. Otherwise, you should paraphrase.

There are exceptions to this rule, but they are rare. For example, if you find a passage that has a wonderful turn of phrase, a passage that comments on or sums up something so beautifully that it deserves to be repeated verbatim, then feel free to include it as a quotation. How rare is this? My Ph.D. thesis was 118,000 words long, and I included two such quotations. This is one of them:

“No Crecy or Poitiers shed their lustre on the later period; no captive kings paraded through London, and the Tower was very nearly empty of French aristocrats for the entire twenty years.” [J.J.N. Palmer, England, France and Christendom, 1377-99. London, 1972, p. 2.]

The reason I decided to include this quotation was that Professor Palmer managed to beautifully, eloquently, and concisely sum up the worsening military situation and the resulting frustration and darkening mood that prevailed in Westminster during the late 1370s. I could have paraphrased this passage, but I doubted my ability to equal the eloquence of Professor Palmer’s language, and so I quoted the passage.

Another exception occurs when you want to include evidence to support your argument. For example, if you were writing an essay about the US Civil Rights movement, and you said that Paul Robeson was an eloquent, influential, and passionate supporter of the civil rights movement, you may then want to include a quotation or two illustrating your point. Remember though that the quotation is there to support your essay, not the other way around. Do not structure your essay in a particular way simply to allow for the inclusion of quotations.

What then should you do when it is necessary to include a quotation?

Shorter quotations must be put into quotation marks and be given their own direct reference. This will be in the form of a footnote. It is essential that EVERY quotation have its own footnote reference.

Longer quotations, of five or more lines, should be set apart from the main body of your essay, indented on both sides and single-spaced. In this format, quotation marks are not needed, but a footnote is.

If you need to omit words from a quotation, either to shorten it or to make it fit into the grammar of your own sentence, indicate the omission by using three periods (aka an ellipsis). For gaps at the end of a sentence, use four periods.

If you insert a word into a quotation, either to add clarity or again to fit it into your own grammar, put the inserted words into square brackets.

“Doing this will clearly indicate… which parts [of the quotation] have been added and where any words have been removed.”

In this example, one or more words have been omitted between ‘indicate’ and ‘which’, while the words ‘of the quotation’ have been added to the sentence.

Be careful when adding or subtracting words from quotations. It is easy to alter the meaning of a passage beyond recognition if you make too many changes. Film ads have occasionally been expert at using these techniques to turn a poor review into a glowing one. For example “This was not the best film I have ever seen” can easily become “This [is]… the best film I have ever seen”. There is, I would argue, an ethical and moral as well as historiographical duty on the part of an historian to never change the meaning of quotations in this way. Moreover, if your prof catches you doing this, your marks will suffer severely – as they should! Altering the meaning of a quotation in this way is simply wrong. Don’t do it!

Also, double and triple check the accuracy of your quotations. Missing out a word or words can render a quotation meaningless. It can also completely change its meaning which, as noted above, you must never do.

Finally, if you are struggling to meet a mandatory word count, don’t give in to the temptation to pad your essay by throwing in a bunch of quotations. Odds are your prof will see right through this, and your mark will suffer.

To sum up:

  • Do not rely on quotations to form the bulk of an essay or to pad out an essay to meet a word count.
  • Use quotations sparingly
  • When you do use them, do not change their meaning
  • Be extra certain that your quotations are accurate.