Cleanliness is next to…

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.

Before you start to write an essay

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?

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, historyhelp.ca 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, historyhelp.ca can help.

Some thoughts on ‘creative’ vs ‘academic’ writing

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.

Get your school brain back in gear: ideas from Lifehacker

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

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

Quotations in historical writing

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.

Keeping things honest pt.2: note-taking how-to

April 10th, 2009

Last time I wrote about note taking: what to do, what to avoid, some pitfalls to avoid, and suggested some tools that can help. Today I want to get a little more into the nuts and bolts of note-taking. It is easy for me to advise you to take good, accurate and reliable notes, but how should you actually do that?

Something I mentioned several times was paraphrasing. Simply put, paraphrasing is putting another person’s words into your own words. This is not quite the same thing as summarizing. Paraphrase tends to use a similar number of words to convey the same message as the original text, just with different words. Summarizing, as well as re-wording the statement, also condenses it.

This example should illustrate the difference:

Original text:
“The use of pointed arches in Gothic architecture allowed the builders of cathedrals to conceive of taller structures with thinner walls and a greater number of windows. This allowed more light to stream into the cathedral, the desire for which was a reflection of the neoplatonic emphasis on the divinity of light.”

Paraphrase:
“By using the pointed arch, which allowed for taller and thinner walls with more windows, builders of Gothic cathedrals created structures that catered to the neoplatonic desire for more ‘divine’ light to be allowed into the cathedral.”

Summary:
“Pointed arches led to brighter interior spaces.”
Depending on what you want to take from the original passage, you could also summarize it thus:
“Neoplatonic belief held that light was divine.”

Note that my paraphrase not only rewords the passage, it also changes it from two sentences to one. This is fine.

You may find that summary is used more often in your writing than paraphrase. This is not unusual. After all, keeping your language simple and concise is a key element of successful writing. But there are times when paraphrase is extremely useful. For example if you are using a source written in an old, archaic style, paraphrase can be extremely useful as it allows you to bring it up to date, so to speak.

Let’s say for example that you are using the diary of Samuel Pepys to write about life in 17th century London. I this case you will want to paraphrase in your notes. Why? Partly to make sure that you actually understand what he wrote (to paraphrase one must first understand the thing being paraphrased!) but also partly so that when you go back to use your notes, you won’t have to paraphrase then.

An example from 343 years ago:
“Up betimes, and with my Joyner begun the making of the window in my boy’s chamber bigger, purposing it shall be a roome to eat and for having musique in. To the office, where a meeting upon extraordinary business, at noon to the ‘Change about more, and then home with Creed and dined, and then with him to the Committee of Tangier, where I got two or three things done I had a mind to of convenience to me. Thence by coach to Mrs. Pierce’s, and with her and Knipp and Mrs. Pierce’s boy and girle abroad, thinking to have been merry at Chelsey; but being come almost to the house by coach near the waterside, a house alone, I think the Swan, a gentleman walking by called to us to tell us that the house was shut up of the sicknesse. So we with great affright turned back, being holden to the gentleman; and went away (I for my part in great disorder) for Kensington, and there I spent about 30s. upon the jades with great pleasure, and we sang finely and staid till about eight at night, the night coming on apace and so set them down at Pierce’s, and so away home, where awhile with Sir W. Warren about business, and then to bed.” [9 April 1666. This excerpt and many, many others can be found here. His amazing diaries stretch over many years, but if you are interested in exploring the world of Pepys, you can start off with books like this one.]

It is highly unlikely that any of the above sentences would appear verbatim were I to be taking notes on this source. Even if I wanted to take extensive notes, they would be heavily paraphrased, updating the language and style to be more contemporary and, to me, more immediately meaningful. Naturally, when taking these notes and paraphrasing and summarizing as appropriate, I would also be carefully citing the original source so that I could quickly return to it as needed.

Remember though that you are taking notes for yourself here. You don’t need to use full or formal sentences to paraphrase or summarize in your notes. Shorthand and abbreviations are perfectly fine as long as you know what your notes say. For example, my thesis was on Henry Percy, first Earl of Northumberland. There was no way I was going to write that out in full every time he appeared in my notes. He therefore simply became “HPnum”, whch in time was shortened to just “HP”. His son, another Henry Percy was initially referred to in my notes by his nickname “Hotspur” which eventually was shortened to “HS”. HP’s brother Thomas was simply “Thos”. Westminster became “W.Min” Northumberland became “Numb”, and so on.

Sources were abbreviated as well. For example, the chroniclers Thomas Walsingham and Henry Knighton became “TW” and “HK” respectively, while the Calendar of Patent Rolls became “CPR” and TW’s chronicle Historia Anglicana became “HA”, his Chronicon Angliae, “CA”.  The point is that these were my notes for my use, so as long as the abbreviations made sense to me, they worked. Naturally when it came time to actually write my thesis, these abbreviations stayed in my notes and were replaced by the full text, but for note-taking they served me very well.

In addition to abbreviations, developing your own system of shorthand (or learning an established one) can also be a great help. As with abbreviations, you can use whatever system of shorthand works for you, as long as it really does work for you. For example, going back to the first example above, I could summarize it like this:
“p.arch –> tall, thin walls, + windows; linked to N.Plat div light”

This wouldn’t make much sense to most people, but that doesn’t matter because it makes sense to me. Again, remember that these are YOUR notes for YOUR use, so come up with a system that makes sense to YOU.

So to summarize note taking so far:

  • collect, records and track your sources very carefully
  • include a citation with all notes so you won’t forget what your notes were taken from
  • Don’t confuse your words and the sources words
  • Don’t cut and paste blindly
  • Keep notes and essays separate
  • be open to trying new and different tools and techniques for note taking, but use what works for you
  • summarize and paraphrase carefully
  • feel free to use abbreviations and shorthand as long as it makes sense to you

Keeping things honest pt.1: note-taking basics

April 6th, 2009

As I mentioned in my last post, a good historian will approach his or her work with integrity and honesty. Saying that is all well and good, but how does one actually put that ideal into practice?

The first thing to do is do develop good habits when you are actually ‘doing’ your research. Many of the students that I have ‘busted’ for plagiarism in the past have found themselves in hot water simply because they did not take care when doing their research. Here are some tips for avoiding this kind of trouble:

  • Collect, record, and track your sources with great care!
    Just wanting to be a good historian is not enough. You have to be a good historian, and this starts with the careful recording of your sources. When you are doing your research, pay attention to your note-taking habits. Sloppy note-taking can prove fatal to an essay. It can cause you to misrepresent the past. It can cause you to incorrectly identify your sources (or worse, fail to give credit to your sources at all). In short it can make your essay inaccurate, poorly written or simply unacceptable.
    Things to remember when taking notes:

    • Do not confuse your words with your source’s words
      • if you include a direct quotation in your notes, clearly indicate in your notes that it is a quotation. Enclose the quotation in quotation marks, and make sure you have a precise citation (author, book/article, page) so that if you use the passage in your essay you do not have to search it out
      • if you paraphrase in your notes (ie if you take what your source has said and put it into your own words) make sure that your paraphrased version is different and distinct from the original. If it is not, then use a quotation as above
        • if you don’t pay attention to this, it is easy to fall into one of the most common traps that catch students: inadvertent plagiarism. If you use someone else’s words without proper acknowledgement – even if it is unintentional – then you are plagiarizing.
      • early on, settle on a system. For example, when I take notes it is assumed that I am paraphrasing unless my notes clearly indicate a quotation. Your approach may differ, just come up with a system that works for you, stick to it, and be consistent. You don’t want to go back to notes at a later time and be unsure as to whether you paraphrased or not!
    • Include a citation in every note
      • citations are especially important when recording quotations in notes, but to save yourself a lot of work later, include citations in all of your notes. This does not mean full bibliographic details every time you jot something down. What you need to do is to give yourself enough information so that you can quickly and easily locate your source.
      • For example, if I am taking notes from a particular book, I will include full bibliographic information (author, title, publisher, date) at the beginning of a section devoted to that book and that book alone. Then, as I work though, I only have to add page references in the margin.
        This takes very, very little time to set up, but it can literally save you hours in the long run.
    • Don’t cut and paste blindly
      • For those of you who use computers for note-taking as well as writing, pay attention!
        It is so very easy to cut and paste a passage from your notes to an essay or from one essay draft to another, that it is also very very easy to make simple but costly mistakes.
        When cutting and pasting, think about the things I have mentioned above. Are these my words or someone else’s? Is it a quotation or a paraphrase? Where did it come from? Do I need to acknowledge my source?
        In other words, don’t cut and paste without thinking about what you are cutting and pasting!
        Again, the importance of accurate note-taking comes into play here. If you follow the suggestions above you will know what is yours, what is not, and where it came from.
    • Keep notes and essays separate
      • it can be tempting to take a ‘one big file’ approach to essay writing. Using this approach, you would keep everything related to an essay in one big file. This could include your notes, links to online sources, text copied from those sources, and of course your essay itself. This is generally a bad idea! Not only will you spend more time jumping back and forth within a file than you will actually working on the file, you may find it difficult to keep track of what came from where, what represents your own thoughts and what represents your sources’ thoughts, etc. Do yourself a favour and try to keep your essay itself separate from other related materials.

One thing I noticed over the last several years is the huge increase in the number of students using their laptops to take notes in class. I want to talk briefly about what kinds of software tools they are using to do this.

While it is possible to jot down notes in a simple text file or a Word document, there remains the problem of organization. how do you keep all of your files related to a subject or to an essay organized in such a way that they are easy to find?

There are many software packages out there that help to streamline this process. Remember, it remains your responsibility to keep accurate and reliable notes, but these can at least help to keep things organized:

  • Microsoft OneNote (Windows)
    • if you already have MS Office installed, you may already have OneNote
  • Evernote (Windows, Mac, Linux*)
    • has the advantage of online syncing, can access files/notes from any computer, some phones
    • was the runner-up behind pen and paper in a recent Lifehacker Hive Five poll, which is generally a very good sign!
    • Evernote can also be installed on many (Blackberry, iPhone, Palm Pre, and Windows Mobile) mobile phones
    • *By default it is intended for Windows and Mac only. Google “evernote linux” to find instructions for linux installation. I have it installed under Ubuntu 8.10 and it works great. I have installed and used it under Ubuntu 8.10 and 9.04 and it works great.
  • Basket Note Pads (Linux – KDE)
    • Runs on KDE, so Gnome users (ie Ubuntu) may find the odd problem with it
  • Tomboy Notes (Linux – Gnome)
    • If you are on Ubuntu and run into issues with Basket Note Pads, try Tomboy
  • Pen and Paper (they still work!!)
    • cheap, portable, really fast boot-up times, extremely flexible, may encounter occasional (or in my case frequent) legibility problems

Whether you use a pen and paper, one of the software packages mentioned above, or another system altogether, remember to be a mindful note-taker. A little care at the outset of your research can save a great deal of time and many headaches down the road.

Cicero and the laws of History

April 3rd, 2009

Nam quis nescit, primum esse historiae legem, ne quid falsi dicere audeat? Deinde ne quid veri non audeat? Ne qua suspicio gratiae sit in scribendo? Ne qua simultatis?

These words were written by the Roman statesman, orator and writer Marcus Tullius Cicero, better know to us simply as “Cicero”. This passage was taken from his work de Oratore which he wrapped up in the middle of the first century BCE. Although he invoked historians and their craft, Cicero was really writing about orators and how they should adopt some habits of good historians in order to improve their own oratory. However, his advice is as sound today as it was over 2000 years ago, and historians should give it the attention it deserves:

For who does not know history’s first law to be that an author must not dare to tell anything but the truth? An its second that he must make bold to tell the whole truth? That there be no suggestion of partiality anywhere in his writings? Nor of malice?*

Cicero touched on several aspects of historical writing in this short passage, so let’s look at each of them in turn.

1. “…an author must not dare to tell anything but the truth”

This really should go without saying, but it does bear repeating. Be honest in your research, your analysis and your writing. Seek the truth. One of the wonderful things about historical research is that it can dramatically change and inform the way you see the world. But this is only possible if you approach historical research and writing with an open mind.

Don’t set out to ‘prove a point’. Let your research guide you. Let your analysis inform you. Let your writing enlighten both you and others.

If you find evidence that your previously-held opinions are incorrect or ill-informed, don’t reject the evidence simply because it does not fit with your preconceptions. Consider the evidence. Consider your own opinions. Can they co-exist? Do you need to reconsider your opinions? What does the other evidence suggest?

It is only through an open mind that the historian can arrive at anything approaching truth.

For example, before starting my Ph.D., I blindly accepted the notion that the far north of medieval England was a wild, lawless place that was run by a nobility that craved nothing more than chaos, unrest, and war. But through my research I came to understand that this was far from the truth. The North had a long-established system of border law that strove to quell disagreements before they precipitated cross-border reprisals or even war, and the most powerful man in the region during the late 14th century sought consistently and loyally to preserve the peace, not to profit from unrest. (his 1 1/2 rebellions notwithstanding…)

This research fundamentally altered my understanding of the region. It changed my perceptions, allowed me to achieve a greater understanding of that society, and has provided the basis of an historical novel that I am now writing.

The point here is that I obeyed Cicero’s command to seek the truth, and I emerged a better historian for it.

2. “[the historian] must make bold to tell the whole truth”

When writing history, you will encounter contradictory evidence. This is unavoidable, and it is best to realize and accept this fact early on. There are too many reasons for this to get into here, so just know for now that you will come across evidence that disagrees with your analysis and conclusions.

But what should you do when this happens? Should you ignore the problematic evidence, pretend that it doesn’t exist, and work only with evidence that agrees with your conclusions? No. To do that is disingenuous. It is dishonest. It is also lazy: it is much easier to pretend that something does not exist than to explain why you disagree with it. Being disingenuous, dishonest, and lazy is no way to approach any kind of research, and history is no different.

Remember the reason why we study history in the first place. We are trying to understand past human society. Because human society is made up of a lot of individual human beings, it is inherently contradictory. People disagree. They have different perceptions. They have different biases. They have different physical, intellectual, and mental abilities. If five people witness the same crime, do you think they will remember it in exactly the same way? Probably not. This is one of the reasons why eyewitness testimony can be so unreliable in criminal investigations.

So don’t pass over evidence that you disagree with. Try to understand it. Where was the author coming from? Why do you think he or she is out of step with your other evidence? What can it teach you about the person, place, thing, event that you are studying?

Sometimes these oddball sources can lead us to really unexpected and enlightening places. But they can only do this if they are taken seriously.

But this advice goes beyond simple disagreements between your sources. What happens if, for example, you are writing a biography of a truly great person who did wonderful things for her society, when you find evidence that she had secretly been an arsonist on weekends who was also mean to puppies and a supporter of Tottenham Hotspur. Do you suppress this new information? Do you use it to launch an iconoclastic attack on this undeserving “hero”?

Neither of these options is ideal. Suppressing the information would undermine your goal of telling the whole truth and would present a skewed picture of the subject of your research. At the same time, radically altering your approach to ignore all other evidence and launch a withering attack on this otherwise good person based only on this new evidence would be equally unbalanced.

The best thing would be to take this new evidence into account without allowing it to overwhelm your analysis. If you are writing a longer piece, add a section or a chapter to deal with it. If you are writing a short essay, you can always use a footnote to include this new evidence and a brief comment.

The truth can be an elusive thing, but do what you can to seek it with an open mind. And remember to seek the whole truth.

3. “[Ensure] that there be no suggestion of partiality anywhere in his writings? Nor of malice?”

Partiality is the enemy of good scholarship. Malice is the enemy of truth. Do what you can to keep them both as far away from your research and writing as possible.

If you embark upon a research project with your mind made up about your subject, your research and your writing will both suffer. Again, it bears repeating that your job here is to seek truth. You simply cannot seek truth if you believe that you already have the answers.

Take for example those who deny the truth of the holocaust. Such people often approach their scholarship with a terrible combination of both partiality and malice. In fact their partiality is based in malice, as their belief in hate-filled neo-Nazi nonsense has both skewed their perception and fueled their malice. Anyone coming from a mental standpoint such as this will be utterly unable to produce anything even approaching balanced, considered, unbiased, thoughtful, and credible scholarship.

This is an extreme example, but its lesson is an important one. Try to be aware of your own biases: we all have them! We all come from different ethnic, religious, national, regional, linguistic, educational and social backgrounds, and so we all bring with us a particular set of beliefs and biases. But this need not be fatal to your quest for truth! Be aware of your own biases and you will be able to prevent them from rendering your research unreliable. For example, did you spot the manifestation of one of my biases above? I do not really equate being a Spurs supporter with arson and puppy abuse: it is after all an affliction that deserves sympathy, not just condemnation.

Hopefully we are not all filled with malice in the same way that we are all subject to bias, but it is worth keeping your own feelings in check when writing history. As Historians, we often encounter difficult, disturbing, even enraging people, ideas, and events. If you encounter something that elicits a strong emotional response, be aware of it. But don’t let it drive your research ahead of the evidence.

Even if you are researching something as terrible as the killing fields of Cambodia, the massacre of innocents in Jerusalem during the first Crusade, the excesses of the European witch hunting craze, or the Holocaust itself, remember to seek truth, not historical retribution.

Good ideas, but…

…how do I put them into practice?

Stay tuned. My next blog post will give some concrete examples of how you can become a more honest, unbiased and effective research and writer!

*Both the Latin text and translation above are from Cicero, De Oratore. Trans E.W. Sutton. Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1942. pp. 242-245. You can find an electronic version of this book here.