Posts Tagged ‘clarity’

Historiaster how-to

Tuesday, February 10th, 2009

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

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

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

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

Precision of language and why it matters

Saturday, January 17th, 2009

As I mentioned in an earlier post, precision of language in academic writing matters. Paying careful attention to the precise meaning of your words is one of the ways that you can quickly improve your writing. First, some examples:

  • The reign of Elizabeth I lasted for a long time.
  • The Black Death killed a lot of people.
  • Thomas Edison invented a lot of things.
  • Many people were caught up in the Atlantic slave trade.

None of these statements are incorrect, but at the same time none of them should be included in an essay. How long is ‘a long time’? How many people constitute ‘a lot of people’? What about ‘many people’ or ‘a lot of things’?

Remember that you are trying to convey your ideas and analysis as clearly as possible to your prof. By using vague terms such as the examples above, you are undermining this goal, and your mark will suffer as a result.

But what happens when exact, precise details are not available? This is a fact of life for historians. Believe it or not, we simply do not know everything about everything. For example while it is easy to be precise about the length of Elizabeth’s reign or the number of Edison’s inventions, no one can say how many people died as a result of the Black Death, nor can anyone say for certain how many Africans were caught up in the Atlantic slave trade. But you can still be a precise as possible.  Whatever you do, don’t make stuff up!! Remember that academic research is evidence-based. If there is good reliable evidence for your topic – excellent! Offer thanks to the deity of your choice, study your evidence, write your essay, and await the excellent mark that your work will no doubt deserve. When evidence is lacking or when there is disagreement on a topic, say that this is the case and examine what details are known. Trust me when I say that this:

  • The exact number of people killed by the Black Death is unknown, but recent estimates suggest that 30%-50% of Europe’s population perished in the epidemic. [Include a footnote here showing where you found these 'recent estimates'. This is essential. You can also take this a step further and use the footnote to comment on the estimates, the methodology used to come up with these estimates, etc.]

is much better than this:

  • The Black Death killed a lot of people.

Similarly, this:

  • While no one knows exactly how many Africans were enslaved by the Atlantic slave trade, recent research puts the number between 9 and 13 million. [Again, use a footnote as above]

Is much better than this:

  • Many people were caught up in the Atlantic slave trade.

And for instances where concrete information is available:

  • Elizabeth I reigned as queen of England from 17 November 1558 to 24 March 1603.
  • Thomas Edison held no fewer than 1,093 U.S. patents.

Are far better than:

  • The reign of Elizabeth I lasted for a long time.
  • Thomas Edison invented a lot of things.

This is one of the many examples of how simple changes can quickly improve your writing. Remember that your words are the tools that you are using to build your essay. If you choose them wisely and carefully, you will be able to convey your ideas much more effectively, and if you communicate your ideas more effectively, your essays and your marks will improve.

Key Points:

  • do not use vague, meaningless language
  • be careful when choosing your words and make sure their precise meaning is appropriate
  • when possible, give explicit details, facts, and figures
  • when this is not possible, say that it is not possible, explain why it is not possible, and give your best evidence-based estimate