Posts Tagged ‘habits’

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!

Proofreading 1: non-sequiturs and flow

Tuesday, January 12th, 2010

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

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

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

Methodically and very, very carefully.

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

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

Some things to watch out for:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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!

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.

Get your school brain back in gear: ideas from Lifehacker

Tuesday, August 18th, 2009

It is getting close!

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

One of my favourite sites – one of the very few that I check every day – is 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!

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

Friday, 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.”

“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.”

“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

Monday, 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.