Posts Tagged ‘Process’

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.

Google Wave and History

Monday, November 23rd, 2009

I am in an odd place, technologically speaking. I have at my disposal one of the most interesting, exciting and potentially useful pieces of new technology. And it is for the moment completely useless to me.

The technology I am talking about is Google Wave and it is at the same time fascinating and infuriating.

Why do I think Wave has so much potential? Because it can be used to collaborate, to communicate, to create, and to share ideas, documents and conversations in a way that has never before been possible.

Why is it completely useless to me at the moment? Because not one person I know is currently using it! This means that I can play around in Wave, add and remove extensions (I especially like the mind-mapping and whiteboard potential!) and wade into the sordid world of public waves to which every registered user can contribute. But thus far I have not been able to actually do anything productive or remotely useful with it, and this is simply because the people I would like to collaborate with are not yet using Wave.

But what would I like to use it for? Here are some ways in which I think Wave has great potential for the historian, author and editor in me:

  • collaborative organization. I would love to organize a conference on medieval concepts of time, and I think that a tool like Wave would be ideal for bringing organizers together to share ideas, and collect our documents in one secure central location
  • essay feedback and discussion. Once Google has added more and faster servers to the Wave service (there is a pretty bad lag at the moment) I believe it has the potential to be an excellent tool for any service where feedback and discussion of a document is necessary. As teaches students how to become better at research and writing, this could be an excellent fit. It is not there yet, but there is definitely potential
  • online tutoring. Not only would Wave provide a secure and private forum for tutoring, it would also provide the student with a permanent record of the tutoring session. As any number of people can be invited to join a wave, this opens the possibility of group tutorials that would previously have been completely unwieldy in a text-based setting (i.e. dozens or even hundreds of emails bouncing between participants)
  • Collaboration on articles or books

How can it benefit you as a student?

  • collaborative note-taking. For as long as students have been taking notes, they have been sharing notes. This can be a great way to learn as you are able to benefit from multiple ears and brains – all of which may have picked up something completely different than you from a lecture/book/whatever. If you have a group of friends who regularly share notes, you could start up a wave with all group members invited, and collaborate in real-time on note-sharing
  • Project management. If you are part of a group assigned to complete some kind of project, Wave might be an ideal solution

To be honest, I have only just begun to think about ways to use Wave. These are just some initial suggestions about ways to use it, and I am certain many, many more will follow. But this all depends on assembling a critical mass of Wave users. Right now Wave is restricted to invited users. You have to apply to join the preview, and once you have joined, you are then given a number of invitations that you can use to get your friends/family/whoever started on Wave.

So how do you get an invitation?

  • I still have a few invitations to share: the first five people to email me will receive one:
  • go to and add yourself to their waiting list
  • visit the good folks at Lifehacker who have been generously sharing their invites for several weeks now. If you receive your invitation from the Lifehacker community, please do the right thing and share some of yours there as well. Remember, the more users there are, the better it will be for all of us!

And finally, once you are up and running with Wave, look me up:

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.

Quotations in historical writing

Tuesday, April 14th, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To sum up:

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

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.