Posts Tagged ‘tips’

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!

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!

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.

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.

Cicero and the laws of History

Friday, April 3rd, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good ideas, but…

…how do I put them into practice?

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

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

Some thoughts on software for writing essays

Wednesday, February 25th, 2009

As I mention on the main site, academic writing has become highly dependent on technology. This means that as a student you will need to be comfortable with computers. What it does not mean is that you have to shell out hundreds of dollars for your software. This post is not intended to slag off Microsoft, Apple, or any other particular company. The fact that MS and Apple are the two dominant forces in computing is due at least in part to the fact that they make some pretty good products. But there are alternatives, and this is what I want to write about today.

Apart from the physical hardware (ie your laptop or desktop system) two things are essential to academic writing:

  1. An operating system. This is the software package that controls how your hardware actually works. The most well known current examples are the various versions of Microsoft Windows (XP, Vista, and coming soon Windows 7), and Mac OS X.
  2. A word-processor. The most widely used example is MS Word, a Microsoft product that has come to dominate the field in recent years.

Operating System

When it comes to your operating system, you may have little choice or you may have no inclination to change your system. Don’t worry about it – if your system works well for you, why change it? If you are happy with your operating system, skip ahead to the part about word processors below. But if you are unhappy with your system or if you are just curious about what alternatives are available, read on as I introduce an excellent alternative: Ubuntu.

Ubuntu is one of many available distributions of what is known as Linux. A distribution is simply a particular version of Linux. Linux is free. You do not have to pay to get and use Linux. You can if you so choose pay to get versions of Linux distributions shipped with manuals, technical support, etc. (click here for an example), but this is not necessary. There are many completely free and legal distributions, and I am going to focus one one particular one: Ubuntu.

I was first introduced to Ubuntu through Lifehacker. If you are at all interested in computers and productivity ideas, I cannot recommend Lifehacker highly enough! Incidentally, Gina Trapani, the founder of Lifehacker, has a new blog:

When I first heard about Ubuntu, the story caught my eye because my computer was developing serious problems that would necessitate a re-install of my operating system, and it was not powerful enough to run the then new version of Windows, Vista. The upshot is that I downloaded Ubuntu, installed it ‘for fun’ and have been using it alongside Windows for the past two years.

Advantages to Ubuntu:

  • it is completely free and legal
  • it is very regularly updated (there are two versions released every year)
  • it WORKS and does not crash (ie. no ‘blue screen of death’) as often as Windows has in my experience
  • it is very secure: for example you do not have to worry about viruses when running Linux

Disadvantages to Linux:

  • some of your favorite Windows or Mac software may not run on Linux (although there are usually excellent alternatives available). From a productivity point of view, this can actually be an advantage. For example if I log on to my desktop using Linux, I am not tempted to play games that only run on Windows!
  • you may have to do some tweaking to get your particular hardware working perfectly. Luckily there are many forums filled with extremely helpful people who are happy to lend a hand
  • not so much a disadvantage as a word of caution: be careful whenever you are messing around with operating systems. Back up your important data before doing anything to your system! It is possible to completely wipe everything from your system if you are not paying attention.

If you are looking to set up a new computer or are considering making a change, give some thought to Ubuntu. There is even now an option whereby you can install and run Ubuntu without making any changes to a Windows installation. That means that you can check it out without harming or changing in any way your current system. And if you decide to take the plunge and install it on your system, you can set it up so that your original operating system is still available. This is called dual-booting and it is what I currently do on both my desktop and laptop.

Word Processor

Whatever operating system you choose to use, you will need a word processor to actually get words on pages. As mentioned above, MS Word has come to dominate the market over the last several years. MS Word is an excellent word processor, and it makes up part of the Microsoft Office suite. MS Office is very good. If it comes bundled with your computer, by all means use it – it will serve you well.

But if your computer does not have a word processor installed, you will have to install one. And with current prices running from approximately $140.00 for a student edition to nearly $900 for the ‘Ultimate” edition, this is not exactly cheap. For a variety of reasons beyond cost, some people also simply want to avoid using commercial software products such as MS Office.

Whatever your motivation for seeking an alternative, you should at least check out Like Linux, it is free. You can even download a portable version to install on a flash drive so you can take your word processor with you and not have to rely on a computer having the software you need in a lab, for example.

Advantages of

  • it is completely free and legal
  • you can get a portable version
  • it offers full compatibility with Word documents
  • it does everything you need to write academic essays and much more
  • it is an office suite that includes software for word processing, spreadsheets, presentations (ie like PowerPoint) and databases
  • the ability to produce PDF files is built in

Disadvantages of

  • the interface is slightly less polished than the newest MS Office products (ie no ‘ribbon’ interface)

If you don’t believe that Ubuntu is a viable alternative to Windows or Mac, check out these guys. All that System76 sells are computers with Ubuntu pre-installed.

Key Points:

  • use whatever software works for you
  • do not assume that you have to use particular software just because it has market dominance
  • don’t pay for commercial products until you at least check out free alternatives
  • Ubuntu offers a stable, secure, viable, productive, very user-friendly alternative that works
  • offers a stable, portable, cross-platform (ie you can use it on Windows, Mac or Linux), compatible, user-friendly alternative that works

Profs’ pet peeves

Tuesday, December 16th, 2008

Believe it or not, teachers and professors are actually human beings. As such, they too are subject to personal biases, annoyances and pet peeves.

Should this affect your writing? In a perfect world, probably not. In a perfect world we would all be completely free to express our ideas in whatever way we chose. This is not the case in academia!

When writing academic essays, theses, articles or books, there are certain restrictions and conventions that must be followed. There are good reasons that lay behind these restrictions and conventions. They have evolved over decades of use, and must be respected if you are to succeed in your classes.

The first thing you should acknowledge is that these formal restrictions will be placed on your research and writing. But those are topics for other days. What I want to bring to your attention today are some of the less formal, much more personal things that can negatively affect your grades: your profs’ pet peeves.

To begin, I will list just a few of the many things that have deeply annoyed me about students’ essays:

There are many others! One of these issues is universally unacceptable, while the others are sylistic and linguistic errors that simply annoy me. As a student, one of your goals should be not to annoy the person marking your work. This does not mean that you should bow without question to any unreasonable demands placed on you by your profs. It does mean that you should take the initiative and discover what you can about your prof, and what he or she is expecting from your essay.

I always addressed these issues directly and openly with my students in an essay guide distributed at the beginning of the course. If a student wanted to know what kinds of things should be avoided in an essay in one of my classes, they simply had to read their essay guide.

If your prof has given you an essay guide, read it! Such things take a great deal of extra time and effort to produce. As a result, your prof will expect you to have read it, and to have followed the guidelines that it contains. If you do not follow its guidelines, your mark will suffer and it may suffer badly! But don’t just give it a once-over. Read it actively. By this I mean that as you are reading it, ask yourself whether you really understand it. Is there anything that does not make sense? Is there contradictory advice or instructions?

If there is anything that you do not understand, talk to your prof. If he or she is unwilling to fully explain what is expected in an essay, then he or she is not doing his or her job. Once you have fully understood the essay guide, then follow its instructions closely. If your prof wants you to use the Arial font, but you like Times, use Arial. If your prof wants you to double-space your essay but you really, really think it looks better single-spaced, double space it! Remeber the golden rule: do not annoy the person marking your work!

If such a guide has not been provided, your first step should be to talk to your prof. Be specific in your questions:

  • Do you want page numbers? Where should I place them?
  • Does it matter what font I use?
  • Are there any lunguistic or stylistic guidelines you want me to follow?
  • How long should the essay be? [many profs hate this question: an essay should be as long as it needs to be. But ask it. Some profs have very specific requirements when it comes to word count, # of pages, etc.]
  • What kind of sources am I expected to use?
  • How many sources am I expected to use

and so on…

Your second step should then be to talk to other students who have taken classes from that particular prof. They should have received feedback on their essays, and may be able to pass this information on to you.

Ask questions. Be informed. Discover all you can about the prof and her/his demands, likes, dislikes, etc. Find out what you can about your prof’s expectations, and then produce work that satisfies these expectations. Do this, and you will receive a better mark.

Key points:

  • if your prof or teacher has given you an essay guide, read it, understand it, and follow its instructions.
  • if no such guide is available talk to your prof
  • talk to other students
  • don’t go into an essay blind: ask lots of questions, inform yourself, then incorporate this information into your writing