Friday, December 18, 2009

Winter Schedule

We will reconvene on Monday, January 11th. Please note that we will be using a new classroom: room LSC 234.

There is only one task for the Winter term: completing your MA thesis proposal. Our first session on January 11th will be devoted to discussing the requirements for the thesis proposal. Information on the requirements is available via the Graduate Student Handbook.

MA thesis proposals should be roughly 1,500-2,000 words in length. Proposals are typically between 6 and 13 pages, double-spaced, excluding bibliography. Proposals can vary in style and format, depending on your research field, but they tend to follow a common eight-part template:
1) Title page, with an appropriate working title for your thesis;
2) An introductory paragraph(s), or "hook," that lays out your research topic;
3) A discussion of the relevant historiography and its relationship to your thesis;
4) An explanation of your research problem, which can include your working hypothesis and/or theoretical framework;
5) A discussion of the primary sources you intend to study, which can include published, online, and archival documents;
6) A research plan, which includes a working schedule for the completion of your thesis;
7) A formal bibliography, divided into sections for primary and secondary sources;
8) A working table of contents. Theses vary in structure, but they are commonly divided into five chapters: three substantive, research-based chapters, plus an introduction and conclusion.

Jeffers Lennox has kindly agreed to allow us to circulate his MA thesis proposal from 2005, which will give you an example of what one actually looks like. As you will see from his document, the proposal can include footnotes where appropriate. The actual writing of the proposal does not take very long, and a month is sufficient time to budget for its completion. It is important to keep in mind that the proposal is a means to an end, not an end in itself: it is designed to be a road map to guide your research -- or, to use a different metaphor, a basic blueprint for building your thesis -- and it is common for theses to evolve as your research evolves.

MA thesis proposals should meet three basic criteria: A) present a viable historical problem and research question; B) identify and discuss relevant secondary and primary sources; and C) outline a suitable research methodology and schedule for completion. When developing your thesis proposal, keep in mind this five-point checklist, which the Graduate Committee uses in its assessments:
1) Does the proposal show a good understanding of the secondary literature?
2) Does the proposal identify a significant and testable thesis, or a specific, concrete research question?
3) Is the method of testing the thesis well-conceived and logical?
4) Are there adequate primary sources and are they accessible within the timeframe proposed for the project?
5) Are the sources and methodology manageable within the timeframe proposed for the project?

Our goal in January is to get the thesis proposals ready for submission to the Graduate Committee. To do so, students will present drafts of their proposals to the seminar. The rough drafts will be pre-circulated via email (either as Word or pdf documents), at least five days before the seminar, in order to give everyone time to read them and prepare comments. Then, in the seminar, we will discuss each draft and everyone is expected to provide feedback on each proposal.

To ensure that we have enough time for a thorough discussion of each draft proposal, we will stretch the discussions over two different seminars: four students will present one week, five the following week. Please email your drafts directly to me by noon on the Wednesday preceeding the seminar at the latest, and I will circulate them as an email attachment. (This means that those of you presenting your drafts on January 25th must email me your draft by 12:00 on January 20th, which still gives you over a month to work on it).

January 11th: Discussion of the format, expectations, and requirements for MA thesis proposals

January 18th: No class -- individual meetings can be scheduled to discuss drafts

January 25th: Discussion of draft proposals, Part I*
A) Corbett
B) Gregory
C) Herrick
D) Lensink
*Drafts circulated via email by January 20th

February 1st: Discussion of draft proposals, Part II*
A) MacAulay
B) McKown
C) Ranson
D) Regan
E) Winterhalt
*Drafts circulated via email by January 27th

The formal presentations of the thesis propsals to the Graduate Committee will take place during the week of February 8th: I'll post a schedule once I've conferred with the Committee.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

False Memory and Historians' Fallacies

In an interesting article on American feminism, "Lift and Separate," Ariel Levy raises the issue of bra-burning and false memory:

Bra burning—the most famous habit of women’s libbers—caused a fair amount of consternation back in the seventies, and the smoke has lingered. Wives and mothers were torching the most intimate accessory of control; what might they put a match to next? “Often today those who cherish family life feel, even in their own homes, under constant assault,” the cultural critic Michael Novak wrote in 1979. The goals of the women’s-liberation movement, he saw, were incompatible with the structure of the traditional family. That’s why bra burning became the most durable and unsettling image of modern feminism.

So it may be worth noting that it never actually happened. In 1968, at a protest against the Miss America pageant, in Atlantic City, feminists tossed items that they felt were symbolic of women’s oppression into a Freedom Trash Can: copies of Playboy, high-heeled shoes, corsets and girdles. Lindsy Van Gelder, a reporter for the Post, wrote a piece about the protest in which she compared the trash-can procession to the burning of draft cards at antiwar marches, and a myth was born. In her engaging tour d’horizon “When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present” (Little, Brown; $27.99), Gail Collins quotes Van Gelder’s lament: “I shudder to think that will be my epitaph—‘she invented bra burning.’”

By opening her article this way, Levy is taking a time-honoured approach to history. Historians tend to approach a topic by targetting the conventional wisdom (a term popularized by John Kenneth Galbraith, by the way) and the attendant mythology. Then they systematically debunk the myth, which Levy calls false memory, and replace it with an historical analysis. Myth-busting is a useful way for tackling large topics because it helps historians to select an entry-point through which to introduce their arguments.

Anyone who deals with the past in any way has to confront a basic reality: even if we could study everything, we couldn’t manage all of the information. A history that explains everything explains nothing. Recognizing the basic reality of selection is the easy part; the hard part is trying to make sound judgements about what to include and what to leave out. We often forget that the process of selection involves exclusion as much as inclusion: what gets left unsaid – the silence of a culture – is often the most importation part of history.

From a legal perspective, historians do not work in the realm of the criminal law, where the burden of proof is beyond a reasonable doubt. On the contrary, doubt is the historian’s best friend: you can tell if you are talking with a poor historian if they never admit to having any doubts about what they’re doing. And if they start talking about the truth, chances are you're speaking with a philosopher, not an historian.

If you listen carefully to what historians say when they get together, you will hear them discuss whether they buy a particular argument. They are not referring to whether they believe that it reflects some ultimate truth, but rather whether it persuaded them. In legal terms, this means that historians speak more like lawyers in civil litigation, where the person bringing the action needs merely to prove the case on the balance of probabilities. The plaintiff must convince the court that the position they are advocating is more likely to be true than that of the defendant. The threshold in civil cases is based on the preponderance of the evidence.

In other words, historians work within the realm of probability, not certainty. They try to be as objective as possible, but no historian worth their salt would actually claim to be completely unbiased. They try to be as accurate as possible, but they acknowledge that the fragmentary nature of the surviving evidence means that they can never have a complete view of the past. They try to be as careful and cautious as possible, but they know that good history requires imagination and occasional guess-work. The trick is to be honest with yourself and your readers about what you're doing.

In setting out this rather ecumenical framework, I don't mean to suggest that the historian’s gaze is limitless. It isn't. As we've talked about in class, there are two terms that you'll hear historians use to describe bad history: one is presentism; the other is source-driven. Presentism, which is also known as the hindsight bias or the fallacy of nunc pro tunc, is used to describe history that imposes some present-day perspective, standard, or social norm on the past. It is a form of anachronism. Presentism is often used to criticize historians who fail to appreciate, as we've discussed in class, Lowenthal's dictum that the past is a foreign country. That doesn’t mean that you cannot visit it, but you need a passport of imagination: you cannot assume that the people you meet in the past will think or act like you do.

Source-driven, which is also called antiquarianism, is used to describe history without questions. It's almost the opposite of presentism, because it entails a marked disengagement with current issues and problems. It refers to studies of the past that simply describe what's in the archives without applying critical insights. It is, in other words, history drained of its analytical vitality.

There are two other popular terms that you'll hear historians use when they criticize each other. The first is determinism, which gets associated with a priori, teleological, or tautological reasoning. Determinism often gets conflated with the term Whig history, which has become something of a canard in historical scholarship. The second is essentialism, which often gets called reductionism, and refers to scholarship that imposes a falsely static and unitary explanation of historical phenomenon, or fails to be sufficiently sensitive to agency, contingency, and diversity.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

History Across the Disciplines Conference

Call for Papers



The Dalhousie Graduate History Society invites graduate students from all branches of the humanities and social sciences to submit proposals for our 13th annual ‘History Across the Disciplines’ Conference, to take place at

Dalhousie University
Halifax, Nova Scotia

March 19th to 21st, 2010

The theme of this year's conference is Guts, Glamour, and Gossip. Especially relevant to this theme are issues concerning authority and government, rebellion and resistance, as well as rhetoric and popular culture as they continually define the notions of heroics, social banditry, martyrdom, and celebrity. There are no temporal or geographical limitations to this theme, and all proposals will be considered.

Interested applicants should submit a 250-word abstract to by January 15th, 2010. Append to the abstract your area of study, degree level and year, along with contact information. Presentations are between 10 to 15 minutes in length, so a 7 to 8 page paper will suffice. A copy of the finished paper must be received by February 5th, 2010 in order to be considered for the John Flint Prize for best paper/presentation; this prize includes a $250 honorarium.

In addition to panels, there will be a keynote address by Dr. Andrea McKenzie on the evening of March 19th, to be followed by a reception. On Saturday night, experience local Halifax culture in the informal setting of a maritime pub.

Please direct comments and queries to the conference organizers:

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Thinking Logically

Thanks to Amal Ghazal for lending her expertise to our seminar. The debate over the new citizenship handbook has continued this week. Active History provides a fairly thorough overview that refers to our seminar. So feel free to weigh in with your opinion, either on this blog or one of the others.

Monday will be our last seminar for the Fall semester. As we discussed last class, your task for this week is to discuss how an article or book in your field commits a fallacy. You can select the fallacy first from the taxonomy in the Fallacy Files web site, and then review articles and books to look for evidence of it. Alternatively, you can select a book first and then read through it critically, looking for whether the author commits a fallacy.

You may want to start with some of the more common fallacies, such as red herrings, non causa pro causa (and its sub-fallacies), unrepresentative sample, one-sidedness, loaded question, bifurcation, appeal to consequences, and appeals to ignorance.

If the article or book you've chosen contains a literature review or an explicit historiographic discussion, then look for these common fallacies as well: the bandwagon fallacy, the ever popular ad hominem attack, the etymological fallacy, and the appeal to emotion.

I encourage you to post comments on what your research turns up. See you at the Stokes Seminar on Friday.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Thinking Politically

If we ever needed a reminder of the close relationship between history and politics, we just got it. Yesterday, Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney unveiled a new version of the citizenship guidebook for prospective immigrants that presents a new version of Canadian history. The CBC reports that Kenney said that the previous guidebook, published under the Liberals in 1997, needed revision. "It didn't explain what the poppy represents, didn't talk about the equality of men and women, didn't address the nationalist movement in Quebec. It was, I think, in a way, unintentionally promoting a certain degree of historical ignorance. And I think we've corrected that."

The Globe and Mail report on the new guidebook observes that it contains a much heavier emphasis on military history. "No longer will new Canadians be told that Canada is strictly a nation of peacekeepers, for example. The new guide places a much greater emphasis on Canada's military history, from the Great War to the present day. It also tackles other issues of historical significance, from Confederation to Quebec's separatist movement, that were barely mentioned by its predecessor."

The panel of "experts" (The Globe does not define the term) included a who's who of the Ottawa establishment, including former governor-general Adrienne Clarkson, historian Jack Granatstein, retired general John de Chastelain, and historian Margaret MacMillan. Granatstein is well known in Canadian history departments for his polemic, Who Killed Canadian History?, which was followed up with Who Killed the Canadian Military?.

According to the Globe, "Mr. Kenney emphasizes that Discover Canada is not a rose-coloured view of the country's history. There are sections on Canada's dark periods, including the Chinese head tax and Exclusion Act, the internment of Japanese and Eastern European immigrants in the world wars, as well as aboriginal residential schools. It also highlights Canadian sporting heroes, from Terry Fox to Wayne Gretzky, Mark Tewksbury to Chantal Petitclerc, and includes a sidebar explaining Canadian football."

The new guidebook is already generating criticism, and the CBC reports that Bloc Québécois citizenship and immigration critic Thierry St.-Cyr says the guide "minimizes the concept of the Quebec nation." "What we see in this document is a way of saying, well, Quebec is just a province amongst others and it's no more [a] founding nation." And the historian Christopher Moore has already expressed some reservations about the process and spotted errors.

On the other hand, the editorial board of the Globe and Mail has already given the new guidebook its blessing (and its cartoonist has already weighed in). The last paragraph of yesterday's editorial is particularly noteworthy: "Unlike the old guide, which felt like homework and landed with the thud of a bureaucratic public-service announcement, the new guide shows how the country is special, and does so with vigour. In telling Canada's stories, and the conflict, characters and challenges therein, it will enhance new Canadians' attachment to their country."

Keep in mind that this annoucement was timed to coincide with Remembrance Day and a visit from our next royal head of state, and think about the last sentence in the Globe's editorial. Keep in mind that we're in the midst of a highly divisive war in Afghanistan. Perhaps the most salient point of the editorial is not that history should be about drama, heroes, and gripping stories, but rather that history should facilitate attachment to the nation. Unlike homework, history should be enjoyable, but this enjoyment has a political purpose. The purpose is to create an officially approved version of Canada's past -- stamped with the approval of a panel of experts appointed by the state -- that will enhance Canadian nationalism.

The Canadian government's changes to state history may be new, but the link between nationalism and history is as old as the nation state. The rise of modern professional history was intertwined with the rise of the modern nation state. Nationalism is, at its core, based on specific ideas of history. These ideas are, in turn, rooted in selective processes of not only remembering and forgetting, but also of belonging and exclusion. How we answer the question "What is Canada?" depends on our view of Canadian history. History is, in other words, the oxygen in the lifeblood of nationalism.

In making these assertions, I'm saying nothing new. As David Lowenthal and others have pointed out, we need to make a clear distinction between heritage and history. In the Heritage Crusade, Lowenthal argues, "In domesticating the past we enlist it for present causes. Legends of origin and endurance, of victory or calamity, project the present back, the past forward; they align us with forbears whose virtues we share and whose vices we shun. We are apt to call such communion history, but it is actually heritage. The distinction is vital. History explores and explains pasts grown ever more opaque over time; heritage clarifies pasts so as to infuse them with present purposes." History entails distance, doubt, and debate; heritage demands communion, certainty, and consensus.

The problem is that the creation of heritage is rarely politically neutral. In fact, it has been rooted deeply in the rise of modern nationalisms. As the French writer Ernest Renan put it a century ago, "Getting history wrong is an essential part of being a nation." Renan's work got a second life with the work of Benedict Anderson, Eric Hobsbawm, (who popularized the quotation), and others interested in nationalism. In On History, Hobsbawm argued passionately, "For history is the raw material for nationalist or ethnic or fundamentalist ideologues, as poppies are the raw material for herion addiction. The past is an essential element, perhaps the essential element, in these ideologies. If there is no suitable past, it can always be inveneted." Hobsbawm is not only one of the most influential historians of the twentieth century but also, perhaps ironically, one of the relatively few Marxist historians of his generation who never disavowed communism.

I can sense what you may be thinking. You're saying to yourself...well, who cares if the federal government changes what is says about Canadian history? If the Prime Minister wants to tinker with the citizenship guidebook, so what? Isn't everything made up, in some way? Whenever I challenge students about the problem of historical veracity, they tend to take a markedly broad-minded approach. Especially if the topic is Canadian history, students tend to be quite relaxed when the question of nationalism and history comes up. (I suspect that I would get a very different reaction in a Québec university).

But then I ask the students to consider the question in a different context. I say, okay, what about if we take the same problem but switch geographies. What about if we switched our focus to the Middle East? And then the oxygen goes out of the room. When the political stakes get raised, the tolerance for historical invention contracts radically. Particularly when the Holocaust gets mentioned, students get highly concerned that the truth about the past must be told. Not just some truth, but the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

Which brings me to Monday's discussion. The required reading for this week is Gershom Gorenberg, "The War to Begin All Wars," which explores the historiography of the Middle East, particularly the evolving scholarship of Benny Morris. We will be joined by Amal Ghazal, who has written extensively on the Middle East and keeps a blog. Dr. Ghazal passed along links to two articles that may be of interest for those of you who would like to do further reading: "Survival of the Fittest," and "When Historians Matter."

As you read Gorenberg, please reflect on the relationship between history and politics. If, as E.H. Carr said, historians can see the past only through the eyes of the present, how can we avoid not only what Timothy Garton Ash calls the "hindsight bias — the tendency, that is, to regard actual historical outcomes as more probable than alternatives that seemed real at the time," but also the tendency to impose our own autobiography onto the past? Should the imperative to be true to the past matter the same everwhere, regardless of the geo-politics, or should historical standards change to suit the context? When does a personal perspective blur into a professional bias?

As I mentioned on Monday, I won't be able to attend this afternoon's Stokes Seminar. Please keep in mind that the deadline for SSHRC applications is Friday, 20 November. My office hours for Monday are changed to 9:30-11:30. I look forward to seeing you Monday afternoon.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Thinking Ethically

Thanks to everyone for a lively seminar yesterday. It was good to see everyone participate in the discussion. Before I address next week's topic, I want to pass along some links that I've received. Here is the link to the web site that Elspeth mentioned: Common Errors in English Usage. Here is the link to the book that Angela mentioned, A Passion for Narrative, plus an interesting blog that she passed along: the Grammar Vandal. And here is the link to the article that Mark mentioned in class, How to Read a Book, plus the link to a blog on writing that he recommends. For those of you who missed James' comment, here's the link to 50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice.

Also, to follow up on our discussion of doctoral studies and professional development, here is a link to a book that Keith Mercer (who finished his PhD in 2008) recommended to me: The Chicago Guide to your Academic Career. I would also strongly recommend that you visit the CHA's web site, Becoming a Historian.

Next week, we will move to the question of ethics and historical scholarship. I had originally intended to use part of the provocative book by Jon Wiener, Historians in Trouble, but I couldn't find a sufficient extract freely available online and I did not want to assign another required textbook. I encourage you to visit Wiener's web site, which contains links to many of his articles in The Nation. In addition to the cases that Wiener tracks, you may want to check out the University of Colorado's "Report on Conclusion of Preliminary Review in the Matter of Professor Ward Churchill," which is next week's supplemental, i.e., not required, reading. If you google Ward Churchill, you will find plenty of background information on this case.

The required reading for next week consists of the AHA's "Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct," plus three pieces related to the Doris Kearns Goodwin case:
1) David Gates, "No Ordinary Crime."
2) Doris Kearns Goodwin, "How I caused that story."
3) Timoth Noah, "Historians Rewrite History."

I picked this case because it's a fairly discrete story that we can cover well in our seminar. You are not expected to read through the whole AHA web site carefully; rather, review it and note the main points -- so don't spend too much time on this. The main thing is to familiarize yourself with the Goodwin case and be prepared to talk about where the line should be drawn between carelessness and plagiarism.

Gates' piece in Newsweek asks "Why Should We Care?," which is, I suppose, the sort of question one expects from Newsweek. But it does raise an important point: the question of stakes. To what degree is our attitude towards honesty and accuracy determined by the politics of the historical topic? (This question will set up our discussion for the following week: politics and history).

The backdrop to our discussion is the popular perception that plagiarism is rampant and public morality is in a steep decline -- something the internet gets routinely blamed for. But, if nothing else, the internet has facilitated a revolution in fact-checking and a higher degree of scholarly transparency. It may be easier to plagiarize than ever before, but it's also easier to catch plagiarism, too. In the Age of Google, it is much harder to get away with making stuff up when a fact-check is just a click away.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Thinking Stylistically

When it comes to writing, this is my mantra: eloquence is clarity; clarity is eoloquence. This is, in part, my own personal bias, but it also reflects a long tradition in English writing epitomized in two classic texts that we'll discuss on Monday --
1) Strunk and White, The Elements of Style
2) George Orwell, "Politics and the English Language."

Orwell overstates his case, and I think he's too fussy when it comes to neologisms, metaphors, or the use of foreign words. But that's Orwell. If you're interested in learning more about Eric Blair, this recent piece in the NYRB is worth reading.

When I first started teaching (actually, when I first worked as a TA, way back in 1993), I quickly realized that one of the principal reasons why students had writing problems is that instructors rarely bothered to discuss writing. I've always found this reluctance to talk about writing puzzling, but it is, I think, rooted in two popular misconceptions. The first is the fallacy that rhetoric and style are somehow separate from substance and content. The second is the conceit that writing somehow comes naturally and, as such, cannot be taught. Writing tends to get treated like driving: everyone likes to think that they are a good driver, and hardly anyone likes to take advice on how to improve.

But writing is hard. It is a craft that requires constant attention. And it's something that you should never take for granted. Good writers work tirelessly to improve their style, and their writing evolves as their intellect develops. Good writers recognize that style can never be separated from content. They know that thinking, talking, and writing are so enmeshed that we cannot treat style as a discrete problem. As Steven Pinker argues in The Stuff of Thought, "There is nothing mere about semantics!"

Writing is also deeply personal. Being criticized for poor writing can be harder to deal with than any other type of assessment. We would like to believe that writing should be treated like an extension of our personality and that we should be allowed to express ourselves however we please. But this belief is a delusion. Just as there are rules governing how we can behave in public, there are rules governing writing. Of course, you are free to ignore the rules, just as you're free to jaywalk, speed, or forget to put money in the parking meter.

But this should be an informed choice. Like many (perhaps most) undergraduates, I cruised through my first couple of years largely unaware of the tenets of good writing. I thought I was a good writer, so when a professor wrote "awkward" or "poor sentence" on one of my papers, I assumed that it had something to do with the professor's personal preferences, i.e., I had not written the sentence in the style that the professor preferred. It was not until my third year that a professor -- Danny Vickers, who is now Chair at UBC -- finally took the time to explain to me the difference between the active and the passive voice. Until then, I had assumed that awkwardness was somehow an innate quality, not the result of a specific stylistic problem. Danny was the most rigorous professor I had encountered (in part because he took the time to explain a writing problem, rather than just scribble "awkward" in the margin of a paper), and, while I was initially upset at seeing so much red ink on my paper, I soon realized that he had done me a great favour.

Which brings me back to 1993. In my first year as a TA, I wrote a short hand-out on writing. I've revised it over the years, but it's largely the same as the first version I used at the University of Toronto. And, for what it's worth, here is an excerpt:

Suggestions for Writing Effective Essays (I think the first version was called "Do's and Don'ts")


A. Take the time to write a full-length outline in which you clearly establish the structure of your essay. Do not begin writing without an idea of the points which you plan to discuss. Try to organize your notes and page references before you plunge into writing.

B. Although you need not write your first draft strictly from beginning to end, you must compose an introduction, which states your thesis and outlines the essay's structure, for the final version of the essay. Similarly, you should tie your points together in a conclusion which reflects the entire paper, not simply the last couple of pages.

C. Organize your topics into paragraph units. Paragraphs form the building blocks of writing. You should always remain conscious of how your themes fit together and consider a paragraph's relation to the broader discussion. Paragraphs are usually between 4-6 and 9-11 sentences long, depending on sentence length.

D. Write in full sentences. Sentences must have a subject and predicate. Keep related ideas together, use proper punctuation, and vary sentence length and structure: you have a reader to consider.

E. Use the proper format for academic writing. If you are unsure about a specific issue, e.g. when/how to use references, then consult a guidebook. Be consistent in your choice of citation style, spelling, and capitalization. And remember that there are strict penalties for plagiarism.

F. Read and reread; write and rewrite. Writing is a craft which rarely comes “naturally.” Always proofread your essay before you hand it in. Good writers budget time to ensure that the final product is clearly organized and soundly written.

G. Remember the importance of clarity. The most profound ideas and painstaking work are wasted if you do not communicate your points clearly in writing. Avoid cumbersome or long-winded phrases; use orthodox spelling and punctuation; and be careful in your word choice.

H. Use writing guides. My personal favourite is William Strunk and E.B. White, The Elements of Style. Eschew a computer style program or a thesaurus in favour of a good dictionary. Never use a word unless you are certain of its exact meaning.


1. Overly personalized language.
"I feel that Keylor’s discussion of the First World War seemed very well done and appeared to be effective."
Change to:
"Keylor’s discussion of the First World War was effective."

2. Wordiness. Avoid redundant words and phrases: try to write as directly as possible.
"The rise and establishment of Fascism in Italy was caused by a combination and interaction of two very important dual factors which were operating at that time."
Change to:
"The rise of Fascism in Italy was caused by two important factors."

3. Reliance on the passive voice.
"The rise of Fascism in Italy was caused by two important factors."
Change to:
"Two important factors caused the rise of Fascism in Italy."

4. Sentence fragments or awkward structure. All sentences must have a subject and verb. Try to place the dependent clause at the beginning of a sentence and the emphasis at the end.
"The European security system collapsed. During the late 1930s this happened."
Change to:
"In the late 1930s the European security system collapsed."

5. Improper punctuation, often called a comma splice. Independent clauses cannot be separated only by a comma.
"Keylor’s analysis of the twentieth century was effective, he covered a wide range of historical events."
Change to:
"Keylor’s analysis of the twentieth century was effective; he covered a wide range of historical events."
Note: you can also place a conjunction, e.g. “and,” after the comma.

6. Improper verb tense. Avoid alternating verb tenses. Maintain subject-verb agreement. Avoid splitting the infinitive form, e.g. "to clearly assess"; change to "to assess clearly."

7. Colloquial language. Try not to write exactly the same way you speak. Avoid contractions, slang, and merged words, e.g. "can’t" or "allot"; change to "cannot" and "a lot."

8. Improper use of the possessive form. For example, "it’s" is often used incorrectly: "it's" means "it is"; "its" is the possessive form.

9. Inappropriate word choice. Avoid cumbersome words such as "put forth" or "validated."
"Smith feels that his view put forth that economic factors were important is validated by his work."
Change to:
"Smith stresses economic factors."

10. Dangling modifier. Make sure that the dependent clause relates directly to the subject of the independent clause.
"Having arrived late for practice, a written excuse was needed."
Change to:
"Having arrived late for practice, the player needed an excuse."

Unlike 1993, however, today there are literally hundreds of helpful (and free) writing resources available online. The ten different links provided above are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Closer to home, I urge you to consult the Department of History's style guide, and the Writing Centre.

Finally, a word of caution. While rules and conventions are important, they are not all-important. While I encourage you to read style guides, please do not make a fetish out of the arcane laws of grammar. And while you may have been told never to begin a sentence with "and," sometimes it's acceptable to flout convention in the name of style, though I still have a hard time ending a sentence with a preposition. Though writing should conform to common standards, it is, like all human activity, organic. Rules can sometimes be broken (I opened this paragraph with a sentence fragment), or they are, like split infinitives, sharply contested.

Good writing is not only clear but also engaging and creative. It has a voice, a rhythm, a tone. One of the best ways to improve your writing is to read good writers. My favourite academic writer is Louis Menand, whom we read at the beginning of the seminar. He writes with such a seemingly light touch that the reader hardly realizes that they are reading. Such effortless moments are, alas, as hard to write as they are easy to read.

Links Update:
Here is the web site that Shirley mentioned.

Speaking of Menand, his skewering of Lynne Truss is well worth reading.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

SSHRC Workshop

On Monday we will have our SSHRC workshop. Please take time before the seminar to review the material on the SSHRC web site. The first step to writing a successful application is following the guidelines properly, and we will spend the first hour of our workshop discussing SSHRC's application process.

The second step is writing an effective proposal. Successful SSHRC proposals are similar to successful MA thesis proposals, because both require that you adhere to what I would call the Three C's:
1) Clear. More than anything else, your proposal must be clear. You need to write in a direct, jargon-free style that engages the reader from the beginning and does not waste words. You will not get any credit for pretentiousness or purple prose.
2) Concise. Not only do you need to be as clear as possible, but you have only limited space to make your case. From the beginning of your preparations, try to work within the word limit imposed by the SSHRC forms.
3) Coherent. Your proposal must hang together as a single document that makes a unified argument. Just as you need to eschew wordiness, you need to avoid getting side-tracked with extraneous issues or tangents.

In addition to the Three C's, SSHRC notes that successful applications need to be complete and error-free, but this should be self-evident. In such a highly competitive process, even minor errors can make a difference. It goes without saying that you need to budget sufficient time for proof-reading and double-checking to ensure that there are no loose ends. Please remember to give your references sufficient time to prepare their assessments.

In terms of the content of your proposal, successful applications tend to follow what I would call the Three P's:
1) Problem-focused. Your proposal should be focused on a specific problem, which needs to be identified explicitly at beginning of your application. You then need to demonstrate how your research will address this specific problem.
2) Promise. Not only do you need to focus on a problem, but you must show that this is an interesting problem that merits funding. You need to demonstrate that your research proposal has considerable promise: it will engage with the extant literature and make a contribution to a field of study.
3) Practical. And while you're busy showing how much promise your project has, you also need to be careful to demonstrate that it's practical as well. You need to show that it's a doable project, rooted in a strong evidentiary basis and linked to accessible sources.

Links to additional online sources:
FGS web site on eligibility.
FGS information site on 2010 competition.
Information and advice from the Dean's Blog.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

7 Habits of Highly Effective Historians

Developing an effective research project requires a balance of flexibility and structure. You need to maintain a cohesive organization while remaining open to how new evidence (either from primary or secondary research) may force you to alter your hypothesis and your research plan. This can entail a delicate balance of trial-and-error and cost-benefits-analysis.

As you sift through evidence, develop questions, and tackle problems, you will be forced to make decisions at every stage of your research and writing. Some of these decisions will be so minor that you'll hardly be aware that you're making them, while others may produce gut-wrenching moments as you face a contradiction between your evidence and your theory. The unpredictability invariably produces stress and anxiety, particularly during the early and late stages of a project; but it can also produce wonderful moments of exhilaration. Making surprising discoveries may force you to dump your initial plan, but these moments can be the most enjoyable (and the most important) part of a historian's work.

The importance of keeping an open mind doesn't end there, however. Keeping an open mind is important also because you need to be keenly aware of the role of chance, contingency, and accident in history. At the heart of many historians' fallacies is the problem of determinism. Whether it's technological determinism, as Jill Lepore discussed in one of our earlier readings, or some other type of reductionism, the core error remains basically the same: the fallacy of imposing an inappropriate explanatory model that oversimplifies a historical phenomenon. But keep in mind that this error involves oversimplification, not simplification per se.

While historians have shied away from the problem of randomness, it has become a hot topic for social scientists and popular economists. In one way or another, the popular studies by Malcolm Gladwell, Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner, as well as Leonard Mlodinow all probe the question of chance. Is it more dangerous to have a backyard pool or a gun in your house? Can we assume that most behaviour is rational? Why does choice present so many problems for people?

Popular commentators often search for mono-causal explanations. Thus the global financial meltdown has been variously blamed on capitalist greed, hyper-optimism, overregulation, underregulation, Alan Greenspan, or simply inevitability. We know arguably more about the economic crisis than any other event in recent history: it has been thoroughly documented, hotly debated, theoretically dissected by hundreds of very smart people. Yet as John Cassidy shows in his incisive analysis, human folly may be incredibly complex, but it's still explainable. One could argue that his theory of "rational irrationality" is itself too reductionist, but it does offer a fresh way to understand the past.

And as we discussed on Monday, as much as it's important to be right, it's also important to be interesting. Making a contribution to scholarship demands risk. The hard part, of course, is deciding how much risk to take and how far you should push your ideas. At the core of any useful thesis is a degree of simplification. An argument that explains everything explains nothing. The challenge is to balance simplification with complexity, synthesis with detail, and evidence with theory.

While such challenges are daunting, David Hackett Fischer offers 7 rules of thumb for historians that might help you as you develop your research project. Here is a precis (they appear on pp. 62-63 of Historians' Fallacies):
1) Sound evidence consists in the establishment of a satisfactory relationship between the factum probandum, i.e., the proposition to the proved, and the factum probans, i.e., the material which is offered as proof. "A historian must not merely get the facts right. He [sic] must get the right facts right. From this simple rule of relevance may be deduced: historical evidence must be a direct answer to the question asked and not to some other question."
2) An historian must provide the best relevant evidence. "And the best relevant evidence, all things being equal, is the evidence which is most nearly immediate to the event itself....We shall call this the rule of immediacy."
3) Evidence must always be affirmative. "Negative evidence is a contradiction in terms -- it is no evidence at all."
4) The burden of positive proof always rests upon the historian. Not critics, readers, or anyone else. "Let us call this the rule of responsibility."
5) All inferences from empirical evidence are probabilistic. It is not enough to demonstrate that A was possible. A historian must determine the probability of A in relation to the probability of alternatives. "This is the rule of probability."
6) The meaning of any empirical statement depends on the context from which it is taken. "No historical statement-in-evidence floats freely outside time and space. None applies abstractly and universally." I would call this the rule of context.
7) An empirical statement must be no more precise than its evidence warrants. "We shall call this the rule of precision."

If the law of selection is the first law of history, then the burden of interpreting that law -- the task of deciding what to select -- is entirely yours. How well you make those decisions will shape how well you write your thesis. Those decisions should be made as part of a dialogue between yourself, your evidence, and the historiography -- or, put another way, between you, what your research turns up about a topic, and what other historians have said about that topic.

As Fischer points out, the real danger that you face is not that you'll delude your readers but that you will delude yourself.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Doing Research

For this Monday's seminar, we will be joined by Phyllis Ross of the Killam Library, who has created a helpful web site to help students researching historical topics. The section on writing papers contains links to a number of interesting sites. Please take a moment to review the web site before Monday's class.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Thinking Analytically

Thanks to Suzanne Le-May Sheffield for such a productive presentation and discussion this afternoon. Next week we move from teaching to research. Though the authors of the Craft of Research do not attempt to be provocative, their book is similar to Neil Postman's article in two important respects: they parse the elements of logical analysis; and their writing is deceptively simple.

The book may appear simplistic at times -- you may say to yourself, "I don't need someone to tell me what a question or a problem is" -- but it is more sophisticated than it appears at first glance. I want to draw your attention to two passages in the book, which we'll cover on Monday. First, on p. 36, the authors discuss the differences between a question and a problem. Second, on pp. 52-53, they discuss the difference between practical problems and research problems, and they offer a graph for understanding the relationship between the two.

On Monday, I would like to discuss aspects of both the theory and the practice of designing a successful research project. In preparing for our discussion, I would like you to think of research as a process. This process involves a number of inter-related activities: identifying initial interests and general topics; developing a focused topic and a research problem; and engaging with primary and secondary sources. It is invariably messy, typically nonlinear, and often frustrating. Research can often involve several false starts and dead ends that force you to redesign your project and reorient your question(s). And it always demands more reading and fresh thinking, as new evidence raises new problems. Like Carr's definition of history, research is a dialogue, though this dialogue is between you, your research problem, and your sources.

The dividing line between unsuccessful and successful research is never absolute. Sometimes a project can be highly successful because of a particular difficulty, rather than in spite of it. I know that some of my best work has come as a result of trying to resolve a particular research conundrum. Like teaching, research does not comform to the type of either/or thinking that Postman indentified in his analysis of stupidity. If this fallacy strikes you as very simplistic, keep in mind that it's also very common. Disjunctive syllogisms can be quite alluring, and it's important to keep in mind the difference between contradictories and contraries.

If you have any questions or comments for Monday's seminar, please post a comment.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Thinking Educationally

This week we shift emphasis from thinking historiographically to thinking pedagogically. Our session will start with a presentation by Suzanne Le-May Sheffield and a discussion of teaching practices and challenges facing Teaching Assistants. I encourage you to visit the CLT's web site, which has a number of useful resources.

Before I discuss this week's themes and reading, here is the excerpt that Michael circulated Monday, along with his comment: "After reading the Jill Lepore "Just the Facts, Ma'am" article about men writing history and women reading novels, I looked up the etymology of history and noted that the word comes from the Greek for wise man, judge and that story is differentiated from history around the 1500s when the first novels were being written."

History: 1390, "relation of incidents" (true or false), from O.Fr. historie, from L. historia "narrative, account, tale, story," from Gk. historia "a learning or knowing by inquiry, history, record, narrative," from historein "inquire," from histor "wise man, judge". In M.E., not differentiated from story; sense of "record of past events" probably first attested 1485. Sense of "systematic account (without reference to time) of a set of natural phenomena" (1567) is now obs. except in natural history. What is historic (1669) is noted or celebrated in history; what is historical (1561) deals with history. Historian "writer of history in the higher sense," distinguished from a mere annalist or chronicler, is from 1531.
Story: "account of some happening," c.1225, "narrative of important events or celebrated persons of the past," from O.Fr. estorie, from L.L. storia and L. historia "history, account, tale, story" (see history). Meaning "recital of true events" first recorded c.1375; sense of "narrative of fictitious events meant to entertain" is from c.1500. Not differentiated from history till 1500s.

Like history, education has an interesting etymology, and it draws on a number of related concepts, such as pedagogy and enlightenment. I encourage you to visit the online etymology dictionary, and the online OED, and review the history of these concepts.

This week's required reading challenges readers to think critically about the meaning and goals of education. Postman is referring to education generally, but I think his observations hold for academia as well. As you read his article -- it's quite short, so you will have plenty of time to reflect on his provocative ideas -- please think about how his approach to education relates to our discussion of history. How are education and history similar and/or different? What does Postman's taxonomy of stupidity have to say to historians?

As you reflect on his article, you may want to consult the Fallacy Files web site, which has entries for most of the "balderdash" that Postman cites, such as either/or thinking, conflating facts & inferences, et cetera. If history is like education, should we focus on curing historical error rather than achieving historical arete?

My introduction to the late Neil Postman was his 1999 book Building a Bridge to the Eighteenth Century (the title is a pun on a Bill Clinton speech). The book was well written and provocative, and while I didn't agree with everything Postman said, I thought it would make a great teaching tool. For several years, I assigned it for History 4250, and the students responded positively. Then, one year, I had a strange experience -- one that I've never had before or since -- when a student responded angrily to Postman's book. At the beginning of one seminar discussion, she exclaimed that Postman was a "Fascist." Looking back on the incident, I think I missed a useful teaching opportunity. I should have challenged the student to explain what she meant by Fascist and why she felt that this horrifically odious term should be applied to Postman. But I was so taken aback (and the other students were so taken aback, too) that I avoided tackling her comment directly and the seminar navigated uneasily to other themes.

When I reflect on teaching, I often reflect on my own experiences as an undergraduate student. The best teachers I had (and I was fortunate to have a number of excellent professors in the 1980s) were invariably interested in questions as much as answers. They were interested in how you thought as much as what you knew. And they listened as well as they spoke. They knew intuitively that in history -- and in education generally -- the journey mattered as much as the destination, and certitude wasn't going to get us very far. This is not to suggest that these teachers lacked confidence but rather that they had to confidence to admit that their knowledge was partial, fragmentary, and fleeting. They saw the classroom as a place where they learned as much as their students; their openness was palpable, and their energy was infectious.

Recent research has shown that emotions are as infectious as germs. You can affect a room full of people with your demeanour as much as your sneezes. All too often, teachers (both TA's and professors) assume that students comprise an inert body that brings essential qualities which determine a collective personality. I have often heard colleagues talk about good or bad groups, seminars that were enthusiastic or bored. I have no doubt that part of this reaction is based on the real abilities and attributes of the students themselves; however, the other part is based on what the teacher brings to the classroom.

Teaching is, in essence, predicated on a relationship between and among students and instructors. That relationship is, at the very least, a two-way street; in my experience, what you get out of this relationship correlates to what you put into it. If you bring detachment, boredom, fear, disdain, or (to quote Postman) pomposity, then you will reap what you sow. If you want your students to do better, then start by expecting more of yourself and spend at least as much time assessing your own performance as your students' shortcomings.

Teaching is like writing: a never-ending craft that demands careful attention and endless reflection. But there is an importance difference between the two: while you can write all by yourself, you cannot teach all by yourself. You can teach only by learning how to communicate effectively with other people. And the basic building block of that communication is clarity. When I was asked once about my teaching philosophy, I thought about it and said that clarity was the most important quality, because a teacher can have the most brilliant ideas, but if you cannot communicate clearly, you are just talking to yourself.

Finally, here is the link to the Wente article I mentioned in class, plus a rejoinder published in the Globe and Mail. If you get a chance to read them, think about how they relate to what Postman was trying to argue.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Thinking Historically

As Valerie Peck mentioned in her email, the Craft of Research textbook is now available for purchase at Outside the Lines.

A couple of reminders as you settle into your studies: if you have not done so already, please meet with your supervisor to discuss your programme; and please email the professors with whom you'll be taking a cross-listed graduate courses or working as teaching assistant. I hope to see all of you at tomorrow's meet & greet reception, which will start 3:30 in the Lord Dalhousie Pub.

For Monday's seminar, we will focus on introductory concepts, the most basic of which is the definition(s) of history. The readings and links I've posted already contain some useful concepts, but I'd like to throw out two working definitions, both of which are decidedly old-fashioned and open to debate.

The first is from David Hackett Fischer — one of the crankiest historians I’ve ever read, but also one of the most engaging. In Historians' Fallacies, Fischer stated, "A historian is someone (anyone) who asks an open-ended question about past events and answers it with selected facts which are arranged in the form of an explanatory paradigm." Fischer was certainly naive in his belief that there is somehow a body of unproblematic facts that can be simply arranged to make history, but he makes some points worth pondering: anyone can write history; history starts with questions; and historians select evidence to explain what happened in the past.

The second is from E.H. Carr. In What is History, Carr asserted, "history is a continuous process of interaction between the historian and his [sic] facts, an unending dialogue between the present and the past." If we overlook Carr’s sexism and his simplistic notion of facts, his insight remains as relevant today as it was two generations ago: historiography — the writing of history — is a never-ending process, a dialogue between the living and the dead. As one writer once put it, life is a near-death experience.

On Monday, we can start with these two unfashionable definitions and work from there. I'm looking forward to hearing your views on the required readings. In our discussion, I will be raising some basic problems for the seminar to mull over: the law of selection; the burden of positive proof; the danger of presentism; and the role of probability.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Two Reminders

1) There will be a campus tour for all incoming grad students on Wednesday, September 9, starting at 4:00. We'll be meeting right outside the History Department (Room 1158 in the FASS), and will head downtown to grab a drink afterward. Returning grad students are, of course, welcomed and encouraged to come as well. Although finding out the lay of the land is reasonably useful, this is also a great opportunity to meet everyone before the official meet and greet on the 11th.

2) Graduate students and teaching assistants are cordially invited to the Centre for Learning and Teaching's 7th Annual Teaching Assistant Professional Development Days: September 15 & 16, in the Student Union Building, 3rd Floor, Rooms 302 & 307. Are you a teaching assistant at Dalhousie or a graduate student interested in a teaching career? Sign up for CLT's TA Professional Development Days. Through a series of workshops we'll help you learn how to grade students' work, lead discussion groups, engage students' interests, run labs, and much more. Registration is free. Please register to ensure adequate materials are available. To register, visit their web site, or contact CLT (494-1622 or CLT@Dal.Ca ).

Tuesday, September 1, 2009


Structure of the Seminar:
The Masters Seminar is designed to introduce students to our graduate program and to discuss aspects of historiography and historical research. All MA students are required to complete the seminar, which is graded as a pass/fail course.

To pass the course, students must attend classes, participate in discussions, and present their thesis proposal to the seminar. Please keep in mind that all graduate students are expected to attend the Stokes Seminar, which meets on Fridays during the academic year.

During the Fall semester, the seminars will comprise two types of discussions: 1) general themes related to the historians' craft, e.g., scholarly and theoretical frameworks, logic and fallacies, ethics and politics, and writing and rhetoric; 2) specific discussions of issues related to your program, e.g., teaching assistantships, library research, SSHRC applications, and the MA thesis proposal.

During the Fall semester, we will meet from 1:00 to 3:00 on most Mondays, in room LSC 208. In the Winter semester, we will switch to room LSC 234. The sessions in January will be devoted to preparing the MA thesis proposal: students will be required to present their draft proposals to the seminar and participate in peer-review discussions of all the drafts. Students will then present the revised thesis proposal to the Graduate Committee for approval.

MA thesis proposals should be about 1500-2000 words in length. They should meet three basic criteria: present a particular historical problem and research question; identify and discuss relevant secondary and primary sources; and outline a research methodology and schedule for completion. When developing your thesis proposal, keep in mind this five-point checklist:
1) Does the proposal show a good understanding of the secondary literature?
2) Does the proposal identify a significant and testable thesis, or a specific, concrete research question?
3) Is the method of testing the thesis well-conceived and logical?
4) Are there adequate primary sources and are they accessible within the timeframe proposed for the project?
5) Are the sources and methodology manageable within the timeframe proposed for the project?

Attendance is mandatory, so please email me if you have to miss a seminar for some reason. My office hours in the Fall semesters will be 11:00-1:00 on Mondays, and by appointment. The schedule for January will be posted later in the Fall.

Required Readings:
The readings for the Masters Seminar will follow our weekly discussions and will draw on a mixture of sources: the required textbook, Wayne C. Booth, Gregory G. Colomb, and Joseph M. Williams, The Craft of Research (University of Chicago Press); blog enties and online comments posted by others; online readings linked to weekly topics; and institutional web sites.

I have ordered copies for everyone enrolled in the seminar via Outside the Lines, an independent local bookstore. The owner assures me that the book will be available for purchase by 21 September at the absolute latest (hopefully earlier). You can check in with them directly via their web site.

Please check the blog regularly. If you have not done so already, please open a google account, which will enable you to post comments. It only takes a few minutes and the instructions can be found here.

The first law of history is the law of selection: in order to cover a sufficient range of topics in a short period of time, I've had to be eclectically choosy. I've selected the following readings and web sites based on criteria such as accessibility and length: in no way are they meant to represent an authorized list or some sort of potted canon. My hope is simply that the readings will offer a good starting point for your graduate studies.

I think it's important to read authors with whom one disagees, and I certainly don't agree with all of the readings we'll cover this semester. For those of you looking for a quick start, you might want to check out this list of history quotations.

Fall Schedule:

September 14th: Introduction to Historiography and Academic Culture
1) Jill Lepore, "Just the Facts, Ma'am: Fake memoirs, factual fictions, and the history of history."
2) Jill Lepore, "Our Own Devices: Does technology drive history?"
3) Louis Menand, "The Historical Romance." [excerpt]
4) Anthony Grafton, "The Nutty Professors."

September 21st: Debating the Nature of Historical Knowledge
1) Arthur Marwick, "The Fundamentals of History"
2) Alan Munslow, "Where Does History Come From?," History Today 52 (March 2002): Available online via Killam Library Subscription.

Supplemental Reading: For those of you interested in reading more on this debate, see the "What is History?" web site, particularly the sharp exchange between Munslow and Marwick.

September 28th: Teaching and History. Suzanne Le-May Sheffield from the Centre for Learning and Teaching will join us to discuss teaching. Please review the CLT's resources, including their page on teaching tips.
1) Neil Postman, "The Educationist as Painkiller."

October 5th: Historical Questions and Research Problems. Phyllis Ross from the Killam Library will join us to discuss resources and research methodologies.
1) Booth, The Craft of Research, parts I-III.

October 12th: No Class -- Thanksgiving Holiday

October 19th: SSHRC Workshop -- Students not preparing a SSHRC application are not required to attend this workshop

October 26th: The Craft of Research and Your Thesis
1) Booth, The Craft of Research, parts III-IV

November 2nd: Rhetoric and Writing
1) Strunk and White, The Elements of Style
2) George Orwell, "Politics and the English Language."

November 9th: Ethics and Scholarship
1) AHA "Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct"
2) David Gates, "No Ordinary Crime."
3) Doris Kearns Goodwin, "How I caused that story."
4) Timoth Noah, "Historians Rewrite History."

Supplemental Reading: University of Colorado, "Report on Conclusion of Preliminary Review in the Matter of Professor Ward Churchill."

November 16th: Politics and History
1) Gershom Gorenberg, "The War to Begin All Wars."

November 23rd: Historians' Fallacies
1) Excerpts from David Hackett Fischer, Historians' Fallacies.
2) Excerpts from "Fallacy Files"

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Getting Ready for September

Students enrolled in the MA Seminar will be required to purchase only one textbook: Wayne C. Booth, Gregory G. Colomb, and Joseph M. Williams, The Craft of Research (University of Chicago Press). It's a very lively and versatile introduction to research problems and methodologies. It's also available in paperback and very affordable.

I have ordered sufficient copies for everyone enrolled in the seminar via Outside the Lines, an independent local bookstore. The owner assures me that the book will be available for purchase by 21 September at the absolute latest (hopefully earlier). You can check in with them directly via their web site.

Aside from the Craft of Research, all of the required readings will be available online, either as online articles or blog entries. I have already posted links to some of the required readings -- such as Strunk and White, The Elements of Style, and Orwell, "Politics and the English Language" -- which are available online for free.

For a stimulating introduction to the history of academic culture, you should read this short piece: "The Nutty Professors."

If you have not done so already, please confirm your meeting time with Valerie Peck for the week of September 7th. I hope to meet with each of you by Friday, the 11th, when we will have our annual meet & greet reception at 3:30-5:30.

Our first seminar discussion will take place 1:00-3:00 on Monday, September 14th, in room LSC 208. For this introductory meeting, please read "The Nutty Professors," as well as three short pieces that I linked to earlier:
1) Jill Lepore, "Just the Facts, Ma'am: Fake memoirs, factual fictions, and the history of history."
2) Jill Lepore, "Our Own Devices: Does technology drive history?"
3) Louis Menand, "The Historical Romance." [excerpt]

I will post the full Fall schedule next week, along with some discussion material for our first seminar. Please check the blog regularly. If you have not done so already, please open a google account, which will enable you to post comments. It only takes a few minutes and the instructions can be found here.

Beginning September 14th, my regular office hours will be Mondays, 11:00-1:00. Meetings outside of my regular office hours can be scheduled by appointment.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Interesting short articles

If you're looking for some interesting pieces to read over the summer, here are some suggestions:
Daniel Mendelsohn, "Arms and the Man: What was Herodotus trying to tell us?"
Jill Lepore, "Just the Facts, Ma'am: Fake memoirs, factual fictions, and the history of history."
Jill Lepore, "Our Own Devices: Does technology drive history?"

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

About this blog

This blog is designed to be part of the Masters Seminar in History at Dalhousie University. Although all MA students are required to complete the seminar as History 5800, it is open to all graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and faculty at Dalhousie University. The online discussion is open to anyone with a google account. The blog will contain a mixture of required reading, commentary and suggestions for discussion, as well as updates concerning the seminar.

I plan to post the course syllabus in August. In the meantime, here are some interesting links for historians and writers:
Link to History Links
Strunk and White, The Elements of Style
Orwell, Politics and the English Language
Canadian Historical Association
American Historical Association
Do History
Christopher Moore
New York Review of Books
The New Yorker
Fallacy Files

Welcome to Dalhousie

Copied below is an email sent to all incoming graduate students:

I hope you're having an enjoyable summer. While there is more than a month
before the semester begins, I wanted to welcome you to our graduate programme
and to provide some introductory information.

Our Graduate Studies page is revised regularly by Valerie Peck. It provides
important information about our programme, including the Graduate Handbook,
which has been updated for 2009-2010 -- so please consult it regularly:

I plan to meet with each of you individually in early September to discuss your
studies for the upcoming year. I will be away 4-11 August, but I will be in
Halifax for the remainder of the summer. Please email me if you'd like to
schedule a meeting in late August; otherwise, Valerie Peck will schedule
meetings for early September. Professor Colin Mitchell will be acting
coordinator during my absence next week.

This year's annual meet & greet will be held in the Lord Dalhousie Pub, in the
University Club, on September 11th, 3:30-5:30. I hope to see all of you there:
it will be a wonderful opportunity to meet other MA & PhD students,
postdoctoral fellows, and faculty members.

I am in the process of finalizing the syllabus for the Masters Seminar, History
5800, which all incoming MA students are expected to complete. I will email
you a copy of the syllabus in August. The seminar will be held on Mondays,
1:00-3:00, in room LSC 208. The Graduate Handbook provides some basic
information about the MA seminar.

In addition to the Masters Seminar, you will be expected to enrol in two
graduate courses. If you haven't done so already, you should review the list of
graduate courses and consult with your MA supervisor. The complete list of
courses for 2009-2010, including some of the syllabi, is contained in the
Graduate Handbook.

Please check your Dalhousie email accounts regularly and, once you arrive on
campus, your Departmental mailbox. Valerie Peck will be sending emails only to
your Dalhousie accounts.

The schedule for this year's Stoke's Seminar will be posted soon on our
Department's homepage. Graduate students are expected to attend the seminars,
which take place 3:30-5:00 on Friday afternoons from September to April.

Finally, the Faculty of Graduate Studies' homepage contains a wealth of information concerning graduate studies, and I encourage you to visit the site (including the Dean's blog), as well as the Centre for Learning and Teaching homepage, which covers a number of important programmes.

The Eloquence of Louis Menand

Louis Menand is, in my view, one of the world's best living essayists. Below is an extract from his article, "The Historical Romance," which appeared a few years ago in the New Yorker:

"When you undertake historical research, two truths that sounded banal come to seem profound. The first is that your knowledge of the past—apart from, occasionally, a limited visual record and the odd unreliable survivor—comes entirely from written documents. You are almost completely cut off, by a wall of print, from the life you have set out to represent. You can’t observe historical events; you can’t question historical actors; you can’t even know most of what has not been written about. What has been written about therefore takes on an importance that may be spurious. A few lines in a memoir, a snatch of recorded conversation, a letter fortuitously preserved, an event noted in a diary: all become luminous with significance—even though they are merely the bits that have floated to the surface. The historian clings to them, while, somewhere below, the huge submerged wreck of the past sinks silently out of sight.

The second realization that strikes you is, in a way, the opposite of the first: the more material you dredge up, the more elusive the subject becomes. In the case of a historical figure, there is usually a standard biographical interpretation, constructed around a small number of details: diary entries, letters, anecdotes, passages in the published work that everyone has decided must be autobiographical. Out of these details a profile is constructed, which, in the circular process that characterizes most biographical enterprise, is then used to interpret the details. Yet it is almost always possible to find details that are inconsistent with the standard interpretation, or that seem to point to a different interpretation, or that don’t support any coherent interpretation. Usually, there’s a level of detail below that, and on and on. One instinct you need in doing historical research is knowing when to keep dredging stuff up; another is knowing when to stop.

You stop when you feel that you’ve got it. The test for a successful history is the same as the test for any successful narrative: integrity in motion. It’s not the facts, snapshots of the past, that make a history; it’s the story, the facts run by the eye at the correct speed. Novelists sometimes say that they invent a character, put the character into a situation, and then wait to see what the character will do. The historian’s character has to do what the real person has done, but there is an uncanny way in which this can seem to happen almost spontaneously. The “Marx” that the historian has imagined keeps behaving, in every new set of conditions, like Marx. This gives the description of the conditions a plausibility as well. The person fits the time; the world turns beneath the character’s marching feet. The past reveals itself to have a plot.

This may seem a fanciful account of the way history is written. It is not a fanciful account of the way history is read, though. Readers expect an illusion of continuity, and once the illusion locks in, they credit the historian with having brought the past to life. Nothing else matters as much, and it is hard to see how the reader could have this experience if the historian had not had it first. The intuition of the whole precedes the accumulation of the parts. There is no other way, really, for the mind to work.

This is why historical research is an empirical enterprise and history writing an imaginative one. We read histories for information, but what is it that we want the information for? The answer is a little paradoxical: we want the information in order to acquire the ability to understand the information. At some point, we need the shell of facts to burst, and to feel that we are inside the moment. “Tell me about yourself,” says a stranger at a party. You can recite your résumé, but what you really want to express, and what the stranger (assuming her interest is genuine) really wants to know, is what it is like to be you. You wish (assuming that your interest is genuine) that you could just open up your mind and let her look in. Information alone doesn’t do it. A single intuition of what it was like to be Marx, or Proust, or Gertrude Stein, or the ordinary man on the late-modern street, how they thought and how the world looked to them, is worth a thousand facts, for when we are equipped with the intuition every fact becomes sensible. A residual positivism makes fact and intuition seem to be antithetical terms: hard knowledge versus subjective empathy. This has the priorities backward. Intuitive knowledge—the sense of what life was like when we were not there to experience it—is precisely the knowledge we seek. It is the true positive of historical work."

A few years ago, I taped a copy of this passage to my office door, because it so eloquently summarizes what historians face when they sit down to write. It is as useful a starting point for graduate studies as anything else I've read over the past twenty years. Here is the link to the rest of the article