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"