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The Princeton Guide to Historical Research, coming 2021

In spring 2021, Princeton University Press will publish my book, The Princeton Guide to Historical Research, a greatly expanded version of this website. I am grateful to everyone who offered feedback on this site over the years, making it better and helping prepare me to write the book.

For more on the series in which the book will appear, see: Peter Dougherty and Barbara Tonetti, “Skills for Scholars The New Tools of the Trade,” Princeton University Press (blog), August 18, 2020, https://press.princeton.edu/ideas/skills-for-scholars-the-new-tools-of-the-trade.

It Takes Two: Combining English and History to Team Teach Narrative Writing

My Mason colleague Scott W. Berg and I have an essay in this month’s Journal of American History about our experience planning and co-teaching a course on narrative history writing. “By teaching skills and approaches neglected in other courses, we wanted to empower students to tell those important stories in rewarding new ways.”

Oxford University Press graciously allows me to post a free-access link to a personal website. Just click on the title below.

Scott W. Berg and Zachary M. Schrag, “It Takes Two: Combining English and History to Team Teach Narrative Writing,” Journal of American History 107, no. 4 (March 2021): 968–73.

History Audiobooks, 2019-2020

Inspired by a Twitter exchange, I realized that I have not updated my list of history audiobooks since July 2019. Here are 43 I’ve listened to since then, mostly on Audible.com, some from Scribd or Chirp. It’s especially nice to see more university presses joining the club. Special thanks to Rebecca Tushnet for entering most of these in our LibraryThing account.

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“Learn the facts, then try on the stories like clothes.”

Motivated by all the praise of John le Carré following his death in December, I’ve been reading Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. For the historian, surely the great line is “Learn the facts, Steed-Asprey used to say, then try on the stories like clothes.”

Getting that sequence right is harder than it sounds, and I’ve fallen into the traps of trying to squeeze facts into stories that looked good on the rack, and of trying to present facts naked to the world.

Steed-Asprey was right. The facts are not the story, and the historian’s job is indeed to try on several stories, to find the one that fits and brings out the facts to their best advantage.


The Anatomy of a Paragraph

In fall 2020, students in my undergraduate course, Technology and Identity, asked a series of excellent questions about how to structure claims, quotations, and other evidence into a formal paragraph, and how to use transitional words and phrases to link paragraphs together into a longer analysis. In response, I developed several iterations of a handout, dissecting a passage from one of the assigned readings for that course. I post it here in the hopes that it will help others as well.

Schafer’s Topic Sentence Poem

In my advice on Topic Sentences, I’ve long advised students, both as readers and writers, to understand how a series of topic sentences often form a summary of a longer story or argument:

The first thing to notice is that strung together, the topic sentences summarize the passage as a whole. If the whole article is written in this way, then a reader can zip through the piece by reading only the first sentence of each paragraph, choosing to read full paragraphs only when she wants to know more about the claim made in the topic sentence. Few if any books an articles are written entirely in this manner, but in most cases, one can get the gist of a paragraph by reading the first two sentences, or the first and last sentence. Aim for the same kind of summary.

In fall 2019, a student introduced me to a lovely term for this device: the “topic-sentence poem,” which she had learned from her teacher, Dr. Cynthia Schafer of the Walker School of Marietta, Georgia. Henceforth, I’ll be teaching this as “Schafer’s Topic Sentence Poem.”

Student evaluations are bunk

In September, the American Sociological Association issued a statement, endorsed by the American Historical Association and other scholarly associations, noting that “a large body of research has demonstrated that student evaluations of teaching (SETs) are weakly related to student learning and are often biased against women and people of color. ” I encourage all university students to read this statement before completing their course evaluations.

How to write in your books (and other texts), part 2.

This morning’s Washington Post devotes an entire page to a marked-up transcript of a recorded conversation featuring Bob Woodward, President Trump, and Kellyanne Conway. Reporter Aaron Blake models critical reading: noting key passages and comparing them both to each other and other information he knows.

Conway: I said you tried talking to everybody? What about when you interviewed, like, other people? They all said yes? That they’d try?  BW: Yeah, well, about six or seven people. I tried. And I couldn’t have — you and I spent a whole lunch on it, Kellyanne. And I said, I want to cover the substantive issues in foreign policy and domestic policy. And you said you would get back to me. Nothing.  Conway: Yeah. So, I did. I presented it to the people here who make those decisions, but . ..  BW: Who are the people?  Conway: But anyway, I’ll give you back to the president. And I’m glad to hear that you tried through seven or eight different people. That’s good. You should tell him all the names. [Laughs] Thank you.  Trump: But you never called for me. It would’ve been nice, Bob, if you called for me, in my office. I mean, I have a secretary. I have two, three secretaries. If you would’ve called directly — a lot of people are afraid . . . Raj, I hardly have . . . I don’t speak to Raj."

In a particularly good section, Blake examines both internal tensions (Conway’s refusal to answer who denied Woodward’s request for an interview with Trump) and external tensions (Raj Shah’s position as principal deputy press secretary vs. Trump’s statement that “I don’t speak to Raj.”).

Note how Blake chooses a verb that signals the significance of Trump’s statement: “Trump admits Shah is doing that without talking to him.”

Also note how earlier in the transcript, Conway shifts to the passive voice to obscure responsibility: “I put in the request. But you know, they — it was rejected.” Woodward asks, “Who are the people?” in a failed effort to pierce the fog.

[Aaron Blake, “Transcript: Phone Call between President Trump and Journalist Bob Woodward,” Washington Post, September 5, 2018.]

Meanwhile, on Twitter, Bill Hayes has posted several photographs of books annotated by the late Oliver Sacks. Sacks not only flagged key passages; he also recorded his own reactions, turning his reading into an active conversation with the author.

See also, How to write in your books.

A Layperson’s Reading List in American History, 2018

I was recently interviewed by my dear friend Will Bachman for his podcast, Unleashed – How to Thrive as an Independent Professional. I tried to argue that while the most common subjects for popular history—wars, murders, disasters, sports, etc.—have their place, independent consultants and other professionals could benefit from broadening their history reading beyond those topics.

I have posted some suggested titles to get them and others started as A Layperson’s Reading List in American History, 2018. For some older suggestions, see A Layperson’s Reading List in American History, which I most recently revised in 2004, and A History Professor’s Guide to Audible.com, from 2013.