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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.]
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.