Hanover College, History Department. On Marginalia: Note Taking for College Students and Others Who Want to Make the Most of Their Reading Time
Making marginalia (notes or symbols written in the margins of a document) is the best way to get the most out of the time you spend reading a difficult text.
New advice for doctoral students in history: “How to Take an Oral Comprehensive Exam.” The process should be one of the most valuable experiences in graduate school.
Ellen Bresler Rockmore, “How Texas Teaches History,” The New York Times, October 21, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/22/opinion/how-texas-teaches-history.html.
In the excerpts published by Jezebel, the Texas textbooks employ all the principles of good, strong, clear writing when talking about the “upside” of slavery. But when writing about the brutality of slavery, the writers use all the tricks of obfuscation. You can see all this at play in the following passage from a textbook, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, called Texas United States History:
Some slaves reported that their masters treated them kindly. To protect their investment, some slaveholders provided adequate food and clothing for their slaves. However, severe treatment was very common. Whippings, brandings, and even worse torture were all part of American slavery.
Notice how in the first two sentences, the “slavery wasn’t that bad” sentences, the main subject of each clause is a person: slaves, masters, slaveholders. What those people, especially the slave owners, are doing is clear: They are treating their slaves kindly; they are providing adequate food and clothing. But after those two sentences there is a change, not just in the writers’ outlook on slavery but also in their sentence construction. There are no people in the last two sentences, only nouns. Yes, there is severe treatment, whippings, brandings and torture. And yes, those are all bad things. But where are the slave owners who were actually doing the whipping and branding and torturing? And where are the slaves who were whipped, branded and tortured? They are nowhere to be found in the sentence.
In 2014, the Journal of American History published eighteen articles based on original, primary-source research. Their first sentences, taken together, show what scholarly historians and their editors like to see in a lede.
To complement my existing instructions on How to Write an Outline, I have added an Article Outline Example. By keeping the outline to just the top two levels, this document outlines Wells’s article in just a page and a half.
Radley Balko offers examples of the way police departments avoid active verbs, the active voice, and human subjects of sentences “to publicly deflect responsibility for police shootings.”
- “A deputy-involved shooting occurred.”
- “The innocent McKay family was inadvertently affected by this enforcement operation.”
- “The deputy’s gun fired one shot, missing the dog and hitting the child.”
Balko notes that police departments have no trouble writing clearly when they want to assign blame to a suspect: “The suspect produced a semi-automatic handgun and fired numerous times striking the victim in the torso.”
[Balko, Radley. “The Curious Grammar of Police Shootings.” Washington Post, 14 July 2014.]
Gretchen Morgenson, “A Vow to End Hollow Nods and Salutes” The New York Times, June 7, 2014:
Another disturbing aspect of the culture at G.M. was the “formal training” the company gave to employees writing about safety issues. A 2008 presentation, for example, warned employees to write “smart.”
What did writing smart mean? Words such as “problem” and “defect” were banned. Employees should instead use softer words — “issue,” “condition” or “matter.” Rather than write about a “defect,” employees should note that the car “does not perform to design.”
Sometimes entire sentences were forbidden, according to the report. “Dangerous … almost caused accident,” was off limits, for example, as was, “This is a safety and security issue. …” Finally, employees were advised not to use phrases such as “tomblike” and “rolling sarcophagus.”
This manipulation of language reminded me of George Orwell’s incisive 1946 essay, “Politics and the English Language.” Although the focus of his essay is the bankrupt verbiage favored by politicians, Orwell could just as easily have been describing corporate-speak at G.M.
I have posted a new page, “How to Write a Prospectus.”
A dissertation prospectus is an essay arguing that you have found a research problem whose solution merits thousands of hours of your time; hundreds of hours of the time of your various advisors and committee members as well as that of librarians, archivists, and other people of good will; and, if you are lucky, some public or foundation funds toward your research expenses. Though the dissertation you complete will likely differ significantly from the one you conceive, you should be able at least to sketch out a viable project before attempting to write one.
Comments appreciated as always.
Professor Caleb McDaniel of Rice University offers some excellent advice on developing gut reactions to a text into comments that will inform your own thinking and that of your classmates.
How to Discuss a Book for History | W. Caleb McDaniel.
My page on Examples of Critical Reading lists several techniques used by historians to read primary sources critically. I have posted a one-page list of those techniques, which I have found useful in the classroom.
[Update, 1 April 2013: I have changed the handout to read “unstated agenda,” not just agenda.]