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 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.”
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.
I have updated my page on How to Write an Outline to reflect my growing preference for decimal rather than alphanumeric outlines. Alphanumeric outlines repeat letters and numbers, so the reader must flip back and forth to figure out if a point labeled “3” is II.B.3 or III.A.3. Decimal outlines solve this: it’s always point 2.2.3. Also, decimal outlines offer an easier check on an overgrowth of points. Rather than tell students they may not use letters and numbers higher than V, E, 5, e, etc., I can simply tell them to write the outline without any digits over 5, anywhere in the structure.
I have also removed the reference to The Craft of Research, since the 4th edition does not include the useful advice that appeared in the 3d. In its place, I refer readers to the Purdue OWL page on Types of Outlines and Samples. And I’ve changed the way I outlined Wells’s introduction.
I’ve kept the old version online for fans of Roman numerals.
How to Narrow a Research Topic. Primarily for undergraduates in capstone courses and graduate students in research seminars, but really for anyone who needs to define a manageable history topic.
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.
I’ve updated my external links to connect to the latest version of Paul Edwards’s great instructions, How to Give an Academic Talk.
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.
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.]