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Here’s a handy meme to use on your social media:
UPDATE! Now on the Washington Post! Their new “Made By History” column is fantastic, by the way, and I recommend becoming a regular reader of it. If you have a .edu email address, you can get an online subscription for free (google it for instructions on how to do that).
Interesting historical tidbits I couldn’t fit into the column: Unity and Diana Mitford were both fascists – Diana married Oswald Mosley 2 years after the letter I quoted, and though they were both in prison in Britain during the war, they lived long after and remained unrepentant. Unity ended up becoming a close confidant of Hitler, but shot herself in the head when war broke out between Britain and Germany. She lived for a few years, but lost her faculties. Their other sister, Jessica, was a Communist. In 1936 she eloped with Esmond Romilly and they ran away to Spain, then later to the US. Romilly was one of the Communists who went to the Olympia rally to protest it.
I’m really delighted to announce that my Twitter threadzilla on conservatism from a couple weeks ago has been transformed into an op-ed on the Huffington Post. It’s now polished up, beautifully edited by HuffPo, and ready to share easily! Please do so!
Every once in a while you come across one of those things that makes you see the world more clearly, and it becomes part of you from that moment on. I had that experience recently when I read this beautiful essay by Frances Flanagan. Make yourself a nice beverage, sit down, and savor it.
I was privileged to be introduced to this amazing piece by Kate Fullagar, another historian and fantastic writer, who connected Flanagan’s piece with a tweetstorm of mine about higher education. She makes the case for the connection between the two here.
I’m working now to re-write the tweetstorm into something more polished, and will let you know where to find that when the time comes. UPDATE: a portion of the original tweetstorm is now on the Washington Post!
I tweeted a long thread today on what Russianist training looks like and the various levels of Russia “specialists.” It’s storified here.
I’m very excited to announce that my first book, An Ordinary Marriage: The World of a Gentry Family in Provincial Russia (Oxford University Press, 2013) is now available in paperback!
I’ve only recently submitted the full manuscript of my upcoming book on writing for students taking history courses. It won’t appear until 2018, but in the meantime I’ll be occasionally tweeting short excerpts. Find them with the hashtag #SGWH and follow me on Twitter: @kpanyc.
I indulged in a Sunday afternoon tweet storm of massive proportions today. You can read it all here.
I’m very pleased to announce that I’ve been involved with some friends in launching a new website called Humans of the Academy. This site offers regular profiles of ordinary humans who work throughout the academy. Its purpose is to show who we really are, what we do, and why we do it. Too often the public hears only media stereotypes or assumes that the person behind the lectern (or the grade) is all there is to us. Please take a little time to get to know some real academics.
You can follow posts through all the major social media platforms:
If you’re an academic yourself, please contribute your own profile! It’s easy and quick! Anyone who self-identifies as an academic – current, former, or aspiring – is invited to contribute. Just click here to fill out the form!
The site is still in beta now – we hope to gather more submissions over the summer and do a bigger, more formal launch in the fall.
Pass it on!
Any questions can be directed to academichumans at gmail dot com
The provincial estate, Dorozhaevo, at the center of my first monograph, An Ordinary Marriage: The World of a Gentry Family in Provincial Russia, is now up for sale. Amazing photographs of it available here, too. Compare this with the images and maps here on my site.
1. Stand up for truth. Call a spade a spade every time, even when it’s awkward or uncomfortable.
2. Model best practices by following evidence and reasoning regardless of the source or your own prejudices. Be transparent about how you do this, so others can learn.
3. Program your phone with the numbers of your representatives and GOP moderates, plus those those facing 2018 challenges. Make calls part of your routine. Find lists of numbers and scripts if that helps.
4. Amplify the truth by sharing it all over social media, including with your friends who live in bubbles. Share solid stuff, ignore propaganda sites even when they’re from your side.
5. When you see media defending facts and investigating properly, support them. Write to complain when they don’t.
6. Divest personally and professionally from dishonest and immoral outlets, give money and time to fighters for truth and justice
7. Pressure/support cultural and political leaders to set good examples by standing up for truth and resisting greed & self-interest. Be especially kind and supportive to any Republicans who stand up to Trump or support investigations of the new regime.
8. When you block someone from your social media for supporting hate or lies, say, “this crosses a moral line for me” not “I disagree” (or the equivalent)
9. Help others to notice when they’re supporting American Fascism and find ways to help them stop (follow @slpng_giants)
11. Agenda 2018: Campaign against vulnerable pro-Trump Republicans starting NOW. Offer your support to Republicans who support investigating Trump.
12: Agenda 2020: follow possible Democratic candidates starting NOW, and give money, time, and attention to those you like best.
13. Help get IDs to voters, build infrastructure to provide rides, childcare, & other support on election days.
14. Run for local office, find & support others to run for local office. Know your local candidates.
15. Use apps to make it easy to comment, write editors, sign petitions, etc – save text to copy & paste, bookmark, etc. Make it part of your routine so you can keep it up long-term.
16. Focus on goals, not squabbling about small issues. Work with allies without demanding purity or 100% agreement.
17. Let’s have less gawping at stupid people and trolls, more focusing on crimes and investigations. Make the system work.
18. Use humor, but remember to aim upwards, at the leaders and the power-holders.
19. Be careful, not cynical. Let’s not be the source of our own defeat by not believing change is possible.
20. Learn history: believe people who tell you who they are; the only constant is change; activism works
The scale of today’s Women’s March is probably unprecedented in the US and perhaps also as a global event. What I tell my students when we talk about historical protests is to think about what is involved in traveling, taking time away from other obligations, enduring physical discomfort and strain, and accepting some degree of risk, in order to go out and participate in a protest event. Protesting is a lot harder than voting, and much harder still than sharing a post on Facebook, signing a petition, or re-tweeting. Attending a protest is a statement, and a fairly big one as statements go, no matter what the scale of the protest or what it’s about.
In a “safe” society with guaranteed rights of protest, you’ll get smallish numbers of people out to protest many issues, many times a year. Those kinds of protests tell historians what kinds of issues people care about, and are an essential function of democracy, because they also help to inform public debate about what matters to ordinary citizens.
When protests are bigger than that, they tell us that the issue driving them is a real stand-out, motivating people far more than other, competing issues. But even with fairly large protests in orderly democratic countries, we generally expect protesters to be the kind of people who are most invested in activism, so while their actions are certainly meaningful, and tell us where activism is directed in a society, they are just one kind of voice historians look for in trying to understand a whole society.
It’s a different thing when people protest in regimes where just walking the streets with a sign can expose you to serious legal penalties (not just a temporary arrest) or even direct violence. Those are protests that tell us an issue is so important that large numbers of people are willing to die for it. Those kinds have protests tend to change history, though the direction of change is wildly unpredictable.
What happened today recalls other historical events, most notably the March on Washington of 1963, as well as others around the world and across time. The numbers were simply astronomical, as we can see from the photos of crowds and the number of locations where these kinds of crowds came out. It’s too early to rank it precisely, but it was huge, broad, diverse, and peaceful. We can say that these protests happened in places where the cost of protesting was relatively low, but it is worth noting that in the US today the possible costs of protesting were perhaps less predictable than they have ever been in our entire history of democratic protest. We know that violence is possible here, because it has happened before, and we know violence was implied this time, and we have a leadership that has signaled in various ways that it is both hostile to opposition and open to unprecedented acts. Yet people came out anyway. We can also say that when this many people buy train and plane tickets, take time away from work and family, and pack for a day of marching without reliable access to food, water, or other necessities, that these people are serious and highly motivated, and that the sheer scale of it indicates a significant event in American history.
We’ve had other really important protests. But this isn’t a repeat of any of those, it’s a new one in the series of really important protests of American history.
What happened today was also much bigger than American history, because it happened all over the world. The fact that people who are not American citizens took a day of their lives and put up with a lot of expense and discomfort in order to make a statement indicates both that the rest of the world is deeply worried about how the recent US presidential election might affect them, but also that what happened in the US is part of a larger global phenomenon that is worrisome to people all over the world.
What is the message being sent by these protests around the world? The way historians would teach it to students a hundred years later is to say: look at the evidence. What do the participants say? What are they responding to? Who are they?
What even the least prepared undergraduate would be able to say a hundred years from now is that the protest was organized by and for women, in response to Trump’s inauguration as US president. And that Trump’s presidency represents such a threat to women that unprecedented numbers of them came out to be heard — far more than the number of people who came out to celebrate Trump’s inauguration (precise numbers are not yet available as I write this, but the photographic evidence is abundant enough to be undeniable).
What some future instructor will try to tease out of those students is context: what was happening to American women that made Trump such a threat? Students would point out that American women in 2017 had it pretty good, especially compared to women in other parts of the globe at that time, or pretty much any women who had ever lived previously.
But with a little prodding, those students might also remember how very recently American women had fought even for the right to work at all, or to get an education, to control their own bodies, to make their own choices in life as adults despite being born female. They will remember how those battles were still not complete in 2015, and that when Trump appeared on the scene in a serious way in 2016, it was on a platform of explicitly turning back the clock and reversing those hard-won battles. Every privilege that is thrown in the face of the women protesting on January 21, 2017 to undermine her right to protest is exactly what she is out there to defend for herself, for her daughters and mothers and sisters, and for women around the world.
Students may also be prodded to note that part of people’s fears in 2017 was the rise of an American neo-fascism. Having seen this before, relatively recently, and knowing that it was perhaps the single most costly calamity that humanity has ever wrought on itself, many people are jumping to resist it before it can take firm hold simply because they have learned the lessons of history.
This is usually the point where the instructor tells students to look more closely at the images of the protest, and really ask who is there, beyond the people indicated by the name of the event. Students will see men, and children, and the fact that the people depicted represent the full range of religious and ethnic diversity of the populations they sprang from. Students will note that this protest is more diverse than earlier feminist actions. At the same time, the dominance of women in the organization and message recalls revolutionary women’s bread riots of earlier centuries.
Putting all this evidence together, we can see that this protest is unique, and making history in its own way.
Perhaps some advanced students, in their essays, might go even further and explore some of the “rhetoric” or “reception” surrounding this event (profs love rhetoric and reception). They might note the theme of cynicism running through the commentary even of people who are on the same political side as the protestors: while unprecedented numbers march all over the globe, others wonder whether the march means anything, whether it’s enough, whether it’s really what it seems, and whether it will be followed by further “engagement,” totally missing the fact that this is already the biggest show of engagement of this kind ever seen, and is in itself already a difference. A student might write a really interesting essay on this interplay between renewed political activism and still-prevalent cynicism hanging on from an earlier period, but we don’t know where that essay will go because right now we are still living these events.
Another student might look at the bizarre unreality of the opposing party and partisan or confused media commentary on the protests, noting that they denied abundant evidence of the scale of the event and attempted to undermine its message by demeaning and ridiculing participants, often lying to make their points. Hopefully a hundred years from now we’ll be in a world where factual reality is acknowledged and accepted, and students will marvel that what we are seeing in conventional and social media today was ever possible. Their professor will work really hard to try to make them understand the power of confirmation bias and how deeply many ordinary people had confused cause and effect, so that they actually railed at their fellow victims instead of their persecutors.
But who knows.
We can’t even know if history will still be written and taught a hundred years from now. Not long ago it would have been hard to imagine that practices common to our culture for centuries could disappear so quickly, but the Information Age is still in its infancy, and these early growth pains are both ugly and astonishingly strong. Truth, facts, reality, evidence, common sense, and “universal” morality cannot currently be taken for granted in the very cultures that have defined themselves (with infamous hypocrisy) as the cradle of civilization. That is something we have seen before in slightly different form, and precisely because we have seen it before and know where it can lead, many are determined to stand up and say they do not consent from the start.
A Consumer’s Guide to Information is now fully released everywhere it’s going to be – you can buy it in paperback from Amazon or in eBook from most eBook distributors, including Barnes & Noble and iTunes as well as Amazon. Available in the eBook format of your choice directly from Smashwords.com.
The purpose of this book is to help people navigate information more reliably. I self-published it to make it available as quickly and cheaply as possible. Please help me bring it to more readers by sharing, rating, reviewing, and “liking” the book on whatever sites you use! Like it on Facebook for continued updates.
I did something completely unplanned and unscheduled: I wrote an extra book. I’m still steadily working on my book on writing history as well as researching my next monograph on the policing of religious faith in early nineteenth-century Russia, but during times when I’m unable to concentrate on those tasks—such as traveling by car or baby’s nap time—I’ve written a short book about using basic critical thinking skills to navigate the information revolution.
It was inspired primarily by the recent Stanford study about the difficulty young people have distinguishing fake news from real. This reflects problems I see in my students every day, but in many other places, too. There is increasing awareness about fake news and viral guides to avoiding it, but I believe the problem is a much wider one, where many of us (not just young people!) have trouble navigating the constantly changing landscape of the information revolution we’re just beginning to recognize is moving the earth beneath our feet.
The book is about spotting fake news, but also problems in real news and weaknesses in articles presenting opinion and analysis. It’s about interacting with people online productively, and safely. It’s about not getting conned, and keeping our sanity. I believe that all these skills are interrelated, and that as important as it is to realize how much of what we see online is “fake,” it’s much more important to think critically about all the ways we process information.
I have published it via Amazon and Smashwords in order to make it available as quickly and widely as possible at the lowest price point. Please check it out, and if you like it, review it, rate it, and recommend it to your friends!
Amazon link (Kindle only for now; paperback available soon)
Smashwords link (ebooks in all formats)
It will also soon be distributed through iBooks and most other ebook vendors.
Like the Facebook page for updates!
This has been a season of historical analogies in the press and on social media. The thing is, as pretty much any scholarly historian will tell you, historical analogies are an incredibly tricky thing and almost no one gets them right. I advise my undergraduates to just avoid them altogether, and professional historians use them carefully, with carefully defined limits.
Historians as a group tend to abhor making predictions, and the Hitler analogy, of all analogies, is both the most ridiculed and the most sacred, in the sense that serious people tend to feel strongly that it can’t ever be a fair comparison. Yet, one of the many extraordinary things about our current moment is that a number of prominent historians of fascism have publicly agreed, with due qualifications, that there are some comparisons to be made between Donald Trump’s campaign for the presidency and interwar European fascism. So what’s going on here?
History does not repeat itself,
and no one is saying it does
First: absolutely no one is seriously suggesting that Trump = Hitler, that history is going to repeat itself, that we are doomed to another WWII and Holocaust, or anything like that. This is the sort of thing that makes me want to bang my head repeatedly into a wall. NO ONE with any pretensions to seriousness would ever say this, let alone a historian. So if you think someone is saying this, maybe pause and consider whether you’re possibly missing their real point.
Analogies are not predictions
Second: historical analogies can be useful, but not as a prediction. Mark Twain said that “history doesn’t repeat itself, but sometimes it rhymes.” The purpose of historical analogies is not to predict that the future will resemble a point in the past, but to use the mental exercise of comparing and contrasting two situations point by point in order to jerk us out of our human tendency to experience the present and both inevitable and stable (more on this here). The idea that Francis Fukuyama (a political scientist) put forward after the Cold War, that we had reached an “end to history,” was obviously false. History does not end any more than it repeats itself. But because it is very difficult for us to imagine change clearly, it can help to look to how changes have occurred before.
The first key to doing a historical analogy well–after you’ve clarified that your goal is to understand the parameters of possibility rather than to turn back the clock–is to make specific comparisons between apples and apples. This is the main way that most attempts at analogy break down.
For example, we can’t compare a present-day demagogue during his rise to power with Hitler at the height of World War II and the Holocaust, though I have seen observers assume this is what is meant by the comparison. We can’t compare one demagogue himself with the followers or associated movement of a different demagogue. If we’re going to compare, we compare the rise to power to the rise to power, followers to followers or leader to leader. You get the idea.
You don’t need, and can’t have, a perfect match
It’s also a fallacy to believe that the only good analogy is one that matches exactly on every point. For one thing, no analogy ever can match on every point. But what’s even more important to understand is that we can learn from both the points of comparison and the points of contrast. It’s a mental exercise meant to help us see new factors and perspectives, not an attempt to find the most perfect match in order to earn points in an argument on the internet.
Now for a couple of my own examples of ways that historical analogies can be useful.
Top-down to top-down analogy: Trump and Gabriele D’Annunzio
Obviously, we don’t yet know what Trump will do once in power. We do know that he has invoked rhetoric and tactics, apparently knowingly, from fascist leaders. But imitating a fascist because their methods work is not the same as being a fascist, any more than Melania Trump copying Michelle Obama’s speech made Melania similar to Michelle in any meaningful way.
Most interwar fascist dictators appeared to be completely sincere and dedicated to their causes, and certainly worked hard at meeting their policy goals. I don’t see any plausible parallels with Trump there. While Trump has expressed racist and nativist views and failed to renounce endorsements of him by avowed white supremacists, and his racism does take the particular form of scapegoating minorities for the economic and political disappointments of working- and middle-class people, he’s not operating in an environment following a world war, there is no realistic threat of socialism driving his agenda, and his attitude seems both non-ideological and casual. His attitude toward women is also quite different, in a variety of ways. He has not so far shown the military ambition characteristic of true fascism, although his views on foreign policy, if acted on, would be a frighteningly unstable influence on the world stage. Economic comparisons are probably the most complicated, especially because Trump hasn’t yet shown a consistent economic stance.
On the other hand, since most of the public doesn’t realize that European fascist leaders typically came to power through democratic elections, this point of comparison is worth publicizing widely. Second, while American politics have seen unsavory characters before, this level of open, unabashed racism, homophobia and misogyny being this successful on a national stage is new, and that fact has significant implications and should not be minimized. Third, Trump’s treatment of the media does parallel fascist attitudes and should be a cause for serious concern as a threat to the constitutional right to a free press.
More specifically, there is one man most people haven’t heard of who I think is interestingly similar on a few key points. Gabriele D’Annunzio began the process that eventually became Italian fascism under Benito Mussolini. Unlike Trump, he was an apparently talented writer who enjoyed a successful literary career before turning to politics. Like Trump, however, he dabbled in politics without apparently fully intending to pursue a government role, but nevertheless became the enthusiastic and galvanizing figurehead of an ultra-nationalist movement based on resentment and anger, that culminated in the taking over of the city of Fiume. He’s seen as paving the way and setting the tone for Mussolini. He was also an inconsistent, volatile womanizer, and was probably partaking in considerable recreational drugs. He fell off a balcony while partying with a mistress, putting an end to his political career. For more about D’Annunzio and the context in which that all happened, I recommend the excellent book Fascist Voices by Christopher Duggan.
So far Trump shows none of the military fetishism of D’Annunzio (and other fascists) and let’s hope he doesn’t begin to do so, although he does talk about violence with the gleeful casualness that is familiar to the student of fascism. But the volatility and charismatic whipping up of public resentment and then leaving the scene, opening a path for — as it turned out in Italy’s case, fascism proper — does present some interesting parallels and warnings worth considering.
Bottom-up to Bottom-up: What Draws Ordinary People to Fascism
I teach a course on writing and history with “ordinary life under fascism” as the theme. Just the last time I taught it, in Spring 2015, I had to make a case on the last day of class to show how fascism is possible anywhere. Today I no longer have to make that case, since we’re living it. But how we got here is still a difficult, confusing, and in many ways stressful question.
Historians have posited a long list of reasons to explain why millions of ordinary people supported, enabled, tacitly tolerated, or actively participated in violent fascist regimes that destroyed civil liberties, started a world war, and murdered millions of innocent people. One of the big factors driving political opinion in the 1920s and 30s was resentment over the costs and aftermath of World War I, and another big factor was fear of socialism in the wake of the Russian Revolution of 1917. Socialist parties made inroads in many countries, and while some welcomed these parties, middle class people, especially, were often terrified of the prospect. Neither of these factors has any parallel today.
But there are other factors that do ring a bell now. Economic instability was another of probably the biggest factors driving people to extreme politics in the interwar period. Of course, there have been many periods of economic instability that don’t result in fascism, so on its own it has no explanatory power. But as an exacerbating factor, it is important.
Another significant issue in interwar Europe was the failure of liberal democratic politics in many countries in the wake of World War I. In that case, the failures occurred most often where a previous government fell because of the war and new governments were unstable and uncertain, completely unequipped to handle postwar crises.
Today Americans on both sides of our political spectrum also feel disappointed and disgusted with our politicians. Congress is almost universally hated, and our government is almost paralyzed with partisan dysfunction.
In addition, the interwar period in Europe saw women getting the right to vote in many countries, and a general expansion of visibility and opportunity for some minorities. At the same time, jobs were scarce. Fascism offered a story to explain why people didn’t have the stability, prosperity, or security that they expected: fascism blamed it on those increasingly visible minorities. Those who don’t see those parallels in the US today are not paying attention.
Finally, another factor historians recognize as contributing to the popularity of fascism is information technology. Mass media was in its infancy at that time, giving nearly everyone immediate access through radio and cheap daily newspapers to the voices of politicians. Fascist leaders were expert at presenting an appealing image and feeding audiences whatever message most effectively galvanized them.
In the later part of the twentieth century we became accustomed to these forms of media and more cynical about media messages. But in the twenty-first century we are again confronting new technology, which can again serve up false information to huge numbers of people faster than anyone can counter it. When a teenager in Macedonia can whip up what looks like a respectable news site in an afternoon, there is a completely free-for-all in what to believe, and most people lack the time and skills to sort it out.
Combine that media environment with enormous economic and cultural strain and a lack of faith in traditional government or politicians of any flavor, and you get a disturbingly dangerous scenario.
Some of the factors I find most disturbing in what I’ve seen are these: (1) Trump voters and many observers often assume he doesn’t mean what he says and is unlikely to truly do anything extreme in office. That’s what everyone said about fascists, too, which is one of the ways the fascist dictators won democratic elections. (2) Some Trump voters, from both right and left, express support not for him specifically but for the idea of just blowing up the system, forcing a reckoning. This, too, was commonly expressed by people who enabled the fascist takeovers of their countries during the interwar, out of frustration and a lack of alternatives. (3) Many liberal observers are reassuring people today that this threat can be met. Possibly it can – I certainly hope so – but it must be fought off, not waited out, if we are to learn anything from fascism in Europe.
To ignore multiple specific parallels to European fascism would be foolish in the extreme, even while we note the many differences and recognize that we are not doomed to repeat history.
In the wake of fascism the victorious Allies, especially the US and Britain, took pride in having been on the “right side of history.” But there was nothing inherently deranged or immoral about millions of people across Europe who supported a dozen or so fascist regimes. The US and Britain had fascist parties in the interwar period, and we probably escaped seeing them gain power through a combination of having been on the winning side of World War I and playing the key role in dictating the terms of the treaty that ended it, and having had pre-existing democratic institutions that luckily proved stable enough to weather the global depression of the 1930s. But those institutions did not weather the storm without the massive collective efforts of both political leaders and ordinary people. Hopefully we will weather the current threat, too, but taking stability for granted is not likely to be a successful strategy.
For more information on ordinary people’s support for fascism, I recommend not only the Duggan book recommended above, but also Christopher Browning’s Ordinary Men and Michael Mann’s Fascists. There are many, many other books on the subject but I find these as readable as they are reliable.
Historical arguments identify patterns in the past that can be instructive now, but they also teach us how systems work, how information dynamics work, how ideas and movements and people respond to various constraints. History teaches us to separate causes and effects (symptoms from the disease) and how to reason through multi-factor causes. History also teaches us how to see the difference between one person’s perspective and the patterns generated by lots of people at once. History teaches us how to look up from the changes that seem big on the ground but turn out to be small from a distance, and the massive, slow movements that you can’t feel while they’re happening. Analogies are one tiny tool in that toolbox, and they should be approached with caution and thoughtfulness.
As a historian watching the unprecedented historical event of Trump’s election, I can’t help but constantly see the ways that historical thinking is misused or misunderstood, or that the usefulness of historical thinking is just totally unknown to most people. I’m currently working on my handbook to writing history for students, so these issues are very much on my mind. This is the first of a small series of posts on how historical reasoning could help us all in this national crisis.
History is the study of cause and effect. Here are a few rules of causal reasoning that everyone should have been taught in high school.
1. There are always multiple causes. Don’t expect any single causal explanation to explain every case, and don’t stop looking for causes after you find the first one. Don’t fight over what’s “the” cause. (race, class, gender, misinformation…)
2. There are always more than two sides, or ways of seeing an issue. The most useful answers are the ones that acknowledge multiple perspectives. (Clinton can do very well in several ways and still need to ask where she screwed up as well as blaming external factors)
3. Some causes are necessary but not sufficient. Asking “if not for X, what would have been the same? what would have been different?” can help us to think through the relative weight or decisiveness of any given causal factor. (if not for emails, was Clinton just as widely disliked anyway? do we have data to know that?)
4. Some causes may have been a tipping point or trigger, but would not have had that power if not for preceding factors. Don’t confuse proximity to the event for cause. (Comey)
5. Causal factors often function cumulatively. Something that seems totally insufficient to have the given result combines with other individually insufficient factors and together make a difference. (Comey)
6. Every cause is context dependent (this is why history books are so long) . You can’t treat causal factors like weights on a scale that can be interchanged. (race, class, gender)
7. Don’t confuse causal power with intent. Just because a person did X to make Y happen, doesn’t mean X isn’t the reason Z was the actual result. (racism)
8. History doesn’t repeat itself, and it also doesn’t end. Change is the only constant, yet our brains are wired to see the present as both inevitable and stable. It takes a lot of conscious effort and some training to overcome this. (basically no one I’ve seen who isn’t a historian actually understands historical analogies)
9. Reasoning by counterfactual (“Bernie would have won”) can be a useful exercise because it pushes you to think through multiple causes, but you can’t actually know the answer to the counterfactual (whether he would have).
10. Nothing is inevitable – every possible cause is contingent to some degree on other factors. No one could know the result until it played out. (I guess that’s all too obvious just now)
–This PSA has been brought to you by the profession of history, which is not actually about names and dates. —
This blog went inactive for a while, so here’s an update to serve as a re-start. Regular posting to resume shortly.
I went on hiatus while preparing my tenure dossier, and was very happy just now to edit the home page to reflect my new title of Associate Professor! At the age of 40, after 15 years of teaching undergraduates, I’m officially no longer a junior scholar. We have rather long apprenticeships in the academy!
In other exciting news, I am at work on a project that has been dear to my heart for the entirety of those 15 years I’ve been teaching undergraduates to date. I have contracted with Oxford University Press to write a supplemental course text on writing in history. Some details on what the book will do are here. It is being developed out of teaching materials I’ve been working on literally since my first semester as a TA, through my founding of a writing workshop for history students and training and teaching in interdisciplinary composition at Columbia, and through the development of a new disciplinary writing curriculum at Queens College, especially the history course “Writing and History.”
Meanwhile I’ve also updated my home page to reflect the fact that I have two daughters now, not one! I am officially on maternity leave this semester, which means I have “time” to work on the writing book, update this blog, and also take over social media for my department – and that’s why I also want to announce the new Facebook page and revived Twitter account for the QC History department. Please like and follow!
Finally, my first book, An Ordinary Marriage, has some new reviews, linked here, though they are all behind paywalls, so you need to access them through your university’s proxy server. Hoping for a (slightly) more affordable paperback edition to come soon, as well as a Russian translation. Stay tuned!
Another interview about my book, An Ordinary Marriage, has been made available, this time in text form from the Fair Observer. Thanks so much to my interviewer, James Wiener, and the FO editors, who were wonderful to work with.
In addition, I was delighted to see today a wonderful review in the journal Slavic Review by one of my heros in the field of Russian History, John Randolph. This is behind a paywall, however, so it needs to be accessed through a university/library subscription.
I actually taught for weeks with broken glasses one semester, because I didn’t have time to replace them until the break. And while I have no explanation for it, there does seem to be a correlation between professors and klutzes. I haven’t bumped into a door (in front of a class) yet, but I do have a tendency to inadvertently break pens in a way that causes pieces to go flying in every direction.
I suppose the myth goes that we’re so involved in the lofty life of the mind that we just can’t be brought to notice such mundane details as doors or our own names. In my experience, there’s no choice or preference involved, and it doesn’t feel at all lofty. The reason I am often genuinely, appallingly absent-minded on a regular basis has to do with the peculiarly scattered schedule of my job. There are lots of kinds of jobs that demand a lot of recall, and thinking on your feet, but I think there are few others that ask for so much variety of recall and thinking on your feet all at once.
Here’s a sample ordinary day for me to illustrate the point.
On a given day during the semester, I probably get woken up by my small daughter around 7, spend the morning wrestling her into presentable clothes and getting her to eat something other than bread for breakfast, then getting her to school. I get to campus around 9, and need to turn off my Parent Brain that just answered 100 questions about mermaids and dinosaurs and transition into Work Brain to try to remember the 1000 things I need to finish before the day is done. I might spend my first hour-and-15-min class time lecturing to freshman in a general education survey course about modern Europe. I lecture without notes, so I’ll need to recall the relevant concepts, their definitions, and all the context around, say, the unifications of Italy and Germany, and also remember the content and where to find the key passages in the couple of primary source texts the students read that day, which I’ll ask them about, and try to get them to connect to some of the concepts from lecture. I’ve been reading about these subjects for many years, so it’s no great task to know them well enough for this lecture, but since my main field is Russian history, and I lecture on a lot of different subjects, teaching the modern Europe survey only off-and-on, and since this survey blasts through 200 years of the most major events of western civilization in more than 2 dozen countries, there is a lot to keep on the top of my head. History is very detail-intensive. But, at the same time, my goal with my lecture is to convey just a few key concepts, so I also need to keep all those details organized in my head in such a way that I can explain these concepts to students cogently—it can’t be a barrage of details. So my brain is very busy sorting information as well as recalling and articulating it.
After class, a scrum of 5 or 6 students will gather with questions. I try to master all my students’ names (which means every day in every class some part of my brain is busily trying to remember that Miguel-in-the-hat sits in the corner while guy-in-hat in front row is Raveen). But then they come one-by-one with questions. One student has a family crisis and needs a makeup exam. I have different policies in an intro freshman survey than in an upper-level seminar course, so I recall my policy, try to find out the student’s situation, and explain the policy, which the student may not like. Usually, there’s paperwork and follow-up involved in any little situation like that, and these things come up dozens of times for every class. Another student may have a question about the content of the lecture—and on the fly I’ll recall some details about, say, Otto von Bismarck’s memoirs, to answer her question. Then another student asks for a recommendation letter. I quickly think through what I would be able to say about this student, and whether it adds up to a good enough letter, to make a decision about whether to do it—then give the student my spiel about what info they need to give me and when, so the letter will get done on time. And it goes on.
Then, oops, I have to run to my next class. Another hour and 15 minutes, this time in a higher level survey course for history majors. Maybe we’re on Ivan the Terrible this week. I don’t need as much concentration to recall and organize material in my own field, as I know it in my sleep, but I do concentrate hard on how to present it effectively. Sometimes it’s harder to think through what to present and what to leave out on a subject you know really well. I would have prepared a bunch of materials—readings and visual materials—ahead of time, so I have to recall the details of them and what I need students to take from one given set of materials for this point in the semester. Again I’m trying to master everyone’s names, respond encouragingly to their input in class, gauge how much they’re understanding, all while being articulate about the civil war Ivan waged on his own people, what evidence our knowledge is based on, and how historians argue about it, plus how to convey all that intelligibly to students who didn’t previously know anything about Ivan, while also walking them through the mechanics of being a historian—what kinds of questions we ask about primary sources, how to find the thesis in a scholarly article, etc. These things are second nature to me after years of training and teaching, but it’s a lot of mental effort to bring the right information to the fore at the right time, in a way that’s clear to students.
After the usual swarm of student questions and all the separate recall issues that brings up, it’s lunch time. Except I have a meeting. Perhaps I spend the next hour and a half discussing the college’s general education requirements, and how we will implement changes in, say, lab requirements. I don’t have any idea how labs even work, so I need to learn new things, process that with the goals of my committee and what we did last time, which was probably at least a month ago. And then think through my chaotic schedule over the next few months to see how I’ll fit in the ongoing committee work.
Then—class time again! Now it’s a master’s-level class on the collapse of the Soviet Union. Students read 3 or so scholarly articles on some topic. I haven’t had a chance to look over them before class, so I’m recalling what I read months or years ago, synthesizing it with my knowledge of related historiography, while devoting most of my concentration to listening to what students are saying—which is often not quite coherent yet, so this requires very close listening—and managing the discussion—keeping it on track, helping students to articulate their points and make connections between each others’ points, and keeping the discussion grounded in the evidence from the readings. This is slightly less exhausting than lecturing, just because I can sit and don’t have to talk nearly non-stop, but it’s very taxing mentally. It’s also been a long day already, and I’ve mentally played hop-scotch through three totally unrelated centuries of history. After the grad class there are usually fewer logistical student problems to wade through, but I’ll often get asked really good, nuanced questions about the material. This is great fun, but again, mentally exhausting.
On my way back to my office, I’ll start mentally going through the rest of my to-do list for the day. I need to prep materials (handouts, going over readings, preparing illustrations or examples) for the next day’s classes, I need to write a recommendation letter, I need to see about rescheduling a midterm and contact the affected students, I need to ask the department secretary about proctoring the rescheduled exam, I need to contact the student whose paper was an ungradeable mess and ask him to come see me about possibly failing the course, which I dread doing. I need to submit a proposal for a conference that’s due that day, putting my head in a whole other mental space the requires the recall of vast detail of still another unrelated subject, which I don’t yet know well. But I get to my office and my email inbox is already full: more student problems, requests, questions. By the time I wade through them all, I have to go pick up my daughter from school. A quick chat with two or three colleagues on my way out—perhaps I update one on what happened in the committee meeting, I hear from another about some other department issue, and have to think through how it applies to me, maybe my chair asks for a form I forgot to fill out. More mental gymnastics, leaping from one unrelated world of knowledge to another.
My brain shifts back to mermaids and dinosaurs while I pick up my daughter and feed her supper. I may get to see my husband in passing, but I doubt the kiddo will let us exchange many words that aren’t mermaid-related. Then the frantic bedtime period of wrestling kiddo into pajamas, reading stories. She’s finally out, and then I can begin to think about the rest of that to-do list I never got to. The proposal must go out, so I finish it, my mind feeling like it’s been through a tumble dryer at this point. But I still have to throw together an assignment sheet for the primary source essays in one class, not forgetting anything because if I do forget, I’ll get a pile of awful papers and not know what to do about it. Then I need to look for portraits of Ivan the Terrible for a class session about his legacy. I stumble into bed much too late, then can’t sleep because I can’t turn off my spinning brain, which keeps churning up tasks I forgot to do.
Then, the next day, my “off” non-teaching day, I’ll hope to spend all of it immersed in an entirely other detail-rich subject that I am just beginning to master well enough to write on it, but chances are an hour will be swallowed up by student emails, another hour by a last-minute funding application, plus I have to do that form I forgot yesterday and go over the readings for the grad class (burying myself in yet another completely unrelated but detail-rich subject I need to be able to explain effectively at a high level of complexity).
And so it goes on, day after day. Breaks and summers aren’t “off” time—I almost want to cry when people say that—they’re time to catch up on everything that couldn’t get done during the semester, though they are slightly less frantic in that I can group my tasks in ways that require less mental gymnastics.
It’s not that professors work harder than anyone else—though I do think most of us work as hard as anybody!—it’s that there’s an unusually high amount of variety, detail, conceptual complexity, and newness (all at the same time!) to the kind of knowledge we have to have swimming around our heads in a given day, with a lot of switching from one mental world to another moment by moment and hour by hour. Because our job is actually explicitly defined as three separate jobs—teaching, research, and service. So yes, sometimes I’m lucky if I can remember my own name. I memorize my students’ names, but one semester later I may barely recognize their faces let alone recall their names, because I’ve had to get to know a whole new set of students in the meantime.
There are a lot of things I don’t do well, and things I can’t do at all because I just can’t fit it in. But I can explain the differences between a dozen different kinds of socialism, theoretical and practical, in the same day I tell a cool story about how Rasputin brought down the Russian empire that forces students to ask important questions about the role of personality in history, the same day that I take a roomful of people who can’t make out a given text and send them out an hour later with an accurate understanding and an articulate response of their own to it, while also maintaining my original research project and contributing to the running of my college. That is not harder than a lot of other things people do, and I’m not trying to argue that it is. Faculty have a lot of advantages, too, most notably a partially flexible schedule, usually a fair amount of independence/authority, and very few physical or social demands—let alone a dress code. But the kind of work we do does leave very little active RAM space in any given moment.
this article arguing that while the attention being paid lately—most notably by the President in his State of the Union—on expanding Pre-K and making college more accessible are laudable education reforms, if you look at the statistics, the area in which we’re actually failing most egregiously is high school, and no one’s talking about it. I shared this article on facebook and some of my friends quite rightly pointed out that the article doesn’t actually offer concrete solutions. It may be that for personal reasons I’ve spent far too much of my life thinking about this subject (approximately since I started high school!), but I can think of 10 obvious practical solutions off the top of my head, none of which should be expensive (they should save money in the long run, at least), and none of which are insurmountably difficult in practical terms. Sadly, the real obstacle in my opinion is a cultural/political unwillingness to consider big structural changes in education, no matter how many decades continue to go by in which we’re patently experiencing a “crisis” of our educational system.Today I read
1. Fire Arne Duncan.
2. Expand play-based/experiential learning upward into higher grades.
3. Copy schools and methods that are working, wherever we find them.
4. Use the charter system to set up folk high schools.
5. Independent community-based entities can offer sports, arts, and social activities outside of school.
6. Drop testing, make assessment qualitative, and track individual students over time.
7. Raise standards for moving up a grade, and for getting into college.
8. Integrate classroom learning with other public institutions more closely.
9. Teaching is a great way of learning, so address over-extended classrooms with mentoring top-to-bottom
10. Extend the mentoring idea for teachers, too.
At bottom, the obvious concrete solution to offer here is simply to say that there are already schools in this country and elsewhere who have solved these problems. What we need to do is pay attention to what is working and apply it more broadly. And we have a huge bureaucratic apparatus with a mission to do that, and rather more usefully we have many thousands of experienced and proven teachers who know how to do it. What is required is the decision-making to set it in motion, and—equally important—broad popular support to drive it along.
Which is why my first suggestion is:
1. Fire Arne Duncan.
The Secretary of Education, of all people, should be advocating evidence-based rational policy changes, and this man is doing the opposite, in my totally-not-humble opinion. His continued support for testing and simple-minded “race to get scarce funding based on your success on completely arbitrary criteria” guiding strategy is as destructive as it is nonsensical. Okay, that’s my most controversial suggestion out of the way. In addition to more articles like the Slate one I linked above—which, for all its lack of practical solutions does raise public consciousness and that’s important—here are 9 other concrete suggestions that shouldn’t even be debatable. In no particular order.
2. Expand play-based/experiential learning upward into higher grades.
Our elementary schools are for the most part quite effective by international standards. This should tell us that that’s an area where we’re doing some things right (despite our huge and diverse population, massive income inequality, and messy federated structure, which do set us apart from most of our international rivals). There’s plenty of research on which schools are doing what to produce those quite solid results. One of the major revolutions in early childhood education of the last few decades is usually known as play-based learning. There are many variations of the model, which is perhaps best known under the terms Montessori or Waldorf, but even many typical public schools apply the basic principles. In this model, learning occurs in a real-world context, and hands-on manipulation of the real-world environment is integrated with more abstract knowledge acquisition and skill-building. Right now, most schools that take this approach as a cornerstone of the curriculum do so for students no higher than the third grade. But there’s no reason the principles can’t be applied throughout a student’s school career. The kind of work and play being done would vary, of course, as students get older, but it should be based on the same pedagogical principles—you can play pirates and make a “ship” in 1st grade, and you can put on a completely student-made play in 4th grade, you can write, edit, and publish a print book in 10th grade and produce a respectable documentary film in 12th grade. In fact, it’s widely accepted in education that “experiential learning” (as it is called for older students) continues to get the best results even at the university level.
3. Copy schools and methods that are working, wherever we find them.
I’ve already said this is the guiding notion behind my whole list, but I want to point out specifically that there are individual charter schools, public schools, and longstanding independent innovators in education like the University of Chicago Lab School that have solved these problems (moment of irony: Arne Duncan is a product of the Lab School–so they’re not always successful 😉 ). It’s absurd to ignore them, especially since the real edge they have is their ideas, not their funding (there are far better funded schools that achieve nothing special). There are also very effective methods such as the writing program developed by Columbia University’s Teacher’s College that are being gradually adapted in some public schools. This can be done more broadly, and more rapidly. I’m particularly fond of this writing program, and not just because the teaching of writing is one of my special interests. When writing is taught in-class as a full process from early drafting to polishing, you not only get better writing, but you avoid the whole plagiarism problem.
4. Use the charter system to set up folk high schools.
Another idea worth copying, that I mention here because I happen to know about it, comes (in my personal experience of it) from Norway. Throughout Norway there are institutions known as folk high schools that exist separately from the public school system (with, I believe, some public funding). Each folk high school focuses on one or more kinds of subjects that aren’t or can’t be done in any depth in the public schools. There are folk high schools for music, theater, technical subjects, photography, etc. Students who have unusual talents or simply who aren’t succeeding in the standard program can go to a folk high school for a year. They still have to finish the standard curriculum in a public school, but the folk high schools provide productive, educational, and useful alternative environments that supplement regular schooling, and fill the many gaps that American kids often fall into. (A quick google search has told me these are common around northern Europe, at least.)
5. Independent community-based entities can offer sports, arts, and social activities outside of school.
Again, I’ve seen this personally in Norway, but it is in fact the standard that is taken for granted in almost all of the rest of the industrialized world. Revolutionary as the concept sounds for Americans, school is actually for learning. I completely agree with most people that a well-rounded childhood and youth should include other kinds of activities besides school, but there’s no reason under the sun that these activities have to happen in school, where it distracts from and (in my experience and according to the article linked at the top of this post) even supersedes real academic work. Also, that way coaches can be coaches and history teachers can be trained history teachers! We already have YMCAs that do some of this, which could be expanded. In every community: build one crack team in a popular sport that can beat an established public-school team, and it would expand from there.
6. Drop testing, make assessment qualitative, and track individual students over time.
It is not possible to assess student learning (or teacher effectiveness) by tracking aggregate test scores of the school. Even though we’ve been doing this—and funneling huge amounts of public funds into private testing companies while we do it—what we actually measure with the test scores is the range of population any given school happens to get (which we already knew). To actually find out how much students are learning, you have to assess a given student at one point in time, attempt to teach them something, and then assess that same student again (which, by the way, is what grades and prose reports are always meant to have done, and could be doing now, if done properly). And then when you’ve done that, you have to remember you just assessed student learning, not teacher effectiveness, since the most effective teacher in the world only brings the horse to water; she can’t make it drink. This should all be obvious, but it has nevertheless gone straight over the heads of our government and most of the public for more than a decade. During that time, we’ve filled virtually all our students’ class time with preparation for a literally meaningless test. I have been teaching college students since 2000, and I have watched with each year how their vocabularies, basic knowledge, and basic skills have steadily dropped year by year. What we’ve collectively done to this generation of students is a tragedy. We must stop it now. (And while we’re at it, I’d strongly support an inquiry into how it got started, and who exactly owns the testing companies that all the money is going to.)
7. Raise standards for moving up a grade, and for getting into college.
It may seem counter-intuitive to raise college entrance standards if we accept the goal of getting more students into college–and I do accept that basic goal, with the qualification that 4-year liberal arts programs do not benefit everyone, or they wouldn’t if everyone was getting a proper high school education first. However, we do students no favors if we let them into a program that they are not remotely equipped to handle. The results of this wrong-headed strategy show in the poor retention rates of community colleges and the public 4-year colleges like my own that cater to large numbers of first-generation college students (references for this are in the Slate article I linked at top, so I’m not re-creating them here). There’s no point in getting every American into college if we’ve also set them up to fail there. At every stage of schooling students need to be qualitatively assessed as individuals to ensure that they are ready to move on to the next level. There is no real long-term cost to staying back a year. There is enormous cost, which we are already paying, in sending students through the system even when they haven’t learned anything.
8. Integrate classroom learning with other public institutions more closely.
Following on the idea of experiential learning in general, there’s an enormous missed opportunity in the relatively wide gap between our public schools and other public institutions. Sure, school kids go to museums, but so much more could be done. Rather than follow a guide around a museum in a bored, restless clump, kids should become part of designing, building, and exhibiting museum collections (this is already done in wonderful museums all across the country—but it could be done on a much larger scale). Similarly, while school libraries are great and important, middle- and high school students should be brought into public libraries and archives to learn the incredibly vital 21st century skills of data collection and data management. As just one example, a class might be given interactive assignments to read and create meta-data, and in the process they would be tackling the enormous backlog most major libraries have of uncatalogued collections—not to mention how students could become part of building and indexing the Digital Public Library of America (I’m sure, by the way, that that project is already working with kids, but it should become systematic, universal, and a national priority). There are infinite possibilities—how about a national contest for high school accounting students to solve post office budget problems? I bet they could do it. Wouldn’t it be amazing for 6th-graders to be invited into a state representative’s office to help him read and sort mail from constituents? They could do it, the task has real-world value, and they would learn about the real nuts and bolts of governance. How about math and science students working with their local fire department and learning real-world forensic skills? Using math to solve traffic tie-ups? Many of our public institutions are finding it difficult to reach the public, while our students are sitting at desks all day staring at the wall while their teachers talk at them. There’s a way to make everybody happy. We already pull off very effective science fairs, from which we’ve seen amazing innovations in recent years. That wonderful idea could be expanded into every area of schoolwork, and integrated into existing institutions, where student needs could serve real communities at the same time. And I don’t mean occasional events (which already happen). I mean that instead of defining the curriculum around the next standardized test, the whole curriculum of a given school be designed with input from local institutions, with integrated activities throughout the year and as part of core graded assignments.
9. Teaching is a great way of learning, so address over-extended classrooms with mentoring top-to-bottom
Teacher, teacher assistant, student teacher…why can’t we add student TAs from a higher grade, who come back to a younger classroom for an hour a week (each) to tutor students in small groups? How about mentors within grades, where older students are paired with younger students for given projects? Assignments in which a student doesn’t just present a book report to the class, but teaches a lesson in a more structured way? This, too, could become systematic rather than an occasional event. Many of the other ideas I’ve mentioned here may seem impractical in classrooms where there’s one teacher and 30 students. But a dense mentorship system could resolve that, and it benefits both the mentor and the mentee.
10. Extend the mentoring idea for teachers, too.
Many years ago I briefly volunteered some time to help staff a program in Chicago called “Principal for a Day.” City leaders, especially business leaders, were asked to visit a Chicago public school for a day, on the assumption that it would be the beginning of an ongoing relationship. It was a good idea that worked well in most cases (though is is sadly now discontinued). There are other programs that in various ways draw public engagement into schools. That’s all great. But I would also like to see the leaders of the schools we know that are working, and the faculty of our great teacher’s colleges, being partnered up with more troubled schools, as a way of disseminating ideas that work. I know not every relationship would work out (and that a limited version of this exists here and there) but it’s a relatively simple and cheap way of getting good ideas moving around more rapidly through the system. Similarly, college instructors like myself should be invited into high school classrooms to share what the expectations for college really are. I’d love to do this, and it would count toward the service requirement asked of me by my employer—but I’ve never been asked, and I don’t know anyone who has been asked. There are great programs where college faculty teach summer classes for high school students, and/or high school students visit college campuses (we have such a program at my college), but as I understand it, the total number of students involved is still pretty small, and it’s mostly the most successful students–who are already likely to qualify for college–who benefit. What about the smart 3rd grader who could qualify for college if she had any idea what was involved and found out early enough to do something about it? Good teachers do talk about these things in their classrooms, but it could be reinforced through an ongoing relationship with local college faculty.
Update: What we are actually doing, of course, is exactly the worst possible thing we could do. Write your representatives, and your school districts!
1. Know why you’re reading it.
If it was assigned, look at where you are on the syllabus and ask how this text fits into the goals of the course and the topic for this date. If it’s for your own research project, remind yourself why you chose this source: how is it relevant to your project?
2. Look for the main idea.
In a scholarly book, you’ll find the main point in the introduction (sometimes the preface or first chapter). In a scholarly article, it is in the introduction, usually towards the end. However, a more fully articulated version of the main argument is usually in the conclusion of a book or article. Look at both. When you find the main thesis stated, don’t just underline it, think about it. Does it make full sense to you yet? Do you have doubts about it? (Write those down.) In what specific ways does it help to serve the purpose that you identified in step 1, for the course or your own research project?
3. Find out what the argument is based on.
Look to the preface, introduction, conclusion, bibliography and footnotes to find out what kind of sources the author used. Finding out who the author is and the basis for his/her expertise on the subject may also be relevant (but if the author is simply a history professor somewhere, that’s often the end of the story – there isn’t always a lot of information to get from this).
4. Look at scope and organization.
How did the author limit the material being covered? There is usually a limit to the time period and geographical region involved, often stated right in the title. You should also look through the table of contents, and check the introduction to see if the author gave a more detailed outline there of what would be covered where (they often also say why). This tells you, first, how much of the work is directly relevant to your project, second, whether the author’s own goals make sense (did s/he exclude something that seems relevant? Can you find out why?), and, third, how to prioritize what you read next.
5. Take a breath, and then — read.
Think about what you’ve discovered so far, reassess your thinking about the value of this source and how it might help you in your own project. That should tell you what parts of the rest of the text you should read first (there’s no obligation to read in order, though that often will be a sensible route), and most importantly, it will tell you what you’re looking for as you read. It might be helpful to write out some questions/thoughts that have occurred to you so far — such as, “why didn’t the author cover X?” “something about Y sounds fishy so far.” “Can I use Z as support for my claim in my paper?” If you are reading for a class discussion, you might just hunt around for answers to these questions for now. If you plan to use this source in your own writing, now is the time to read it thoroughly to make sure you understand it fully and don’t miss important nuances, qualifications, etc.
-You want to stay in school.
-You’re afraid of the job market.
-You don’t know what else to do.
-You’re really smart and do well in school, so you should prove that by going as far as you can go.
-A graduate degree is required for the career path you’re aiming for, and you’ve researched it all thoroughly, including talking to people who hold the kind of job you want.
-You have specific research interests: there are significant questions that you want to answer, that with a little training you will be capable of answering, and that you can do at least as well, if not better, than anyone else at answering these questions.
(Note: This is a good reason for grad school with all other things being equal. However, given the current state of the academic/research job market and research funding, you must carefully research your specific field to rationally assess the chances that you’ll be able to get into a grad program and find a research position afterward)
-You have the means to pay for a program without debt, and you’re really interested in a given subject.
These are some checks you should do before turning in any take-home essay exam for a history class. If you have any ambition to do well, you should be at the point where you think you’ve “finished” AT LEAST 24 hours (preferably several days) before the deadline, and then look at this checklist.
1. Did you do the reading for the course, and show up every day or nearly so?
Of course it’s too late now to fix this, but if the answer to that was “no,” re-calibrate your expectations for this exam right now. If you do well, it will be through sheer luck. (You might want to remember this experience next time…)
2. Look at your exam paper. Look at it next to any printed text — like your textbook, for example. Does the font on your exam look huge?
Guess what — it’s going to look huge to the person who grades it, too. And when the person grading a big stack of papers comes across one with a gigantic font, they sigh. They know they’re about to read something thrown together by someone struggling desperately to fill the space. I hope that’s not the case with your exam, but in a huge font, that’s what it’s going to look like. So make it a normal font. Times New Roman always works. An exam is not a time to be creative with fonts.
3. Now that your exam is in a normal font — does it reach the page length requirements you were given?
No? Well, guess what. If you wrote half as much as was asked for, the best you can hope for is half credit (even assuming everything you did write is solid gold!!). And half credit isn’t a passing grade.
Write more. And make it good.
Okay, now you have enough words. Now, worry about what kind of words they are.
4. Did you answer the question directly, and fully?
Read over the question again, and your answer. Did you stick to the point? Did you answer all the parts of the question? If there’s any part of the question that you dismissed as “impossible,” or for any other reason didn’t answer? You must answer it if you hope to get anything like full credit. I can guarantee you that in any class of 30 students, at least 5 are going to answer this same question thoroughly, in all its parts, incorporating course readings and their own original analysis. Those people will get As. You can be one of them, but you have to stop thinking it’s “impossible” and just do it.
5. Did you answer the question accurately?
Did you check all your facts and dates? And did you look them up in your course materials, NOT Google?
If there’s something in an exam that you don’t recognize, and you can’t find it in your course materials (the index in the back of a textbook is the first place to start, if you have one), then you might try Wikipedia just to get yourself enough information to know where to find the term in your lecture notes or other readings. But BEWARE OF WIKIPEDIA. Make sure you’re looking at the right entry, for starters. Wikipedia will often have many different people or events with the same name, so you need to make sure you’re looking at the one that’s relevant for your course. If you’re in “Hist 110, Russia since 1855” and the guy you’re looking up was a monk who lived in the 1700s, you probably have the wrong guy (yes, this is an actual mistake I’ve seen!).
Once you know you looked up the right term in Wikipedia, read the entry just to find out enough about the term to know where it was covered in lecture or the course readings. DO NOT USE WIKIPEDIA IN YOUR EXAM ANSWER! Even assuming Wikipedia gives you accurate information (it doesn’t always), and assuming you cite it (if you don’t, you’re plagiarizing and deserve an F in the course at best), Wikipedia still isn’t likely to help you. It’s a general reference work, and the answer you should be giving in a history essay exam should be a lot more than general reference information. Your answer is supposed to demonstrate your mastery of the readings and your analytical thinking about historical concepts. Wikipedia gives you neither of those things.
Instead of Wikipedia, find the term you don’t know in your course readings and lecture notes. Obviously, if you haven’t done the readings or been to all the lectures, you’re now in trouble. This is why we tell you to do the readings and go to class. You cannot expect a respectable grade if you don’t do those things.
But let’s say you have, and you find the terms that confuse you in your notes, and one or two of the readings. DO NOT REGURGITATE! Do not, in other words, just put what you found straight into your exam essay — for one thing, you should cite anything you quote or paraphrase from another source. For another, your exam is supposed to be almost entirely your own words and ideas (the occasional quote is fine, but a quote salad is NOT!)
Instead of regurgitating course materials onto the page, slow down. Read the materials carefully, and think about them. Re-read the question, and think about how the two are connected. Brainstorm how you want to answer the question — you might make some lists, draw pictures, talk it through with your cat. Whatever. Just sort through the material in your own way, thinking about what it means, what questions you have about it, and how you can answer those questions. Mull it over, and try it a few different ways. Then write it up into a nice essay. That’s what A and B students do.
The difference between B students and A students is that A students don’t just think through the material and arrange logical and accurate answers in their own way — A students also contribute substantive ideas of their own that demonstrate original critical thinking. It doesn’t have to be original in the sense that no one else has ever thought of it before. It’s original in the sense that the student independently brought their own ideas to the course material and synthesized the two in some meaningful way. They didn’t just pose interesting new questions about the material and its significance, but they made a thorough, thoughtful stab at answering them, too.
The following are NOT examples of a student’s original contribution:
Topic X is important because a lot of people talk about it.
Topic X matters because it’s the main subject of our course.
Topic X is really cool.
I’ve always been really into topic X.
I really learned a lot about topic X from this course.
If you’ve got statements like this in your essay, just take them out. Every word in your essays should be adding value — if you’re just re-stating information that’s already in the question, or stating the obvious, then delete it. If you’re just stating your personal preference, delete it. There’s a big difference between personal preference (“I like / don’t like X”) and your independent thinking (“When Trotsky argues that the ends justify the means, it seems to me like he’s assuming the ends are predictable, but they aren’t.”)
Okay. Now you’ve got full, accurate, substantive answers. Are you done? No.
6. Now it’s time to check your spelling and grammar.
This does not mean running the spellcheck and grammar check in MS Word. Neither are reliable.
And yes, this stuff does matter, even if your answers are brilliant. Because you may not get credit for your brilliance if the person grading you can’t tell what the heck you’re talking about because your spelling and grammar are all over the map.
Also, what do you think it looks like to your grader if you complete a whole essay exam on Imperial Russian history and you can’t spell “Tsar” correctly? (“Czar” is less preferable, but acceptable – “Tzar” is just wrong.) It looks like you’re sloppy, semi-literate, and/or just don’t care. That may not be the case, but that’s how you’re presenting yourself. For the same reason that you shouldn’t go to a job interview wearing shorts and flip-flops (no matter how brilliant and qualified you might be), you shouldn’t turn in any assignment for school or work with ANY spelling or grammar mistakes. It makes you look like an idiot. And you’re not an idiot, so make sure people know that.
To spell correctly, you need to regularly use an actual dictionary, not an in-built software spellchecker. While you’re at it, make sure you’re spelling your instructor’s name correctly on your exam. It’s disrespectful to not bother to check to get someone’s name right. Don’t start your exam by disrespecting the person grading it!
If you have trouble with grammar, you should be working with a writing tutor (most campuses have a writing center for this purpose). There are also a bunch of good books you can get to help you work on grammar and clarity. But the best thing you can do to improve your grammar — and a host of other skills — is to read a lot. Actual books, too, not just magazines and the internet. Read a variety of things, and think about the words.
When checking an essay before turning it in, read it out loud. Don’t read what you think it says, but read it exactly as it is on the page — this will often make you notice typos, fragmented sentences, and other problems that you didn’t notice before.
7. Turn it in in the right place, in the right format.
If your prof asked for a hardcopy, turn in a hardcopy. If your prof asked for an electronic copy, turn in an electronic copy. If your prof asked for both, turn in both. Are you sensing a pattern here? Follow instructions. Always. Honestly, if you show up and follow instructions when told to, you’ve already mastered 80% of success in life. Just do it. If your prof specifies a particular format for an electronic submission, be sure to get it right. If you don’t know how to upload to course software, now is the time to learn — you’ll inevitably have to do it more often later, so practice now. If a hardcopy, make sure you staple it. If you leave a hardcopy somewhere — an office, a mailbox — make sure it has your name, the prof’s name, and the course name all prominently on it, so it doesn’t get lost. If it’s an electronic submission, make sure it has a sensible file name, something like your last name plus the assignment title. Naming your file “Paper.doc” makes you look careless (and is also a good way to accidentally overwrite the paper you haven’t turned in yet for one class with a paper for another class…). If you submit your paper by upload, make sure you view your file after it’s uploaded to make sure it’s really there, and didn’t get turned into gibberish by the system. It is your responsibility to safely get your work to your grader — so double-check that you did it right! There’s no excuse for submitting a file in an unreadable format — in fact, if you do so, it’s likely your grader will think you have no paper at all and are trying to pull the wool over their eyes (since this is a sadly common tactic).
8. Now that you’ve turned it in, DON’T sit and hope for a great grade.
The grade you get is not a matter of hoping. Or praying. Or wishful thinking of any kind. It’s also not a judgment of how much, or how little, your professor likes you. It’s simply an assessment of how the work you turned in compared to that your classmates turned in. If you know the material and reflected that knowledge on paper, with your own original, thorough, specific reasoning, then you should do very well. If you know you didn’t do all the reading, you didn’t put much effort into your writing, and/or you didn’t really think about what you wrote down, then you don’t deserve to do well, and if you do get a decent grade, it will be a matter of sheer undeserved luck that won’t really feel good anyway (and deep inside you know that). Take responsibility. If it didn’t work out this semester, start fresh next time. You can do it.
If you have uttered this phrase to an authority figure at college, you have already hopelessly screwed up your chances. You’re doing everything wrong. I mean it: there’s no way to lighten up this message. You screwed up. I’m sorry.
It’s unfortunately already long past time to back way up and adjust your thinking, and your strategies.
Yes, I know what you’re going to say: you REALLY need an A. Without it, you’ll be put on academic probation, or lose your scholarship, or your internship, or your chances for grad school. I know that the stakes might be very high.
But here’s the thing. Once you’ve reached the point where one grade in one class will entirely make the difference in any of those high-stakes scenarios, you have already had a problem for a very long time — through different courses, with different professors, with different things going on in your life. And that is your responsibility. So right now it may be time to face the worst case scenario. No one owes you an A.
In fact, no one is ethically allowed you give you an A no matter how much they might want to, unless you earned it. Only you can earn the A. It’s entirely about you, and the choices you make.
An A simply indicates that you have demonstrated certain skills and knowledge to a degree generally recognized as exceptional as compare to your peers. Someone among your peers is getting that A, and therefore demonstrating those skills and knowledge at an exceptional level. It’s unfair to that person to give you an A for doing less than they did. It’s also unethical. When you ask for an A, you are asking someone in authority to do something unethical for you. You are asking that they do something totally unfair to your classmates, both those whose earned As would mean less, and those who don’t get the same unfair advantage you’re asking for. Think about that for a minute.
It also doesn’t ultimately help you. Because the only point of grades is to tell some future employer or admissions committee that you know certain things, and can do certain things. If you fake it with grades you didn’t earn, sooner or later in a job or grad school it will become obvious that you don’t actually have the knowledge or skills to do what is asked of you. You’ll fail then, and it’ll hurt even more then, and you’ll have wasted more of your time.
Okay, okay, I know what you’re going to say — some classes are just hoops you have to get through, and you’ll never need what those classes are teaching. That may not be as true as you think. It’s at least worth asking your instructor or a professional mentor in the field you hope to be in about the specific ways a course might be useful. But I’ll concede that in some cases there might be such a thing as a useless hoop. I would point out that learning for its own sake — because knowledge makes your life richer — it always worthwhile, but I’ll also concede that I can’t make you care about that. I might also point out that perhaps the most important professional skill of all is learning how to show up, follow instructions, and follow through on the tasks given to you, and by definition that’s what you’re not practicing here. But you can say this one instance is exceptional, there were circumstances beyond your control, blah blah, yadda yadda. Fine. I’m perfectly happy to believe you, I really am. So you need a class for some reason, and the content of the class will never be of use to you.
That still doesn’t entitle you to a free grade. Again: other students are doing the work, and demonstrating skills and knowledge you don’t have. They earned the A, you didn’t.
Again: if you needed that A to meet some outside goal, you should have planned ahead, and maintained a high enough average in other classes that an A isn’t necessary now.
But, you say, you paid your money for this class.
That ain’t how it works, friend. A grade is not a prize, or a product. It’s a certification of what you can do. Think of tuition like a gym membership — you can pay up, but if you don’t work out, you’re not going to lose any weight.
But, you say, you only got into this mess because a few classes went badly, and that’s only because you had a terrible prof who hated you. Please see this post about Rogue Professors and this one about Stupid Professors. I will concede that sometimes — far more rarely than you imagine, but sometimes — a prof makes your life harder for no good reason at all. But you still have to demonstrate knowledge and skills to earn a grade. Most of the time one hopes that the professor is helping you get there, directing you to what you need to know, the best ways of achieving it, and pushing you to practice valuable skills. But if the professor is not helping, you still need to do it, you just need to do more of the work yourself. That’s a bummer, but if you do it right, you’ll actually learn a lot more than you bargained for, and in the long term that’s not a bad thing. Life is not always fair.
Wait, what if the prof is just a mean grader, and you did earn an A? Well, the prof is by definition far more qualified than you to make that judgment. But I’ll concede that very rarely that is the case. But if you’re getting a C, D, or F and think you deserve an A, that’s such a huge disconnect that either a mistake was made somewhere along the line (by all means find out! Contact the prof, and if that doesn’t work, the department chair), or you’re fooling yourself (if that’s the case, you also want to find out — talk to the prof, and if you can’t, talk to another prof or the department chair). If you think you deserved an A and you got a B, calm down. It happens. The occasional lower-than-deserved grade should not affect your future as long as you have established a pattern of performing exceptionally.
Okay, so you’re ready to concede that getting an A is about what you do, not what anyone else can (or in this case can’t) do for you. So how do you get an A?
1. Go to class every day, and while you’re there, listen and take good notes
2. Do all the reading. Don’t just read, but think about what you read
3. Always. Follow. Instructions. All of them. Pay particular attention to your syllabus. It is your bible in this course. Know it well.
4. Talk to the professor. Speak up in class, ask questions when you don’t understand or things are going too quickly. And go to office hours for help. If you’re not sure you are taking “good” notes, go to office hours with your notes and ask. If you’re not sure what’s expected of you on assignments, go to office hours and ask. If terms or concepts keep coming up and you don’t get them, go to office hours and ASK.
5. Start assignments early. At least a week early for a short paper (3-5pp), and more than that for anything longer. (No, I’m dead serious. Do you want an A or not? This is what A students do.)
6. Finish a draft of any assignment at least 24 hours early. Preferably earlier than that, ask if you can show it to the professor or TA and discuss how you’re doing. If you can’t do that, take it to your campus writing center. Read some of my other posts about writing.
It is possible that you are really, truly, doing all of these things and still not getting As. This is something you should discuss with a professor you like. Go to their office hours, bring samples of the notes you take, and some assignments that you worked really hard on that didn’t get a grade you hoped for. Getting to the bottom of this problem needs to be really specific to the work you’re doing, so I can’t tell you the answer. It may be that you’re beavering away in the wrong direction — putting your energy into fruitless work and not seeing more productive ways of using your time. It may be that you’re simply misunderstanding a few key terms or concepts, without realizing it, and that’s causing you to miss the main points you’re supposed to be learning. It may be that you have persistent problems with reading comprehension, or writing, or both, and need to work with a tutor to get up to speed. It may be that you’re in over your head — that the competition in a class, a major, or even a college is just really intense. Your grades are usually given more or less in relation to how other students are performing in the same class, and it may be that you’re doing well, but a proportion of other students are just always doing better. That’s nothing to be ashamed of, though if you’re ambitious about grad school, especially, in may be an indication that you should think about whether you’re in the right field. Be careful before you change majors or even transfer schools, though — most people learn more when they’re not the smartest person in the room.
Finally, what not to do when you need an A in a class:
Do not, ever, under any circumstances, say to anyone including yourself, “I need an A in this class.” When you say that, it tells the world that you are going about the class in entirely the wrong way.
What you should be telling yourself is, “This class is a priority for me. I need to devote time and attention and effort to it.”
What you should be telling your professor is, “This class is a priority for me, but I’m worried that I don’t know how to make the best use of my effort — can you help me?”
It should go without saying (but sadly often does not) that you should be saying these things AT THE BEGINNING OF THE COURSE. After even one major formal assignment has gone by, it’s probably already too late. To get an A average for a whole course, you have to do A work throughout — that’s just math. If you bomb one early assignment, it MIGHT in some cases be possible to make it up and still reach an A average, but you would need to talk to your instructor immediately about whether that’s possible, and if so what you need to do.
There is absolutely zero point in telling anyone that you need an A when the course is almost over. Just don’t do it. It won’t get you an A, it’ll only cause whoever you say this to to lose respect for you. Just don’t.