Students: What to Do When You’re Drowning

William Blake, via Wikimedia Commons

William Blake, via Wikimedia Commons

1. Get help

If you’re drowning in your schoolwork, the last thing you should do is pretend it isn’t happening or hide. Talk to your professors. Go to the student counseling center. Talk to the dean of students. Make sure someone knows what is going on. This means you can get help if you need it, and your problem will be documented, so that professors might be able to accommodate you.

2. Don’t make the dumb mistakes

A. Something is better than nothing.

If you just never turn in a graded assignment, you get a zero. One zero may mean failing the course, or very close to it. Even if you turn in incomplete gibberish, it may get some points, which is better than zero!

B. Show up to class.

Showing up is by far the easiest thing you can do with the biggest payoff. (This is true throughout life, by the way.) Sitting in class every day means you’ll hear announcements and reminders, you’ll get hints about assignments, and you’ll get at least a passive exposure to the material. If you can’t handle anything else, you can handle this, and once you’ve done it, you may find that the assignments aren’t as hard to handle as you expected. It should go without saying that while in class you should stay awake and keep your mind on the class, not the laptop or smartphone.

C. Don’t be a jerk.

Don’t lie to your professors, don’t brown-nose, don’t whine, and don’t try to manipulate them. They have seen all these tactics before, and whether they call you on it or not, you will have alienated them. Be nice, be respectful, take responsibility for your own behavior. Those are the ways to win real goodwill.

D. Keep in touch.

Don’t just disappear. If you’re unable to come to class or turn in an assignment, tell your prof about it as soon as possible (before the date in question is infinitely better than after!!). Be honest, and take responsibility for your own inability to follow through on the class. It may be that there’s nothing your prof can do (without being unfair to other students). It may be that your prof can find a way to work around your issue, if you’re willing to do your part (such as an alternate assignment, etc). You won’t know which is true until you ask.

3. Survival Tactics

A. Read the syllabus! Frequently!

This is where all the course policies and schedule are spelled out. At the beginning of a course, make sure you have all the required readings and you know where and how to turn in assignments, and what the due dates are.

B. Skim intelligently.

If you’re overwhelmed by the readings, make an effort to figure out how to skim effectively. This is a skill. Just letting your eyes pass over the pages without taking anything in is not what I’m talking about here. Read this guide [link goes to PDF] to reading a book, and apply it to any reading assignment. Look first for clues about the main ideas (title, abstract, introduction, section headings, conclusion). Think about how the subject of the reading connects to the subject of the course, and the topic for the particular day or week for which this reading was assigned. This will tell you what aspects of the reading you should pay most attention to. Make a list of questions—What is the author trying to say? How does this add to what we’re covering in class? What is most interesting, surprising, or confusing about this reading? Then look through the reading for the answers to these questions. If this is all you manage to do, you’re probably still well ahead of the game.

C. Use a calendar.

Set up an early warning system. Google calendar or any other calendar software will allow you to set up reminder emails or alarms. Go through the syllabus at the beginning of class and put all the due dates in the calendar. Set alarms for the day you should start working on an assignment (1-2 weeks before due date, usually), the day when you should have a draft (a few days before due date), and the last few hours, when you need to proof read, and print or download. You might also look into an online to-do list, like the one built in to the google calendar, or the more complicated one at

D. Take good notes, be organized.

You need some kind of system to make sure you keep all papers related to a given course in one place, where you won’t lose them. Create a system for your notes, too. Take them in a notebook so you can’t lose pages. Use margins to insert subject headings or comments about the relative importance of a given passage of notes (for example, write in the margin, “for exam!”)

E. Take care of yourself.

Shower. Eat. Sleep. Exercise. Block out a reasonable period of each day to relax (preferably after working), and stick to it.

F. Avoid Wikipedia.

If you don’t know the answer to a question, the last thing you should do is google it or look to Wikipedia. Even assuming these sources will give you accurate information (and they don’t always), the information will be organized for different purposes, with different emphases. Always start with the materials that are required for the course. If course books have an index, start there. Look through headings and sub-headings in the required readings. Look at the topics on the schedule in the syllabus to see where each reading falls, to tell you what it relates to. Look through your notes from class.

G. Plagiarism is never the answer.

Plagiarized papers are never good papers, even if the plagiarism isn’t caught. Students never believe me about this, but it’s true. A good paper reflects (thoughtfully!) the questions and problems that the class covered. A plagiarized paper is almost never a direct answer to the assignment posed (since it came from some other context). Even purchased, custom papers are written by people who were not in the class. Even if they are experts in the field in question (they almost never are), they don’t know what the professor is really looking for, because to find that out you need to be in class. And if you plagiarize from another student in the class, the prof will see both your papers, which makes things rather obvious. To plagiarize well is possible but actually harder than simply doing the assignment in the first place.

Also, the penalty for plagiarism ranges from a zero on the assignment to an F for the course to expulsion from the school. Even assuming an inflated expectation of your potential success if the plagiarism isn’t caught, this is not worth that risk. Turning in a crappy paper may get you, say, 30-40 points out of a 100 if you truly don’t know what you’re doing but put in a minimal effort (say, no more effort than it takes to paste random lines out of wikipedia). That’s better than zero.

4. Failure can be an opportunity.

Failing at something gives you lots of information, which you can use to improve your situation. But you need to examine what happened carefully and honestly in order to take something out of it and turn yourself in a better direction. Failure may tell you that a certain subject is not for you. Nobody is good at everything; this is okay. Failure may tell you that your priorities are not lined up well with what you’re actually doing. Re-evaluate those priorities, and try to act according to them. Failure may also mean your goal is fine, but your methods are flawed. Try new methods.

5. Take a break?

This is often heresy in American educational circles, but if you’re not in a place in your life where you can put real effort into your studies, or if you do not see the value of the classes you’re taking (despite actually trying!), it may be time to take a break. Do some honest self-assessment, and come up with a realistic plan for how to come back, in case you need it. Remember that if you have loans, you’ll have to start paying them back (usually 6 months after leaving school). But if you’re not getting anything out of your classes, then you are wasting your time and money. The world will not stop turning if you don’t finish college four years after graduating from high school. It is possible (though harder!) to come back later. You don’t have to leave forever—try starting with a semester. Talk to an advisor at your college about your options.

At my college we often see students failing out on their first time around, and then coming back a few years later, after work or other outside experience. The difference is miraculous – the older students usually have perspective, motivation, maturity, and focus.

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Syllabus: History 102, Fall 2112

As a historian, when I’m following current events I almost always think about them as I imagine a historian will do a hundred or two hundred years from now. I can’t help myself, because this is just how I think, but the process also puts an interesting twist on my reading of current events. My affiliation with the study of history is far stronger than my affiliation with any political party, position, or policy. In fact, my view of the world through a historical lens probably determines a lot of my political views. In trying to understand events, I look for patterns, like anyone else, but the kinds of patterns I look for play out over decades and centuries.

Moscow in XXIII Century. Kremlin. 1914

1914 Postcard depicting 23rd-century Moscow. Via Wikimedia Commons

Thinking along these lines, I began to imagine what the syllabus might look like for a course on the modern western world (similar to a course I currently teach), when it’s taught a hundred years from now. It was an interesting exercise, not only to try to predict the future, but to think about how future historians might look back on our past and present. It would necessarily be drastically compressed in a survey course like this, so I thought about what aspects of our lifetimes would stand out.

It should go without saying (but perhaps does not) that what follows is not what I want to happen, but what seems possible or even likely given our current trajectories and what I know of how political systems, economics, and societies evolve—that is, that the only thing you can count on is constant change. I very much hope our future is actually much brighter than this. But for that to happen, we’d have to start making much better choices as a society than we’re making right now.

Here’s what I came up with, as a thinking exercise, not a recommendation!

History 102: The Western World in the 19th to 21st centuries
Fall 2112

Week 1: The Invention of Citizenship (1750-1860)
The American and French Revolutions, and the modern British constitutional monarchy. What are the origins of democracy? How was citizenship defined? Who was included in the new democracies, and who was left out? Reactions to the new ideas: reactionaries, Romantics, and revolutionaries.

Week 2: Industrialization and Cultural Revolution (1780-1900)
The origins of modernity, introduction of class warfare, the origins of environmental devastation. The rise of the middle class, decline of aristocracy and the exploitation of workers.

Week 3: Racism and Imperialism (1860-1914)
Public misapprehensions of science, racist ideologies, and the scramble to colonize the globe.

Week 4: The Wars of Ideas: Capitalism, Socialism, and Fascism in the 20th century (1860-1991)
Mass politics, ideological warfare, and state terrorism. A civilization destroys itself. The United States as the only major power left whole.

Week 5: American Dominance (1945-2001)
The expansion of the American Empire around the world. The American nuclear umbrella and the Cold War. Oil and gas at the center of global politics and security.

Week 6: Decline and Fall Part I: European Empires (1945-2008)
Decolonization, and political and economic obsolescence: Europe retreats.

Week 7: The Information Revolution Part I (1950-2050)
Microcomputing to internet to unlimited global connectivity: access to information as a global resource, and the Neoconservative backlash (ignorance as political platform).

Week 8: Decline and Fall Part II: The American Empire (2001-2090)
Deregulation and the destruction of capitalism. Cycles of global economic crashes and the contraction of the American Empire. Great War with Iran triggers American decline relative to the other Great Powers. India emerges as military superpower through technological and organizational innovation.

Week 9: Federalism and Localism (2001-2090)
European micro-economies and micro-democracies combined with the revival of the EU to regulate trade and security bring Europe back to political prominence. Late in the period the same model was adopted in parts of U.S., initiating partial recovery of prosperity.

Week 10: The Rise of the Third World (2030-2090)
Africa, East Asia, Latin America and the Middle East adopt the European model of combined federalism and localism and rise to compete with India and Europe as global super-powers. Return of the multi-polar world. War for Arctic Resources and global climate change make authoritarian Russian Empire the richest country in the world and arbiter of global energy supplies, causing political tensions with the democratic regional federations.

Week 11: The Resource Race (2050-2090)
Water shortages, famine, and climate chaos leads to civilizational wars. The collapse of the United States into social-democratic Northern States and neo-fascist Southern States. Collapse of the Russian Empire into very rich social-democratic North and authoritarian South.

Week 12: The Information Revolution Part II (2050-2090)
Rising wealth and access differences between educated and uneducated (mirrors late Industrial Revolution, except access to information rather than economic class origins is determining factor in wealth and social status). Micro-governments increasingly divided into informed and rich versus uninformed and poor, leading to violence and the break up federalist institutions around the world.

Week 12: Cataclysm (2090-2100)
The Great Demographic Catastrophe, renewed “dark age.” Mass famines, warfare, and destruction of world knowledge archives causes sharp decline in technological development.

Week 13: Renaissance Part II  (2100-present)
Reduced global population resolves environmental and resource problems. Now-smaller communities re-organize into renewed micro-economies with balanced resource distribution and equitable access to information.


Like all histories, this one leads up to the “present” as if everything that ever happened before was headed toward a happy ending on purpose. It’s very common to not only think that all of history is an upward trajectory leading to a superior present, but also that history comes to an “end” with us, and no further catastrophes will occur on the scale they once did.

One of the greatest challenges today of teaching 20th century European history is finding ways to make today’s college students understand how people in 1914 could have so stupidly allowed World War I to happen, or why everybody in Germany in 1933 didn’t just emigrate, and why seemingly “normal” people in every country in the industrialized world in the 1930s thought fascism was a good idea, or why millions of people in Russia between 1917 and 1991 continued to believe in the dream of socialism even while the Soviet government did all the things it claimed to be against.

An important lesson I think you can learn from studying history, actually, is that human beings have an infinite capacity to bury their heads in the sand and do stupid, self-destructive things rather than rationally face the reality in front of them. All of us are doing this all the time, but it’s difficult by definition to catch yourself doing it. Analogies to the past—where people like us were making the same mistakes but we now see clearly how wrong they were—can help wake us up. There are many good reasons to study history, but I think this is one of the most important ones.

What do you think history will say about us 100 years from now? What lies ahead? Please share in the comments!

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Why Is Academic Writing So Unpleasant to Read?

Most of us are trying, really we are! Image via Wikimedia Commons.

I’ll be the first to admit that many academic books and articles just aren’t a good read. Sometimes they could be much better written. Sometimes they’re as well-written as they can be, but the subject matter and purposes of the work don’t lend themselves to easy reading. Not everything can — or should — be easy. Either way, knowing some of the reasons why an academic text you may have been assigned to read is so turgid and unpleasant may ease the pain just a bit.

What follows is my short list of common assumptions about academic writing, and my own explanation for why people get that impression. Important background for this discussion is in my earlier post, What Is Academic Writing?

Academic writing is always boring, dry, formulaic, and unnecessarily complex.

It doesn’t have to be, and academics increasingly agree that it shouldn’t be. But just because something is published doesn’t mean you can rely on its being well written. In the academic world, having something truly new to say – or maybe even just something that more or less fills a gap (or even just having a famous name) – can be enough to get published, despite bad writing.

But original ideas communicated well through effective writing are still the goal.

In many cases the writing (the form) must be simple or plain, because the ideas (the content) are by definition new and complex. The ideas themselves are meant to be the source of excitement. The writing is meant to not get in the way by making these ideas less clear or harder to assimilate. Some readers don’t like this, as a matter of taste (it seems dry or formulaic), but in the academy it is inescapable.

If you’re not excited by the ideas in an academic piece, it may be that that subject is not for you, but it may also be that you don’t yet know enough about it to see why it’s so fascinating, or it may be that the author simply didn’t write clearly or directly enough to ‘let you in’ to ideas that do have inherent interest.

Academics perversely make the simple and obvious seem more complicated than it is, and refuse to recognize what everyone else knows (i.e., common sense).

The whole purpose of academia is for some people to spend time working out the really difficult questions, facing the complexity, and bringing to public attention the hardest and most hidden truths. It’s a dirty job, but someone’s got to do it.

Sometimes, it’s true, the inertia of the academic machine (not to mention the cruel tenure review process) causes common sense to get momentarily lost. But the nature of the endeavor – in which every claim is constantly questioned and judged by one’s peers – is meant to ensure that nonsense doesn’t hold up forever.

If there were no scholars (from undergraduates to the big-name professors) to ask questions and vet the information we use to build bridges, cure diseases, form public policy and define ourselves as a people, where would we be as a society?

Academic writing is a static, unchanging entity, and separate from every other kind of writing.

On the contrary, academic writing often has much in common with many kinds of journalism and other “public” writing, and the lines distinguishing one from another often blur. Moreover, standards of what academic writing ought to look like have changed over time and continue to evolve, constantly taking on influences from trends inside and outside the academy. If you start noticing the publication date of what you read, you’ll start noticing patterns — academic work written in the 1960s is different in style and form from that written in the 1980s, or the 2000s.

We might just note here that the teaching of “academic writing” is itself a relatively new phenomenon. In the not-so-distant past, becoming an insider in the academy was an option for only a few, and the fact that one had to learn the rules of how to look like an insider more or less by osmosis ensured that the ranks remained thin. Clear, effective writing was – and in some circles still is! – considered a little risky, for if just anyone could understand what academics were talking about, what would happen to their prestige?! Fortunately, this is one bit of nonsense that is on its way out.

The aim of an academic paper is to quell controversy, to prove that a certain answer is the best answer so effectively that no one will ever disagree about this issue again (and if a paper doesn’t do this, it has failed).

Though many students are taught in high school to treat argument in writing as a kind of battle-to-the-death, this is more a reflection of teachers’ need to force novice writers to find their independent opinions — so they may effectively assert and defend them in writing — than a reflection of how the academy really works or what’s actually expected of your written arguments in college and beyond.

In reality, academics are usually collegial people who respect each other’s research and conclusions, and whose main aims are to refine and expand our collective knowledge. To that end, we value controversy very highly, as a means to open up new questions and identify the gaps in current knowledge. An argument that sets out to definitively prove some absolute solution will – in most cases! – be seen for what it is, the mistake of a novice who has (presumptuously) overstepped the bounds of what can be proven. Most arguments suggest tentative conclusions, expand on conclusions made by others or quibble with aspects of others’ evidence or reasoning, or – in many cases – simply lay out some new, surprising thought or theory so as to deliberately provoke controversy, rather than resolve it.

As an undergraduate, you should (like any other scholar) aim to develop arguments that honestly reflect your reasoned judgment of the evidence. If the evidence leads you to conclude only that more evidence needs to be gathered (which cannot be gathered now, in the scope of the current project), then you may need to either redirect the focus of your project to address a problem where you can conclude something more substantive, or – if the reasons for being unable to make a conclusion are sufficiently surprising or interesting in themselves – you may simply present those reasons as the “evidence” for an open-ended thesis statement.

Academic writing is full of a bunch of meaningless jargon.

Sometimes, yes, it is. But most of the time the jargon is far from meaningless, though it may not contribute much to the clarity of the writing.

Ideally, jargon is used only when necessary, but there are times when it really is necessary. Jargon should be understood not as made-up words people use to sound smarter than they are (though occasionally it is that). Proper jargon is a form of short-hand. A term of jargon always has a very specialized definition, often for a word that is also used in different ways in other contexts, which is part of what makes it so confusing to outsiders.

Jargon by definition is understood largely by insiders, which is probably why it so often seems downright offensive. But, in highly complex conversations taking place amongst a small group of researchers on a given topic, jargon serves to sum up whole complicated parts of the conversation in one word or phrase. It’s a means of efficiently referencing long, drawn-out thought processes that the whole insider group has already been through.

For example, there’s a concept well-known in many social science and humanities circles under the term “orientalism.” Edward Said wrote an entire book to define what he meant by that term, and since then people who want to apply some part of his ideas in other contexts refer to all those interrelated ideas as “orientalism.” If you’ve never read Edward Said’s work or had the term explained to you, you couldn’t possibly know what it’s about. You can’t guess from looking at the word, and a standard dictionary won’t help you. However, this term, like some others, is so well established by now that a good specialized encyclopedia will have it listed. Even a comprehensive general encyclopedia like Wikipedia will give you an explanation, though you should remember that Wikipedia can only ever be a starting point, to orient you. It can’t give you the nuanced and specific background that you really need to understand how a term like orientalism is being used in a given scholarly work—it can only tell you where to begin to look to understand it.

Hopefully, in a reasonably well-written piece of scholarship, jargon terms will be defined somewhere in the text. But this is not true of some terms that are so widely used in so many fields of scholarship that most scholars consider them obvious, like “discourse” or “civil society,” or, increasingly, “orientalism.” If you come across undefined specialized terms like this, the first thing you need to know is not to try to find them in a dictionary. Start with encyclopedias instead, the more specialized the better. Again, Wikipedia might be a good starting point if you have no idea where else even to look. But then go back to how the term is used in the text you’re working on, and think about its specific application in this context. Find an encyclopedia specializing in the field or discipline you’re reading about. You can also look to other related readings and your professor if a given term is obviously important and you can’t figure it out. For better or worse, jargon goes with the territory of academic writing, and you can’t completely avoid it.


Okay, this isn’t a common accusation leveled at academic writers, but it should be. I learned about this endemic problem as an undergraduate student of the Little Red Schoolhouse at the University of Chicago. Once you’re aware of it, you see it everywhere. Unfortunately, I can attest that as an academic writer, being aware of the problem makes it only a little bit easier to address. Okay, I know you’re asking, what is a nominalization? It’s when a verb is made into a noun. As in, the sentence that should state “the committee members revised the bylaws” is more often written, “the revision of the bylaws was enacted by the committee members.” If you present the latter version of that sentence to an English teacher, that teacher is likely to point to the passive and “empty” verb “was enacted” as a problem. But a more direct way of assessing the problem is to note the nominalization — “revision,” a noun made out of the verb, “to revise.” When you turn a verb into a noun, you are often forced to supply some sort of empty verb, often a passive one, to fill the verb-void. Nominalizing a verb also often results in strings of ugly prepositional phrases, like, “the revision OF the bylaws BY the committee members.” So why on earth would anyone change their nice, fat action verbs into awkward nominalizations that force the whole rest of the sentence into unpleasant contortions of logic? There’s a surprisingly, depressingly, obvious explanation. When a writer knows her subject really, really well, she tends to think in terms of lists of concepts. But a reader who is NOT familiar with the subject will find it much easier to digest in a totally different form: as stories about who did what to whom and why (that is, grammatically, via substantive nouns with action verbs). The writer deeply embedded in her subject is likely to write in strings of concepts (often in the grammatical form of nominalizations) linked by empty verbs like “to be,” “to have,” “to enact,” etc., and prepositional phrases like “the yadda-yadda of the humdinger of the balderdash of the chupa-chups.” In the ideal case, the writer revises from strings of nominalized concepts into “stories” (even if abstract ones) structured into substantive nouns and action verbs. But, speaking as someone who has finished revising her first book under ridiculous time constraints and sleep deprivation (“constraint” and “deprivation” are both nominalizations), sometimes there just isn’t enough bloody time to revise as much as we would like.

(For those academic writers of any level who could use some help with the nominalization problem and more, I can’t recommend highly enough Joseph Williams’ Style: Toward Clarity and Grace.)

Academics have no sense of humor

Well, okay, I do see where this criticism is coming from. Without debating whether academics themselves have more or less humor than the general population, I will admit that academic writing generally contains little in the way of jokes or whimsy, let alone hilarity. The main reason is probably that we all want to be taken seriously by our colleagues and many of us live in fear of not getting tenure or promotion (which rests in part on our publications). A second reason is that our subject matter often doesn’t it particularly lend itself to humor (you try to make Stalinism or nuclear physics funny, why don’t you, and don’t forget to make an original contribution to the field while you do it!). And still another reason is that, again, our main focus is always clarity, since by definition our subject matter is complex and new.

That said, academic whimsy does exist and you occasionally find it in the wild. In Norman Davies’s God’s Playground: A History of Poland, Vol. II, on page 75 (1982 paperback edition) there’s a whole sentence where nearly every word begins with the letter P:

The proliferating profusion of possible political permutations among the pullulating peoples and parties of the Polish provinces in this period palpably prevented the propagation of permanent pacts between potential partners.

LOL. Okay, let me catch my breath. No, really, that was hilarious, was it not? Admit it, you laughed.

In sum:

There are a lot of reasons why academic prose may not be exactly scintillating. It may actually just be badly written, whether because the writer didn’t consider style important, or because the writer never had training in good writing, which most scholars didn’t systematically get until very recently. Or it may just be about a subject you can’t stand, and this aversion makes it harder for you to follow complex prose. The text may depend on a lot of jargon (necessarily or not). It may have been written with a very tiny audience in mind, of which you are not (yet) a member, so there may be assumptions to which you are not (yet) privy (though you can ask your instructor for help). It may, in rare cases, even be badly written on purpose, to “sound smart.” Figuring out, if possible, which of these is the case in a given instance may help you to wade your way through. Regularly consulting dictionaries and encyclopedias to expand your vocabularies is not only necessary, but part of the point — if you understood everything you read in college, you wouldn’t be challenging yourself, and you wouldn’t be learning, now would you? In any case, none of these reasons can serve as a good excuse for you to write badly, insofar as you can avoid it. Aim higher!

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What is Academic Writing?

Bundesarchiv B 145 Bild-F001323-0008, Bonn, Münsterschule

This is not what we mean by academic writing. Bundesarchiv B 145 Bild-F001323-0008, via Wikimedia Commons.

An academic essay is best defined by the PURPOSE that distinguishes it from other kinds of non-fiction writing:

It aims to identify and resolve complex problems in relation to ongoing discussions among fellow thinkers about the most difficult or abstract human issues.

In every field there are scholars working to resolve debates and questions of general interest (a “field” of inquiry can be anything from “history” to “the early nineteenth-century cultural history of the Russian gentry”).

As students or scholars, our written work is intended to be a part of such ongoing debates, and our aim is not only to illuminate a very particular problem through analysis of sources and original reasoning, but also to relate that problem to similar ones other scholars are working on, so that we – as a group – may better understand our whole field of inquiry.

The complexity of our subjects requires that our writing be as simple and clear as possible, and the goal of situating our ideas in relation to a wider public discussion requires that we refer to and analyze outside sources (i.e., other writers) as an integral part of our own work.

As such, scholarly essays generally have the following FEATURES in common:

-one main problem or a cluster of related problems is identified and its significance to the field is explained

-original claims and interpretations intended to resolve the main problem are made by the author, and supported by reasoning and evidence

-secondary sources: situate the author’s problem and main claim within a public discussion, and may also serve as support for some claims

-primary sources: support the author’s claims (Note that some kinds of scholarly writing – like book reviews and many undergraduate research papers – refer only to secondary sources)

-analysis of sources, both primary and secondary, to explain, question, and explore how they can support the author’s claims

-definitions of all specialized terms so their nuances can be analyzed in detail, and so terms may be reliably used in the same way by other researchers, or applied or adapted as necessary in new contexts

-style and structure appropriate to the intended audience

-rules of logic, evidence, citation and intellectual property are adhered to according to convention

READERS of an academic essay are assumed to be fellow toilers in the academic endeavor to “let our knowledge grow from more to more and so be human life enriched” (Crescat Scientia, Vita Excolatur, the motto of my alma mater).

In other words, we expect our readers to be looking to our writing for:

(a) information that will enrich or enlighten their own studies and

(b) our original ideas, conclusions or interpretations that will also help to further other studies and general enlightenment.

Readers of academic essays are generally not looking for:

(a) entertainment or aesthetic gratification,

(b) simplified or summarized versions of things they already know,

(c) conclusions or plans of action without the reasoning or evidence that led to them

(d) suspense or delay in finding out what the point is (though these are all valid elements in other kinds of essays, to suit other purposes).

Therefore, the virtues of STYLE AND STRUCTURE most often looked for (though not always achieved!) in academic essays are: clarity, cohesion, and brevity.

We want to find what we’re looking for, understand it, remember it, and apply it in new contexts, as quickly and easily as possible, without losing the inherent complexity of the ideas.

In order to best fulfill these goals, the classic short academic essay has a skeleton that looks something like this:

-Introduction: context, problem, proposed resolution (=thesis, which at this point may be only generally implied or stated in broad terms that will be elaborated later)

-Body: Argument (consisting of claims, evidence, reasoning), also including definitions of terms, background information, and counter-arguments as needed to make the argument clear and accurate

-Conclusion: restatement of problem’s resolution (thesis), and re-contextualization (how does this resolution serve the greater discussion, and where do we go next?)

(The citation and analysis of sources often plays an integral role in all three major parts of an academic essay: sources can be used to contextualize as well as to support the author’s claims. Every reference to a source, whether it is directly quoted, paraphrased, or merely mentioned, must be accompanied by a citation.)

Within this formula, there is enormous room for creativity, experimentation, and even subversion of the formula.

It is important to remember, however, that the formula is what academic readers expect to see. When you give them something different for no good reason (whimsy and rebellion are not good reasons), they will be confused, and your essay will have failed to achieve its goals.

To subvert the formula you must know the formula – that is, the reader’s expectations – so well that you can predict and guide reader responses in your own directions.

Every field or sub-field of academic inquiry has its own conventions, jargon, habits and expectations. Undergraduates encounter a greater variety of conventions than most other scholars ever have to deal with on a daily basis, and almost all of it will be new to them. This is very difficult, but it helps to concentrate on the basic principles and methods common to all academic writing (as defined by the common purpose described above), with occasional side- tracks into issues of particular interest to historians. When you work in other fields, you need to look for and assimilate the conventions or assumptions peculiar to those fields, and integrate them into the general principles and methods of effective analytical writing you have already mastered.

Finally, it may also be helpful to define an academic essay by WHAT IT IS NOT:

-Writing which aims to entertain or give aesthetic gratification (fiction, poetry, memoirs or “New Yorker”-style essays) may use entirely different devices to convey meaning (such as imagery, formal complexity, foreshadowing, juxtaposition, etc), and they may emphasize expressionistic or impressionistic understanding over analytical understanding. Structures and formal elements can vary infinitely. (academic writing relies exclusively on reasoning, logic, and rules of evidence because it must be reliably understood in the same way by every reader.)

-Writing which aims only to convey information (news journalism, some professional reports, textbooks or technical writing). naturally does not usually include an argument or thesis and has no need to refer to other arguments or theses. Often the most important information is placed right at the start, with other information following in decreasing order of importance.

-Writing which aims to direct future action or justify an action (exhortatory or opinion-based journalism, grant proposals, legal briefs, certain kinds of professional research reports). In these cases, an argument is an integral part of the structure, but the goal is to convince or inspire the reader toward a specific action, rather than to contribute new information or enlightenment for its own sake. Such pieces generally begin and end with a statement of the action desired, and the body would consist of evidence or reasoning. They may or may not emphasize a critique of alternative arguments. Depending on the intended reader, they may simplify reasoning or evidence. Such works also differ from academic writing in that they are not necessarily situated as part of any larger discussion (therefore making much less use of outside sources or analysis of sources), and may require different rules of evidence or citation, or no such rules, depending on the intended audience.

-Writing which aims to tell a story based in fact ((auto)biography, memoir, narrative history, summaries of various kinds) generally eschews argument and analysis of sources, and may employ certain literary devices. Organization is usually chronological.


Coming soon: Why is academic writing so unpleasant to read?

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Rogue Professors

Okay, so you’ve read my posts about managing your expectations in college, taking responsibility for your own behavior, and understanding what grades do and do not mean. And you still think your professor is being unfair.

Ion Theodorescu-Sion, via Wikimedia Commons

Okay, it’s possible your professor is being unfair. It happens. It happens partly because failure happens in every field everywhere. And in academia a professor’s failure may happen because of the insane constraints imposed on contingent faculty or the insane workload of full-time faculty or the incredible pressures of trying to make ends meet with a faculty workload and low faculty salary (more on that soon). Whatever is the cause of the failure of an individual faculty member, let’s remember that it isn’t the tenure system.

Okay, whatever, what do you do when your prof is being unfair?

First, double-check yet again that he or she really is unfair. Re-read the syllabus, and the assignments, and all other course materials, and be honest with yourself about your work.

Okay, still unfair?

Talk to your professor. Most likely, there’s a miscommunication issue, or a simple mistake, at bottom. Typos happen, on assignment sheets and on grades. It’s not totally uncommon, and it can usually be easily remedied.

Eternally Good Advice: Always submit your work electronically as well as in hard copy, if you can. Whether by email or through course software, if you submit your work electronically it is time-stamped, proving that you did it on time. This is a good way of covering your butt in any case of confusion.

Talk to your professor respectfully, honestly and with an open mind. Be fair to yourself and to your professor.

If your professor does not respond to email, give it a week or two and then send a gentle reminder (knowing that faculty inboxes are inundated constantly with demands, most of which have more immediate deadlines than yours).

If, after directly trying to resolve any situation with your professor, you still feel that you are being treated unfairly in a way that will have serious consequences on your final grade, you can refer your complaint to the chair of the professor’s department. Again, be respectful, honest, open-minded, and fair (and if communicating via email, allow 2 weeks for response).

In extreme cases (and this is very rare), if you have a real case and you are stone-walled even by the chair of the relevant department, you can try explaining the case to the dean of students.

There are cases of real unfairness, and in those cases you absolutely should bring it to higher authorities. They really need to know if something seriously wrong is going on. Faculty can and should be held accountable for real incompetence.

But it’s also true that you are a student, and the vast majority of faculty members would not have gotten anywhere near the positions they’re in without many years of incredibly rigorous evaluation and training, so don’t take what they tell you lightly.

And in still other cases, there may be real unfairness going on, and whether or not you can get the department chair or dean to listen to you (and I certainly hope you do), it may not be worth killing yourself over. Ultimately, one grade in one class is not a matter of life and death. Do an honest evaluation of the costs and benefits to yourself of pursuing a case where you believe you have been treated unfairly. In any such case, you should always make sure someone knows what happened (with as much documentation as possible), in case there is a larger pattern at work, but once you’ve done that, it may not be worth what it costs you to pursue the matter further. The best course of action will depend very much on your individual circumstances.

I say this both as a professor who has seen many students upset and indignant over their own complete misunderstanding of basic policies that apply to everyone, and as a former student who was once or twice indignant myself over faculty behavior that felt—and may have been—very unfair. The best course of action really does depend on many factors.

Rogue professors do exist—they do—but they are not as common as your friends will tell you.

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Being Original

Many students have the mistaken assumption that having an argument or thesis means they have to prove that some professional academic who wrote a book is wrong about his own specialty (an obviously impossible task for an undergraduate writing a short paper under strict time constraints). Such students often conclude that the expectation of having an argument in every paper is ridiculous, and they give up before they’ve even started writing the paper.


By Baroness Hyde de Neuville, via Wikimedia Commons

No professor (unless they really are crazy, of course) expects you to become an expert in a subject overnight, nor to refute in a short essay ideas that were developed over years by an expert with access to all the original sources.

What they do expect is that you direct your very able and unique mind to the text and ask important, worthwhile questions. You should then explore those questions, and posit some possible answers, based on nothing more than your careful reading of the text and your reasoning.

Every book, no matter how carefully researched or how famous its author, rests on certain assumptions, is limited in scope, and is derived from some finite set of sources. Your job when asked to review or critique a work of scholarship is to examine its assumptions, limits, and use of sources, and from these to understand the goals of the work, and to assess how effectively it met its goals. Then, ask yourself what else could have been done, or should be done next, to further our collective understanding of this subject.

Once you have explored all these ideas, you ought to have come to some sort of conclusions of your own about the value of the work for various purposes, and what remains to be explored. These conclusions should be articulated as your thesis, and you will support this thesis with arguments grounded in the text to illustrate why your reading of it is fair and accurate. A critical review is not the same as a bad review.

A closely related problem that many students have is the idea that, as an author of a paper, a student has to at least pretend to know everything about the subject.

Actually, you really ought not to pretend anything, as an author (unless of course you’re writing fiction). What you should do is research and think about your topic as thoroughly as you can within the scope of a given project, and reflect that reading and thinking accurately on the page. Nothing more, and nothing less.

If comments you receive on your writing suggest to you that you are supposed to “know everything about the subject,” what it probably really means is that you did not do as much reading or as much thinking as the assignment required, or that the reading and thinking you did do somehow did not make its way onto the page. Look at your syllabus again, and/or the assignment sheet. Did you carefully read everything that was required for the assignment? Did you do everything the assignment asked of you?

In almost every case, when a student throws up her hands, saying the professor expects too much, that student did not fail to write a truly original, publishable paper. Such a paper was never expected. What is most likely is that the student simply failed to carefully understand the course materials and requirements. The latter is a perfectly reasonable expectation.

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What is Tenure?

Metternich (c. 1835-40)

If you don’t like tenure, you might be a fan of this guy. Klemens von Metternich. Portrait by anonymous, via Wikimedia Commons.

 Many people think tenure means job security. That it means that educators, unlike everyone else, can’t be fired.

This is nonsense.

Tenure does not equal job security. It does not exist in order to protect the jobs of teachers.

I could say this a thousand times, and still many people in this country would refuse to believe me, even though what I say is undeniably true here on planet reality.

That is because many people are listening to politicians who lie.

The same people tend to be cynical about politicians, but nevertheless, they choose to believe this particular lie.

It’s sometimes comforting, when times are hard, to identify someone who seems to have it better, and to hate that person.

The thing is, the people identified as scapegoats in these situations (historically speaking) tend to be people who do not, in fact, “have it better.”

So it is with teachers.

This is why tenure exists.

That link goes to a historical document, known as the Carlsbad Decrees, dating to 1819. It represents the true reason that tenure exists, and it also explains the purpose of tenure, but you may need some context to understand why.

In 1819 Europe had recently experienced some revolutionary movements. European revolutionaries at this time wanted the same basic rights of citizenship that Americans now take for granted as defining who we are as a people: freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and the right to vote for a government that is made up of representatives of the people, not of kings. In the first half of the nineteenth century, these ideas were still scary and radical in Europe. The monarchs who sat on thrones across most of Europe at that time did not want to acknowledge such rights. And many rich, powerful, landed aristocracies sure as heck didn’t want to extend voting rights to a bunch of uneducated, not-terribly-hygienic “masses.”

By “masses,” they meant my ancestors, and most likely yours.

In this climate, in the various German-speaking provinces of Europe (some of which were independent tiny principalities at this time, some of which were part of an enormous Empire ruled by Austria but made up of many peoples, from German speakers to Poles to Hungarians to Muslim Serbs), some people liked the ideas that the French and Americans were so excited about, that people have “natural” rights. But these people were ruled either directly or indirectly by an Emperor, and their Emperor was in his turn ruled by a powerful minister, Klemens von Metternich.

Metternich thought social classes (that is, ranks in society that were determined by birth: aristocracy, middle classes, working classes, peasants) were ordained by God and should not be meddled with. People who were not born to wealth and social rank should not vote because, Metternich thought, God said so. It was the natural order of things, and upsetting that order would lead to chaos. Also, Metternich himself was born to wealth and social rank (pure coincidence, I’m sure), and he liked that, and didn’t want anyone else horning in on his privileges.

Metternich, in other words, was the embodiment of everything the American Revolution fought against.

Metternich was the man behind the Carlsbad Decrees. He forced the German Confederation (a loose group of German-speaking states that Metternich dominated) to all agree to sign this document.

What does the document say?

You can, and should, read it yourself. Here’s the quick version: it is based on an assumption that universities are a hotbed of revolution (of ideas like those that founded the American Republic, in other words). Students are young and silly and get persuaded by their over-educated professors to think wild ideas. Sound familiar? It’s something we’re hearing in the news in the USA right now, in 2012. But the “wild ideas” that Metternich was so terrified of were the same ideas that ALL Americans, liberal or conservative, now hold dear, that freedom of the press, freedom of speech, and the right to vote for a representative government are the best way to go. Metternich was terrified of students learning these ideas from their professors at university. So, in the Carlsbad Decrees, he made it the law in all the signing German-speaking states that universities be watched over by a government appointee whom Metternich selected. Students would not be allowed to meet in groups. Any professor caught saying things in class that Metternich didn’t agree with, would be fired.

Sounds familiar? Yeah, it’s totally the plot of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Yeah, that’s probably not a coincidence. J.K. Rowling is an educated lady.

Tenure was created because of the Carlsbad Resolutions, and other laws like it in Europe in the decades following the French Revolution. The main idea of tenure is that professors should not be fired for disagreeing with a prevailing political view.

Professors can be fired for other things, like not doing their jobs. They can, and are, fired for not showing up to teach, for not being qualified to teach. Probably not as often as they should be, but can you honestly say that everyone in your field of work is fired as soon as anyone realizes they’re not terrific at their job? Of course you can’t. Incompetent people exist in every profession.

Tenure does not technically prevent anyone from being fired for incompetence, and protecting such people certainly isn’t its purpose. It does prevent people from getting fired for saying something that others disagree with. The tricky bit is that the line between these two things can often be grey and is almost always contentious, but it’s a VERY important line.

Why? Because the nature of education (when correctly understood as a process of exploring and learning about the world, not the way Metternich understood it as a process of making everyone think just like he did), is that professors MUST discuss ideas that not everyone will agree with. Students are not forced to agree. But they are forced to be exposed to ideas they may not agree with. This is the very definition of education.

And if a student is secure in his or her beliefs, there is nothing dangerous about this process, and much that is beneficial.

Also, not all teachers have tenure. In order to get tenure, you have to go through a process. This process varies from place to place and from level to level of teaching, but no matter where you look, that process is difficult, and more intense, I argue, than any review anyone undergoes in any other profession as a contractual part of employment.

Whoa. Think about that for moment. No one else, in any other profession, has as part of their employment contract the requirement to go through a process of scrutiny this intense. This is after all the scrutiny required to get the degrees you need to even apply for a job (for university professors, it’s the highest and most difficult degree you can get), and after the job application process. This is in addition to all that.

Usually, at the university level, the tenure process involves at least the following:

  • Recommendations from one’s peers
  • Recommendations from one’s students
  • Recommendations from one’s colleagues outside one’s own institution
  • Examples of one’s original research from prestigious, peer-reviewed presses (in my field, usually a book and at least a couple of articles)
  • Examples of one’s teaching pedagogy, through syllabi, assignments, examples of written feedback, written explanations of one’s “teaching philosophy,” etc.
  • Evidence of one’s ability to compete successfully for outside funding
  • Evidence of a substantial research plan for the future
  • Observations of one’s teaching provided by peers in the profession
  • Evidence of one’s service to the institution where one works
  • Evidence of one’s service to one’s discipline, or the profession as a whole

Do you have to do all this to keep your job after 5-7 years? Does anyone have to do this outside of education? It is unique. I’d argue that educators are more closely vetted than any other profession on earth. (Okay, except maybe spies.) We’re also uniquely underpaid, among professions that require comparable levels of education, and especially among those that do require fairly extensive ongoing training and adherence to ethical standards, like law and medicine—an interesting fact in itself, but one for another post.

But we can still be fired, after all this, in cases of demonstrable professional misconduct where academic freedom is not a complicating issue. So tenure is not job security.

What we can’t be fired for is for saying something that our bosses disagree with.

Now, that is also different from most professions.

In many corporations, or hospitals, or law firms, you can be fired if you step up and say to clients, or to patients, that they are being cheated by the institution to whom they are paying money for services, for example. (This is to the vast disadvantage of clients, and patients, if you really are being cheated, by the way.)

But universities are different. Because our job is to teach young people, we have to be able to be completely honest with them.

The students, on their part, have the right (and for heaven’s sake the DUTY!!!!) to think for themselves about what they hear from their professors. Any prof worth their salt actively encourages this. Some of us jump up and down and wave our arms, literally begging students to question what we say. Teaching students to question what we say is our whole reason for existing in this profession, and most of us feel pretty strongly about it, or we wouldn’t sacrifice so much to go into such a benighted and underpaid profession in the first place.

Tenure protects our right to say what we see and understand (and remember “we” are selected according to a uniquely rigorous process that takes five to seven years, after five to ten years of post-graduate training) is necessary, in order to expose students to all possible points of view, so that students can choose for themselves what to think.

Tenure does not protect our jobs. It protects students’ right to think for themselves.

Tenure was created to protect the right to think such “seditious” ideas as the United States was founded on.

There is nothing in the world more patriotic than the institution of tenure. Everyday, tenure protects our republic from people who want to bring back Metternich.

Anyone who tells you different is either lying to you, or too ignorant to be worth listening to on this matter.

If the person saying these things is lying, it is a good idea to imitate the best kind of college student and ask why.

Food for thought on this topic from the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Food for thought from the always great podcast of the Colonial Williamsburg museum: Thomas Jefferson’s ideas about education

Update: more food for thought: How the American University was Killed in 5 Easy Steps

A final word: I know you can name someone who has tenure and should be fired, but isn’t being fired. In those cases, the solution is to look into (a) the tenure review process — if people are getting through who shouldn’t, then the process at a given place may need to be revised and (b) what the real reason is that the person in question isn’t being fired. What may look to you like a clear case of incompetence may actually be a more grey area of differing views on effective teaching. If it IS a clear case of incompetence, there are other factors that come into play besides tenure: those whose responsibility it is to fire someone in this situation may not see it as worth their while. Just one of many reasons they may not fire someone is fear of a discrimination lawsuit, or union blowback. However you may feel about the validity of discrimination lawsuits or unions, you should separate those issues from tenure. Not. The. Same.

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What is a Historian?

Herodotus, one of the first historians. Why is it that so many historians still look like this? Strange. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

When I was in middle school, we had an assignment to research a profession we were interested in pursuing.

In order to find such a profession, we were first asked what we were interested in, and what we were good at.

For me that was easy. Even though I had never had a history class in school, I knew I loved history and was good at it. I loved everything old. I read every book that crossed my path that had to do with the past. There wasn’t a historical museum or monument that didn’t fill me with awe. I understood the past in a way I understood nothing else.

So, when I was directed to a big, multi-volume reference book about all the professions the world had to offer, I looked first for “history.”

I found an entry for “historian.” But the description that followed wasn’t at all what I expected (even though I didn’t know what to expect). There seemed to be two definitions of a historian: one was a person who taught, and the other was a person who investigated family trees (“see: genealogist”).

I knew I didn’t want to teach, because my dad was a teacher (I had to do something different, you see) and because I hated school (I loved learning, mind you, but school in my experience at that time had nothing to do with learning). So that was out.

As for the second part of the entry under “historian”? Blaech. I don’t care about other people’s family trees. That’s not what I liked about history. I was interested in big questions of how people behave and why, not in lists of names and dates.

I looked for further cross-references, and found “archaeologist.”

I fulfilled the assignment using “archaeologist” as my chosen profession, even though I didn’t really understand what this meant, other than that it seemed to involve digging things up from the past. Close enough. As part of the assignment, I had to interview a practitioner in my chosen field, so I found a real, live archaeologist at the local college who was willing to answer a few questions by letter (this was the Dark Ages before email). It turned out, this archaeologist told me, you had to study a lot of science in order to be an archaeologist.

Well, damn. I sucked at science and kind of hated it, too.

I did the assignment, but then I kind of forgot all about being a historian, because it seemed like there wasn’t really a profession that matched anything I actually wanted to do.

As it turns out, there absolutely was (and I can’t account for why it wasn’t stated explicitly in that reference book in my middle school library, except that my experience since then has shown me that remarkably few people have any idea what a historian actually is). I didn’t learn that until halfway through college, though, and I had to first get over the idea that I didn’t want to teach.

What an academic historian really does is half teaching, half research.

The teaching half is pretty obvious, since that’s the part that much of the public actually sees.

The other half was the mystery omitted from that reference book in my middle school library.

So, what does academic historical research actually look like?*

A lot of it looks like hunching over very old books and papers in a series of obscure archives. I told you I love all things that are old!

Archives are places that conserve old things of historical interest—mainly papers. Archives exist all around the world. They usually specialize in conserving unpublished materials (unlike libraries), so they tend to be full of people’s old diaries and letters, but also tax records, legal records, legislative records, and so on. Reading materials in an archive is a lot like snooping, to be honest, but you’re snooping into the lives of people who are long since dead, so you don’t have to feel too guilty.

Yeah, it’s totally awesome.

Most archives are not directly open to the general public (again, unlike libraries), because their materials are unique (since they’re unpublished, they’re usually the only copy in existence) and often delicate (because they’re old). So they can’t let just anyone paw through the collections. Sometimes, if you’re investigating your own personal history, you can get into an archive to search records with a professional archivist, who will help you select the right materials and understand what they have to tell you. (If you’ve seen the BBC TV show, “Who Do You Think You Are?” where celebrities trace their family trees, you’ve seen them helped out by archivists in this way.)

But professional historians get a different kind of access, usually through their affiliation with a university. Historians usually get to order documents more or less at will, and read them on their own (though we are often required, for example, to wear gloves so that the oils in our fingers don’t do damage to old paper, and often we can’t bring in our own pens or sometimes even laptops).

I love the smell of the old paper. I love seeing and touching something very few people have ever seen or touched. I love reading a diary from 200 years ago and seeing the ink blots, the hesitations over a word, the places where the handwriting got hurried. Even the occasional centuries-old squashed bug or water stain.

I once touched the original signature of Catherine the Great when a document was given to me by accident. I admit to being totally thrilled by this experience.

One of my favorite archival experiences so far happened in a tiny local museum in Shuia, Russia. I was studying the Chikhachev family, and I had already read thousands of pages of their letters, diaries, and other documents in the central archive for the region. I went to the tiny town of Shuia because I was told they had some books that were the sole known remains of a library founded by Andrei Ivanovich Chikhachev (he had founded the first public library in the province). The curators at the Shuia museum were incredibly kind and welcoming to me — researchers didn’t come there often, let alone a researcher from half a world away. They showed me the books. I looked at a shelf of bound copies of a periodical in which I knew Andrei often published articles, covering a number of years in which he was most active. I thought, “hm, this could be useful, I’ll be able to make sure I get all his articles from this period.” Then I started paging through, and realized these were the issues of the newspaper that Andrei and his family originally received when they were first published, which they later had bound up and then donated to the library. I saw Andrei’s handwriting in the margins, marking his articles with an excited “mine!” or just “!” and scrawling alongside other people’s articles, “exactly right!” or “I completely agree!”

The excitement of archival work comes in not knowing what you’ll find until you find it, and in reaching across time to share a moment with someone who casually wrote something down one day in, say, 1835, in, say, his study in a tiny village in central Russia, never in a million years imagining that an American historian of the 21st century would later try to mine it for clues to every aspect of the writer’s life.

It’s the closest anybody will ever get to time travel.

So, what historians do, a lot of the time, is sit for many hours, day after day, in cold archive reading rooms (they’re often kept cold on purpose because it’s better for the documents, not for the researchers!). We read other people’s diaries, and letters, we read legal cases and transcripts of legislative sessions and often we spend days or weeks or months reading much less interesting things like inventories and phone books and land registries. From all this material we work to reconstruct how life worked in the past, or how individual people lived.

At its best, this process is absolutely as wonderful and exciting as solving a murder mystery by piecing together a series of strange, quaint clues. At its worst, this process is an exhausting and pointless effort to find a needle in a haystack.

But the archives are just the starting point. Once we’ve done our primary research—reading original documents from the time period we’re studying—we need to start writing, to put together why these old documents matter, and what they have to tell us today.

In order to not repeat work that has been done before us, we read basically everything anyone else has ever said on our subject (this is secondary research), and frame our own new findings in reference to these other works.

In the end, we write up new facts and interpretations about the past, framed in terms of how our new information relates to what was already known.

Like the archival research, secondary research and writing is incredibly exciting and incredibly boring at the same time. Being at the forefront of creating new knowledge is exciting. Being creative, thinking through new problems, is fun for those of us who go in for that sort of thing. On the other hand, the daily slog of trudging through pages and pages of boring stuff, the slog of piecing it all together (it’s much like completing a 2,000,000-piece puzzle), the daily stress of keeping track of everything, and the excruciating slog of checking your work against that of other historians and finishing off every footnote is often boring beyond words.

If you love history, you might be a historian at heart, but that really depends on two things. First, it depends on your doggedness to continue even when the clues are incredibly few and far between and your fingers are freezing and you haven’t eaten in hours because the archive is only open 5 hours a day so you can’t spare the time for a lunch break. Second, it depends on your tolerance for the tedium of taking careful, accurate notes of every finding, of citing every reference, and putting it all together in a way that answers new questions (but does not necessarily add up to a satisfying narrative, as it does in historical fiction and popular history).

If you love history, it’s more likely that you love it passively—that you love to watch the History Channel (or did, before it inexplicably became the Aliens Channel), that you love to read books written by historians, or maybe just historical fiction and popular history. That’s wonderful! You’re the audience for historians, and we need you. If you’re interested in teaching it at the K-12 level or working in a museum, you might be the perfect kind of person to help kids and the general public see why history is awesome. The world needs more people like that.

But there aren’t very many people in the world who will really want to be academic historians. (According to the American Historical Society, there are about 10,000 academic historians in the world.) Like every other job, it is hard work, and a lot of it can be downright unpleasant.

It also requires skills of reading, writing, and interpretation that can only be acquired through many years of training and experience (have you recently tried reading early nineteenth-century handwriting in Russian? And can you follow the archaic usages that aren’t found in most dictionaries? And once you’ve done that, can you figure out what matters in what you’ve read, and synthesize it with the several thousand books written on related subjects, but not quite on this subject? It really does take a lot of training).

Most of all, an academic historian is driven to not just consume history but to actively add to it by wading into untouched primary sources and building an original argument about how and why they matter. There’s a lot of creativity involved in that part, and that can’t be forced.

I love being a historian, because I love the aesthetics of old stuff — relics of another time. I love nosing into people’s private documents. I love reading history books, I don’t care how many. I love traveling to strange places and finding my way around without guidance. I love the feeling of not knowing what I’m doing, and being forced to figure it out on my own. I can’t help coming up with my own (re)interpretations — I did this while reading history books as a child, I can’t help myself. Those are the things that make an academic historian.

We are, in short, the sort of people you probably never want to see a historical film with.


* UPDATE: There are of course other kinds of historical research, but I don’t know much about them, which is why I didn’t talk about them in this post. People do historical research in connection with museums and historical sites, documentary filmmaking, on behalf of various institutions, etc. There are also other ways of working with primary historical documents — archivists and librarians, for example, focus more on how to catalog and maintain access to materials, how to conserve them, and increasingly how to digitize them. For many more stories about how people “do” history in real life, I’m very excited to link to a new web series produced by the American Historical Association: What I Do: Historians Talk about Their Work. You might also be interested in their series of short text interviews with AHA members: Member Spotlight.


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Why I Hate Grading

By The Tango! Desktop Project, via Wikimedia Commons

When it’s time to grade papers, I suddenly go into housecleaning frenzies. I start preparing next semester’s courses. I finally get around to reading the most obscure and boring articles on my research reading list. I actually clear out my email inbox. I do things like write blog posts.

I would rather lick the bottom of a New York subway car than grade papers.

Why is grading so awful?

It certainly isn’t because my students or their work bore or annoy me. Even my worst student ever on my worst day is not more boring or annoying than housework, let alone as repellant as a subway car.

I think it’s the disappointment. Grading involves layers and layers of disappointed expectations.

When a course begins, I always feel hopeful and excited about my students. I enjoy getting to know them, I enjoy their comments and questions in class. They almost always seem (mostly) engaged in the course material, and they’re by definition a bunch of bright young things—who doesn’t enjoy hanging out with a bunch of bright young things, talking about Important Stuff?

But then I get the first stack of papers, and I have to come to a bunch of disappointing realizations:

1. My course is not their first priority. Students have many competing demands on their time, and even the best and brightest rarely have time to devote their all to any given assignment, so reading papers is an exercise in seeing a bunch of bright young things not quite living up to their potential. Before grading, they are nothing but vessels of potential. But in the process of grading mundane reality hits me full in the face: nobody is perfect, and extraordinary performances are extraordinary because you don’t see them often.

2. I may have been fooling myself a bit about how engaged they really are in my course. Not everybody loves my subject like I do, and some people positively hate it. While most students are mostly polite about this when we’re face-to-face, indifference or aversion for the subject always comes through in the writing.

Between the factors described in point 1 and point 2, I often come to the painful realization that many of the papers were probably written in less time than it takes me to evaluate them.

3. Some students work really, really hard for sadly little payoff. Mostly it’s because they’re beavering away in the the wrong direction, sometimes it’s because this isn’t their subject and much as they want to succeed, they can’t see the forest for the trees. Seeing this come through in the writing is even more painful than seeing the work of students who just don’t give a damn.

4. Even though I work very hard designing my course to meet their needs as well as possible, it never really meets their needs to the degree that I want it to. In trying to balance (a) how much can be covered in the time allotted and how much needs to be covered to meet the expectations of the department, (b) meeting the needs of students who are increasingly ill-prepared for college when they get here with the need to maintain high standards of academic rigor, and (c), meeting the needs of students who range incredibly widely in background, skills, and interest levels, there will always be a degree to which the balance cannot be struck. When you’re in the classroom or planning for the course, you’re actively working to fill these gaps and maintain the balance. There’s a certain amount of satisfaction in that effort. But when you’re grading papers, you’re confronting the degree to which you failed in that task. It’s always sobering, and often positively devastating.

In short, when you’re grading, you’re finding out exactly how much of what you said and did as a teacher made it through into the students’ heads and back out again in writing.

You will inevitably find yourself reading misquotations of your own words, put out of context and misapplied.

You may find out that most of the students only did a fraction of the readings. Some of them did none at all.

You learn that even if you state a basic instruction (such as: “turn in the paper BOTH in hardcopy and on the course management software”) several times in several venues (on the syllabus, on the assignment sheet, and out loud in class, with key words in all-caps) that a certain astoundingly large percentage of the class will still disregard these instructions (leaving you to manually upload dozens of papers and wait for the plagiarism checker to work, while hunting down all the missing papers which could be anywhere — mailbox, emailbox, main office, randomly dropped on a table somewhere in the department…the process can take hours).

So, you spend hours and hours of your time in this discouraging endeavor of grading, so that your evaluation and feedback will, hopefully, help the students to do better next time.

Only to hand back the papers and watch the students glance at the letter grade and then stuff the paper away, or even straight into the trash can. You spend the next week or so fielding complaints from students who all-too-obviously didn’t do the reading or show up to class, but who are still angry at you for failing to give them the terrific grade they feel entitled to get, according to the prevalent misapprehension that one receives good grades in return for paying tuition, rather than that you earn them by demonstrating specific knowledge and skills.

And when all this is done, another stack of papers arrives and you do it all over again, except that it hurts a bit more the next time because each subsequent stack of papers demonstrates that all the work you put into feedback on the previous stack of papers got mostly ignored. Again.

This process is so miserable that most of us would probably run away screaming from the entire profession because of it…except for one thing.

There is one thing that makes it all worthwhile in the end (though no easier to face when you begin). In each stack of papers there will be a few papers—you never know how many but there’s nearly always one and in some delightful cases there are quite a few—that were written carefully, thoughtfully, and with a passion for learning (not for getting good grades).

Some students take intellectual risks in their papers, and that’s a beautiful thing even when it doesn’t fully pay off. Some students go above and beyond the requirements because they really want to understand. Some students put such creativity and old-fashioned sweat into their work that they achieve fascinating, unexpected insights. Some students simply seem to be really enjoying themselves and the course. Some students don’t do anything extraordinary, except that they actually take what you’re offering to heart and show significant improvement from one assignment to the next. Those are maybe the most gratifying papers of all.

Because of these few students, we all keep at it. But that doesn’t make staring down a fresh stack of papers any easier. On that note, I think I have some dishes that need washing….

Posted in Teaching | Tagged , , | 7 Comments

Billable Hours

How does an academic spend her time?

Felipe Kast Encuentro con alumnos Ing Comercial, PUC

This part, that everybody sees, is a tiny, tiny part of what we actually do.
Image by Aldeasycampamentos, via Wikimedia Commons

Mostly out of your sight, which is why so few people actually understand the nature of academic work. What people see is our classroom teaching, and maybe our “office hours,” designated times when we meet with students. These hours don’t seem to add up to very much. If the average college class meets about 3 hours a week, and an average load for a full-time professor is three classes per semester, that’s nine hours a week. The same prof may have 2 hours of office hours each week, so 11 hours.

11 hours a week? Plus semester breaks and the summer off? Hey, profs have the easiest schedule known to man! Call the media! It’s a scandal that these people get paid at all! Actually, don’t bother to call the media, because they’ve already been called.

Also, this is an utterly false assumption.

Wait, okay, you know of course that profs also have to plan those courses and grade the papers. So, for each weekly 3 hours in the classroom, the prof has to prepare by reading what the students are assigned, composing the lecture and handouts or preparing an agenda for discussion or organizing exercises and other in-class activities.

The standard recommendation for students is to spend 2-3 hours studying for every 1 hour in the classroom, and professors are not only doing what the students are doing (the same reading, plus composing the assignments and fielding all the endless questions and problems coming from students), but they are also actually creating the content for what will be said in the classroom. But let’s be conservative and say that for the prof it’s 3 hours of prep for each hour of classroom time (it’s much more than that when you’re teaching a course for the first time, but we’re using averages here). That’s an extra 9 hours per week per class, and still assuming a 3-course load, that’s 27 hours per week there.

Then, students write papers and take tests that need to be graded. Assuming a class size of 55 with no grading assistants (which is about average, though this like everything else varies widely from school to school and professor to professor), when a student writes a 3-page essay, a professor needs to not just read but closely analyze and evaluate 165 pages. Then she needs to write 55 sets of comments, and record 55 grades (the recording of grades may have been simple once, but the expectation now is that all grades will be posted online on course management software, which anyone will tell you is ornery and unreliable, so you record grades online, laboriously, hoping they get saved properly, then you record them again on paper or in Excel for a backup, and no, you can’t just upload from Excel to course management software, because it will screw up all your data, of course). So, for each written assignment you have about 12-20 hours of work, depending on how efficient you are. The average course in my department involves, say, two exams and 3 short or two longer papers. Average that out over the course of a semester (15 weeks) and you get a very rough estimate of about 6 hours more per week per course. Multiplied by three courses, that’s 18 more hours per week.

So, all told, as a rough estimate, we’re actually talking about 56 hours per week for teaching.

Whoa, you say. Professors only have to write their lectures from scratch the first time, and then you teach it every semester for decades, and you’ve probably read the course readings a million times and don’t have to keep doing it, and everybody knows professors assign grades at random, so this is all way off.

There’s some truth in this (except for that last part). With experience you can be much more efficient than what I’ve laid out above, and thank goodness, because otherwise this model wouldn’t be remotely sustainable. Mind you, professors in mid- and late-career still develop new courses, and even with fully developed courses there is intense preparation to adapt the course to current students and other circumstances, to stay fresh, to incorporate new material in order to stay up to date, and to remind yourself what you did last time, since many of us don’t actually teach the same course over and over every semester. But it does get easier. That said, it’s also much HARDER than I’ve described in the early-career stage when all of these things need to happen at once and all of it is new (and all the other pressures I’m about to talk about are also more intense, and you’re making less money and if you choose to have a family at all you are probably also right in the prime child-rearing phase!).

Of course some people—in any profession!—don’t take their responsibilities seriously. But that shouldn’t define this profession more than it does any other, plus evaluations of our teaching are taken into account in tenure and promotion decisions, and contrary to popular belief, we CAN be fired for bad teaching (it’s complicated, but we can).

So let’s average it out and say about 45-50 hours a week for teaching. That’s more than full time hours.

But, you say, you get all those vacations!

And I’ll tell you that teaching is only about 40-45% of my job description.

What’s the rest? It’s 45-50% research, and 5-10% service to the department, the university, and the profession. (These proportions vary according to the institution and the scholar’s career stage, but all three portions are always present, and in those places where teaching is a significantly higher percentage of the job description, course loads are also comparably higher, so it more or less evens out for our purposes here.)

So how much time does research take up?

Well. That’s much harder to estimate. The real answer is: as much as you can give it. Every waking hour, and many when you should be sleeping, are truly meant to be consumed by your research agenda.

Academia is a profession in the traditional nineteenth-century sense of a profession as a vocation, as a part of your identity, and arguably as a form of work that actually consumes your identity. A doctor is always a doctor, whether she is on-call or not, and a lawyer is always a lawyer. This is why I get to ask my uncle, an orthopedic surgeon, about my back problems when we run into each other at family gatherings (poor man). It’s also why you can ask me any time you see me about what really happened to Grand Duchess Anastasia, and I’ll tell you (she died with her family, and all the impostors were simply impostors—sorry to disappoint!).

This situation is very different from when I worked 12-hour night shifts at a Jeep Grand Cherokee factory in Holland, Michigan. When I did that, I had no idea how the factory worked, and I did not know how the door panels I worked on were actually made (my job was just pushing a button on a molding machine every time the light went green, and then trimming off excess vinyl—a simple job I was so bad at that I nearly cut my finger off once). I knew nothing about what I was doing, and I cared even less. I showed up when I was told to and I followed orders so that they would pay me, and when I wasn’t on duty, I did my best to pretend the place didn’t exist. That was a job. Academia is a profession.

Being a professional means that if you’re on a deadline and the work is taking too long, you keep working until it gets done. You’re paid a salary instead of an hourly wage because you work until you finish what needs to be done, instead of working a set number of hours and then stopping.

So, what needs to be done, for an academic? Everything. Our job is to understand the world better, so literally the project is infinite. There’s always more research.

Okay, but what’s realistically expected? Again, there is no end point, no “finished,” built into this part of our job descriptions. The more research we do, the better. If we do significantly less than our colleagues, we risk being fired (again, yes, we can be fired). But you never know exactly how much is “enough” to avoid losing your job, because that boundary is constantly shifting. So you do as much as you can. Often there are deadlines: you need to meet a publisher’s deadline and/or you need finished books and articles and conference papers on your cv (an academic resume) for every annual review (yes, we have annual reviews of our work).

But all these constraints aren’t actually what drives most of us to work constantly. The thing is, getting to the point of having a research job in academia involves so much time, effort, and sacrifice (for so little ultimate reward, at least financially) that it’s a rare person who gets this far without actually liking and wanting to do research. Most of us are driven in life by wanting to know. So most of us work constantly because we’re driven to work constantly.

So if it’s fun, is it not work? Well, first, it’s work because it produces something the world needs (original knowledge). Second, an academic’s definition of fun might be a little strange to an outsider. Most of us are driven to know, but few people on earth are driven to spend countless hours peering at faint, tiny text or glowing screens, few are driven to write creatively and clearly about abstract and obscure concepts that no one else has written about before under intense pressure, and few of us are driven to do all this knowing that doing it will result in very little remuneration or praise, while not doing it will certainly result in censure and joblessness. So it is work. The motivation to do it may primarily be the joy of learning, but the actual doing of it is a lot of bloody hard work.

Plus, we miss out on a lot when we spend all our time working. Those rare hours spent in hobbies or watching a movie or hanging out with loved ones are almost always suffused with guilt because we’re not working. Many of us recognize that this situation is unhealthy, and ultimately may hinder our ability to be creative and insightful in our research, but it’s a struggle to find balance, and a struggle that itself is not only hard work, but work that we are discouraged to do, since the system (by which I mean the universities who pay us and may fire us) for the most part strongly discourages us from finding that balance.

So, research takes up as much time as there is. It eats up every moment of those so-called “vacations” (most academics can’t afford to travel anyway–what travel we may appear to do is almost always actually work, because we sometimes must travel for conferences or field research).

And what about service? Service means “voluntarily” doing much of the administrative work that makes universities run. Committees of faculty members create curriculum, decide on admission, awards, and other opportunities for students, decide on tenure and promotion of colleagues, manage outreach between the institution and the surrounding community, and so on. As individual faculty members we also advise students, direct their independent studies, supervise their internships, and we organize departmental events and so on.

And then there’s a whole other level of service known as service to the profession. This generally means organizing and participating in conferences (which is how academics share their ongoing research, making the connections that help us further and disseminate knowledge), reviewing books and articles in progress (this is peer review, a process through which new knowledge is vetted), sitting on committees to decide fellowships, and very occasionally being interviewed by someone in the media about what we do (we would do this more often but the media rarely calls, and when they do, they often misquote us or put our work wildly out of context, which is why our work may often sound silly to you).

How much time does all this service take up? It varies vastly, but an average academic is probably sitting in a meeting for at least one or two hours per week, and for many hours on specific occasions when a particular event comes up. Let’s say, averaging it out over the academic year, about 3-4 hours a week for a mid-career scholar for committee work, plus 2-5 hours a week for advising students (this is advising done for the department, unrelated to the advising you do for students in your own courses), and this number applies to all faculty at every career level. Service to the profession also comes in spurts, and is much greater for senior scholars. For early- and mid-career scholars, this kind of service probably averages out to 1-3 hours per week of the school year, and for senior scholars it could be as much as 20 or more hours per week.

So, adding it all up: During term time, faculty spend about 45-50 hrs per week on teaching, and on average between 8 and 18 hours more on service. After the “work day” ends and on weekends, and during breaks including summer, faculty spend every hour they can find on research.

It is true that many of these hours of work are spent not in the classroom (where you see us) but in our offices, at home, in an archive or library or lab, or even in Starbucks. Often we have a lot of flexibility about where we work, and it is a huge advantage to us that if we need to go to the doctor or take care of a sick child, it is often possible to shift around our schedules (except of course when it’s completely not possible to shift anything, as when we have to teach or when an important deadline is looming — I would also add that most other professionals, who have less education than university faculty members, also enjoy this kind of relative flexibility much of the time, so it’s not atypical).

It is also true that in the idiosyncratic academic calendar there are occasional sweet-spot moments when an academic can breathe. For a few days of the semester when students are studying for exams, there might be time to clean out your office and enjoy a lunch with a colleague just for fun. Right after you get tenure, or publish a book, you might grant yourself a week or even two to relax and decompress, so you can be ready for the next hurdle (though you’ll probably feel guilty the whole time anyway — guilt becomes a habit).

But what does it all add up to — how many hours total does the average faculty member really work?


Wait, you say, this is impossible! Indeed, it is. This is why professors are notoriously harried, frantic, and absent-minded. We do at least three jobs in one, and we’re not well paid (on average) for even one of them. For the vast majority of us, it is a labor of love.

Actually, for most of us it’s more of a love/hate or l’amour-fou kind of relationship. It’s insanely difficult. There are huge highs, like when you write your very own book book bookity book! or when a student tells you you changed her life for the better. But those highs happen pretty rarely, and they are separated by vast swathes of low times when you labor away, killing yourself physically and mentally, clinging to the faint belief that your work means enough to make it worth all these sacrifices, only to look up from your desk every once in a while and hear a Congressman telling the public that academics are lazy, overpaid parasites. And then you hear the public — and not an anonymous public, but people like a facebook “friend,” your neighbor, your cousin, and other people who know you — applaud his statement.



Update: important further reading on this topic and more here

And here and this too also this and this and this and you might want to check out the comments for about a thousand other relevant remarks….

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Seeking historians of Russian material culture and serf demographics

These strange (to me) symbols popped up in all the family diaries and at first eluded me. Over time it became clear they represented days of the week. Then, I found this key, listing each symbol with its meaning and related day of the week, in the naval diary of Natalia Chikhacheva's father, Ivan Yakovlevich Chernavin. I don't know whether he invented it or it was a common naval code (perhaps a reader of this blog can tell me?)

In researching my book I came across plenty of fodder for at least a couple of other major research projects. I wanted to mention that here, in case someone is looking for these kinds of sources.

In the private family documents of the Chikhachev family of Vladimir province (housed in the State Historical Archive of Ivanovo Region, GAIO), in addition to all the diaries and letters that I used as the primary basis for my study, there are also many records of the names and ages of the serfs the family owned. These are not in themselves unusual—there are thousands of these revizskie skazki in the archives—but in this case they could be compared with references to specific serfs in the diaries and in the donosenie (reports written by serf elders to the landowners). I’m not sure how much could be extrapolated from this process (the mentions in diaries are terse and in passing), because I didn’t pursue it myself, but it strikes me as an unusual cache.

There’s also a rich trove there for historians of mid-nineteenth-century material culture. There are several detailed credit/debit books covering multiple years (mostly 1830s), diaries by Natalia Chikhacheva with rich detail about purchases and agricultural production, plus a few inventory lists (of dishware, books, and two lists of the possessions of Yakov Ivanovich Chernavin, made after his death).

Anyone who would like to know more about what I found, please contact me by email or comment here.

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Top Ten Avoidable Mistakes Made by History Students

Bundesarchiv Bild 183-48500-0005, Leipzig, Turn- und Sporttreffen, Jugendrotkreuz

Bundesarchiv Bild 183-48500-0005, via Wikimedia Commons

(in no particular order)

1.    Using words vaguely

I frequently get the impression that many students choose words that are merely “close enough” rather than the one word that most precisely captures their meaning. Similarly, many students seem to read course materials as if the meaning of my words is similarly arbitrary, and read the course texts the same way. Although the occasional mistake or typo occurs, I choose my words carefully, especially in writing! Treat your professor and the authors you read on the assumption that each word they use is specific and thoughtfully chosen.

If you are not absolutely certain you fully understand the meaning of a word, look it up. While a basic dictionary is usually sufficient (though you must remember that some words have multiple meanings, so don’t stop at the first definition you see! Figure out from the context which one of multiple definitions is correct), in some cases words are used in a very specialized way (especially abstract concepts), and you may need to look them up in an encyclopedia or textbook (start with the one you have for this class, if there is one), or perhaps a specialized encyclopedia like the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

One reason that so many students read and employ words incorrectly or vaguely is probably that their vocabularies simply aren’t at a college level yet. This is part of what college is for, and if you skate through avoiding learning these things, you’re wasting your time and money. The only way to catch up is to read — read widely and frequently, and think about what you read, looking up all the words you don’t know!

2.    Not seeing the forest for the trees

College coursework is stressful: at no other time in your life are you likely to be confronted by so much new information from so many different subject areas so quickly. This can be very disorienting, and make it difficult to sort out what is most important, and what is supporting detail.

The only way to really get better at this is practice. But you can become better at this more efficiently by regularly asking yourself how to find out what matters most in a given instance: pay attention to obvious markers like syllabi and assignment sheets. When listening to lectures, think about how the material is organized, what is repeated, what gets emphasized most, what is said first and last. When reading texts, pay special attention to introductions, highlighted terms, summaries, conclusions, etc.

In other words, don’t just swim through college minute by minute and hour by hour, never looking up until it’s over. Try to maintain an mindful awareness of what you’re doing and why, and think about how you can work more efficiently or effectively. If what you’re doing isn’t working, ask for help.

3.    Bad time management

Many students simply run out of time to do well on assignments. Now is the time to train yourself into more effective habits. It will matter even more in your first post-college job!

Start by strictly limiting the time you spend on web browsing, facebook, twitter, texting, etc. These activities are proven to decrease your attention span! Save them for after you’ve completed your work, and don’t spend more than an hour or so on these activities per day (Really! You’re only in college once!). Use browser plugins to prevent yourself from visiting web sites that distract you, and turn off other devices while you work.

Try the “Pomodoro Technique” to train yourself into expanding your attention span: get a kitchen timer and set it for 25 minutes of work time. When it rings, do something relaxing (preferably that involves getting up and moving around) for 5 minutes. Then work for another 25 minutes. If this doesn’t work, start with 10- or 15- minute work periods. Try to build up to 40- or 50-minute work periods (keep all the rest periods at 5 minutes, though!).

Plan relaxing activities to reward yourself with after you’re done working for the day. Make sure you get enough sleep, try to eat decent food, and take your vitamins! Limit caffeine and alcohol consumption. Sleep and proper nutrition can drastically improve brain function.

4.    Not showing up, not following directions, not turning in assignments

There seems to be an epidemic on college campuses over the past decade or so of students simply not bothering.

If the fact of the tremendous waste of your time and money isn’t enough to deter you from doing this, you need to take a very hard look at why you’re in college, and what else in your life is distracting you from coursework. See my previous post, “Reality Check.”

5.    Following instructions too literally

It is not clear whether this is a result of recent changes in secondary education, but professors are increasingly seeing students who put time and effort into coursework but still perform very poorly because they follow instructions mindlessly. If you think that you are being asked to do busy work, or that the goal of your work is to get by with a minimum, or that the goal is to finish as quickly or briefly as possible, or just to please the prof and get a grade, then YOU. ARE. DOING. IT. WRONG.

You are wasting your time and that of your professors and fellow students. You are not learning. You are wasting thousands of YOUR dollars in tuition money.

In college the focus of all our work is fundamentally to train you to think critically. If you’re not doing this, then you’re failing. If you don’t understand how to re-focus your energies in the proper direction, ask for help.

This said, not following instructions is of course also a problem! Sometimes students who are overwhelmed find that course materials — handouts, syllabi, and other instructions provided by the professor — are just more things on the to-do list. Remember that these kinds of resources are intended to clarify what you need to be doing and how, so you shouldn’t ignore them; they should make you work more efficiently. But instructions and guidelines won’t help if you just mindlessly follow one step after another. They are generic resources created for all the students of course X, with all their many problems. You are an individual, with individual problems. You need to thoughtfully adapt these kinds of resources to your own purposes, and your individual completion of the assignment.

6.    Failing to revise

The first thing every student can do to vastly improve any paper is to revise it thoroughly, yet few students do any revision at all of their written work.

Clearly, part of the problem is time management: you need to start working on assignments earlier, and put more focused, thoughtful attention into the process (i.e., don’t rush).

But another part of the problem is that many students are not aware of what is meant by revision — many confuse it with proofreading. Proofreading means scanning for typos and other mistakes. It is a quick process. Revision means really re-visioning your essay: re-evaluating the content, thinking, organization, and style. It is a long and intense process, during which most of the work and learning happens. You should leave at least two days before the due date for revision for a SHORT paper of about 3-4 pages. This gives you enough time to think, to get a little distance from the paper before re-reading it, to look again at your assignment and source materials, re-evaluate, and then re-write the paper accordingly.

7.    Not aiming high enough

Many students who generally do fairly well in their coursework still waste their time in college: if you can get As and Bs without much effort, that’s nice. It means you came to college better prepared than most of your peers.

But if you come out of college with skills not much more advanced than you came in with (no matter how advanced compared to your peers you were or remain), then you have wasted your time.

If you do not feel challenged in your coursework, ask your professors about how to get more out of your experience at college. Consider signing up for an independent study — ask departmental advisors how they work.

8.    Forgetting about context; each course is an island

A critical mistake many students make is to treat each course as if it were entirely unconnected to the rest of your courses, college, and life in general. Consider how methods and ideas learned in one course can help you in another. Also, within each course, context is still very important. No idea or skill or task exists in a vacuum. Remember to always ask yourself, what is this (idea/skill/task) a part of? What else can it help me do/ understand?

9.    Not taking responsibility for your own learning

A fundamental error that is all too common in college students is the misapprehension that your performance depends on the professor, the course, the subject, the college, the weather, issues in your personal life, or any other of a million possible distractions.

The fact is that no one can insert knowledge and skill into your brain for you. In order to learn, to be able to do things you couldn’t do before, to make yourself valuable in the workplace and to society, you must challenge yourself, and put time, focus, and deep thought into your work.

Learning can be fun and it is always full of rewards, but it is rarely simple or quick. Nothing in the world will help you learn if you do not actively make an effort, and nothing in the world can stop you from learning if you really apply yourself.

That said, everyone has subjects that they finder easier or harder than others, and everyone finds some subjects or tasks more interesting than others. College is a rare opportunity to do two things at once: to safely explore subjects you might not otherwise encounter, and to pursue the subjects you love most in great depth. You should try to do both. Be honest with yourself about your personal inclinations, but don’t prevent yourself from discovering new talents or acquiring new skills, either.

The bottom line is that the best way to succeed is from intrinsic motivation (having a personal interest, inherently caring about something) than from extrinsic motivation (getting rewarded or punished for your performance by the outside world, as grades do, or future salaries and other perks).

10.    Not taking full advantage of campus resources

Many students, from those who are making every mistake on this list to those who make none of these other mistakes, still fail to take advantage of the many resources their college has to offer.

It’s always a great idea to visit your professors during their office hours. This is not something reserved for those who are having problems! You should feel free to ask any sort of question or just chat (though the more you can ask specific questions, the more you’ll get out of the interaction).

In addition, nearly every college has academic advisors (general and departmental), peer counselors (who are full of very useful hints and tips), writing tutors, a disability services department, and counseling for personal issues such as academic stress or time management problems, unrelated emotional issues, or family/personal crises.

If you’re not sure where to go, ask one of your professors, an advisor, or any other sympathetic university employee.

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A Reality Check for College Students (and their parents)

Test (student assessment)

Via Wikimedia Commons

According to a survey I took on the first day of class in my modern European history lecture course in the spring of 2011, 90% of students in my two sections were at least considering going to grad school.

The minimum GPA required for admission to the Queens College MA in History program (which, though a wonderful program, is far from the most selective) is 3.4. I can tell you that nowhere near 90% of those students have a 3.4 GPA. That a graduate program is selective at all was news to many of my students.

A majority of students in those same two sections of modern European history correctly identified most forms of plagiarism, but a disturbing 25% incorrectly believed that paraphrasing a text without citation did not “count” as plagiarism, and 13% believed copying from a text found on the internet did not “count.”

On the first round of primary source interpretation papers in that class, 80% of papers had no argument or analysis in them at all. 20% did not meet minimally acceptable standards of coherence. Three papers were plagiarized. None of the plagiarized papers could have received a passing grade even if there had been no plagiarism (due to incoherence, factual errors, lack of analysis, and failure to follow directions).

On a multiple-choice midterm exam,* the average score in one section was 60/100, and the highest score was 84. I then offered a make-up quiz, which could be taken at home with open books. Two attempts were allowed. In many of the questions the answer was given away in the wording of the question, and all the questions were repeats of material from the midterm. Counting from both sections, 47% of students never attempted the quiz, and 46% of students who did attempt it were unable to achieve the 100% required for credit.

I discussed these results with colleagues, and found they are typical enough.

At Queens College, students that year paid $305 per credit hour (i.e., $915 total) for the opportunity to take one class. Yet, every semester, a large proportion of students miss more than 3 class days, arrive late or leave early on remaining days, frequently fail to do the reading on time, rarely if ever consult personally with the professor, and fail to turn in one or more graded assignments, fail to take substantive notes, and/or fail to catch up on notes and readings from missed class days.

Every student I have ever had who has engaged in all of the aforementioned behaviors has failed the course. Those who avoid these behaviors do better in direct proportion.

College students and their parents are probably familiar with the following average annual earnings by level of education, from

high school diploma, $33,801
associate degree, $42,046
bachelor’s degree, $55,656
master’s degree, $67,337
professional degrees (law, business, medicine), $100,000+

When you see figures like these, please also note the following qualifying factors:

•    Those who do not finish a degree get no return on their investment

•    These numbers do not factor in the financial burden of paying off student debt

•    In the 1970s financial aid for college shifted from mostly grants to mostly loans. Most figures showing the lifetime financial benefit of higher education reflect generations that did not have loan burdens

•    According to economist Paul Krugman, long-term trends are “hollowing” out the middle-class jobs that most college graduates expect to be able to get. Projections show limited growth for a tiny percentage of the highest educated and highest skilled, and much greater growth for manual laborers, while middle-class jobs are being increasingly automated by innovative new software.

•    The correlation between college degree and higher-paid jobs reflects the fact that employers are often willing to pay more for employees with more advanced cognitive reasoning skills and the ability to work independently and responsibly. Having a college degree but not having the skills that are generally assumed to go with it will not keep you employed. A college degree is not a ticket to the middle class.

•    Having useful skills, and especially having the ability to think critically, manage your time, and learn new tasks independently will serve you well no matter what you do, and no matter what economic situation you find yourself in. You cannot acquire these skills by phoning it in.

•    In the present climate, you would do well to think about your future in terms of how you can become a job creator, rather than a job occupier.

In The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (Tarcher, 2008), Mark Bauerlein observes that students are increasingly rarely making an effort to store information in their own memories, since googling for information is so quick and easy. The unfortunate consequence of this trend, Bauerlein argues, is that students lack the basic knowledge that makes higher order thinking possible.

In Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa found that students majoring in social work, education and business learned the least in college, according to an extensive national study. Those majoring in the humanities, social sciences, hard sciences and math did relatively well on tests measuring critical thinking skills.

A survey by the Association of American Colleges and Universities found that 89% of surveyed employers said they want college students to pursue a liberal arts education. A survey of employers conducted by the National Association of Colleges and Employers indicates that workplaces most value these three skills that you are usually more likely to find with a liberal arts eduction (as opposed to a business degree): communication skills, analytic skills, and teamwork skills.

According to Arum and Roksa’s study, overall 45% of college students did not significantly improve their reasoning or writing skills in the first two years of college, and 36% did not significantly improve over the course of four years in college.

Barbara Schneider and David Stevenson, summarizing their study, describe college students as having “limited knowledge about their chosen occupations, about educational requirements, or about future demand for these occupations.” (The Ambitious Generation: America’s Teenagers Motivated but Directionless, Yale UP, 1999, quoted in Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, U of Chicago Press, 2011, e-book location 137)

Labor economists Philip Babcock and Mindy Marks found the following:

Full-time college students in the 1920s-1960s spent roughly 40 hrs/wk on academic pursuits (combined study & class time). Today, they spend an average of  27 hrs/wk (that is less time than a typical high school student spends at school).

Average time studying:
1961: 25 hrs/wk
1981: 20 hrs/wk
2003: 13 hrs/wk

Percentage of college students reporting more than 20 hrs/wk of studying:
1961: 67%
1981: 44%
2003: 20%

(“The Falling Time Cost of College: Evidence from Half a Century of Time Use Data,” Review of Economics and Statistics (forthcoming), quoted in Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, U of Chicago Press, 2011, e-book location 141)

There is a growing consensus that American high schools have been lowering their standards for student performance for a long time, and slowly many colleges have been forced to do the same, as students in the last decade especially are coming in so unprepared that the majority of them could not hope to pass basic courses according to previous standards.

Students: Don’t be tempted to think that any of this is to your advantage, by making your life easier.

These trends are incredibly costly to students, and you will pay for them for the rest of your life unless you use your personal initiative to buck the trend. When standards required to get a certain degree drop, this simply means that that degree will be less valued. It’s probably easier to get a BA now than it was 30 years ago. But it’s also true that to get the job you could get with a BA 30 years ago, you now need an MA.

The overall trend is for you, as students, to spend far more time and money to get far fewer skills, which leave you less competitive for jobs.

In your own best interest, you should be fighting hard for higher standards, harsher grading, and far more work—especially more reading and writing, tasks which are most vital to all professional careers and which can only be mastered through years and years of active practice.

Luckily, there’s nothing stopping you from applying these higher standards to yourself that our society is not presently asking of you.


*Note: that was the one course in which I have ever, or will ever, give a multiple-choice exam. It was an experiment, intended to find out whether students would demonstrate greater knowledge of the course material if the exam format was very familiar. In other words, I wondered if students were doing poorly on essay exams because of problems with writing skills and test anxiety, or whether they simply didn’t know the material, or both. In an introductory survey course in which content knowledge is one of three main goals, I wanted to find a better way to assess how much content knowledge was really getting through to them. For this experiment, I first surveyed the students and found out that 100% of them were very familiar with multiple-choice exams from high school, confirming that this format was indeed more familiar. They also unanimously preferred the multiple-choice format, suggesting there was less anxiety associated with it. I used this book to help me construct questions and answers that were clear, fair, and that tested substantive and conceptual knowledge of the course material. I instructed students to add any further information they wanted to in the generous margins of the test, so that I could give credit to students who knew the material but were confused by the wording of the answers, or who “out-thought” the test and considered possibilities not raised in the given answers. In these circumstances, students performed drastically worse than my students generally do on essay exams. It was not a scientific experiment, of course, but the results were so stark that I have concluded, first, never to bother with multiple choice again, and second that despite very real problems with writing and test anxiety — and student assumptions to the contrary — essay exams are actually a more effective way for students to demonstrate what they know and what they don’t know. (I would also like to note that in the semester I experimented with the multiple-choice exams, the students still wrote as many pages as they always write in my classes — it was just separated from the exams.) A final and grim conclusion I took from the experiment was that students weren’t actually gaining much content knowledge. In subsequent semesters I have used the same multiple-choice questions as weekly study quizzes (for minor participation credit), and this has actually been resulting in significant improvement in the content knowledge I see on exams.

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Who is “the reader”?

Professors (and editors) tend to talk a lot about revising your writing to suit “your reader.” Who exactly is this person? The following description of the academic reader may be helpful to students, undergrads and grads.

Exercise book2

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, via Wikimedia Commons

Your reader for any piece of academic writing is probably sleep-deprived. He or she may be hyped up on caffeine. He or she is smart, curious, well-read, but not necessarily familiar with the subject of your research. Even if he or she has read what you have read, it was probably a while ago, so a refresher would be useful. But don’t pander: the academic reader has a solid grounding in the basics of western civilization and intense, specific knowledge in at least one field, so there’s no point in pretending to more than you really know – it’ll show.

The academic reader is also painfully familiar with all the usual evasive tactics. He or she knows all about using different fonts and spacing to make a text look more or less dense, and s/he can see through fancy SAT-words instantly. Say what you mean as efficiently and accurately as possible – when your reader is this sleep-deprived, that’s the only way to win goodwill. Don’t be annoying. Don’t play games, and don’t try to cover up. Your academic reader has seen that many times before, and probably tried it him/herself. It’s really obvious.

There’s one thing that will get your academic reader really excited, and supportive. Say something interesting. This doesn’t mean you have to reinvent the wheel or out-smart the entire canon of published work in the field. It means that you should apply your own thinking to your careful reading of the sources. The combination will be interesting.

The academic reader is a total sucker for ‘interesting.’

Do some real, contemplative, time-consuming thinking. Explore a bit. Try to think about your topic from as many different perspectives as you can think of. Recall what went on in class, and everything that especially interested you as you listened to class discussions. Whatever most interesting ideas come out of this process – tell your reader about them.

Your reader is weary, and jaded, yet wants to be interested. The way to elicit interest is to both do your homework, and to contribute your own particular perspective to whatever problem(s) is/are presented by the materials under scrutiny.

(Write down your thoughts, initially, in whatever order they come, then re-arrange them in an order that would make sense to anyone else.)

Remember always that your reader is busy. Your reader has a minimum of one hundred other commitments, just like you do. Your reader has read so many student papers and so many published works of academic writing that his/her eyes positively glaze over at the sight of any title with a colon in it. Your reader wants to be done already. Don’t waste his/her time with anything that’s beside the point or deceptive.

Your reader is also fair. Your reader genuinely likes and is interested in this field. Your reader could be making far more money working in some other sphere. So you can safely assume that your reader – no matter how tired or jaded – is still open to what you have to say, so long as you say it honestly and scrupulously. The trick is only in really having something to say. This by far the hardest part – the rest is details.

Having something to say is not dependent on skill or experience. Having something to say depends on whether you’re paying attention, and whether you care, and whether you’re actively thinking.

In short, the academic reader loves writing that clearly conveys thoughtful analysis and exploration of interesting questions. Do that, honestly, and you’re golden.

If you’re letting yourself have fun while you do that, you’re doing it exactly right.

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Grades — What Are They Good For?

AGradeWhen I learn that a student is working to maintain a 4.0 grade point average, I see red flags waving all over the place. A 4.0 does not particularly impress me, and it does worry me. In my experience (and that of most professors I know), the kind of student who works hard to maintain a 4.0 is focusing too much on grades and too little on learning the course material for its own sake. The problem with that is that this student—who is clearly smart and driven—is missing important opportunities. A 4.0 really doesn’t give you very much in later life. Learning valuable skills and content knowledge will serve you well forever, professionally and personally.

Mind you, having good grades is important if you want to get into grad school, and for various other purposes. I’m not saying grades are completely irrelevant, but in the grand scheme of things there is no meaningful difference between a 3.90, a 3.95 and a 4.0, yet every year I see a student cry over the mere possibility of a tiny dent in that perfect-seeming 4.0. This is a student whose priorities need reassessing.

Then again, there’s a completely different kind of student who thinks an A grade is a reward you get simply for showing up (most of the time), paying your tuition, and turning in acceptable work.

This is also a very false assumption. An A grade represents extraordinary work that goes above and beyond the assignment, not average work that merely fulfills the assignment.

In the false scenario of grade-as-reward, grades become a commodity (one which you will later trade for jobs, internships, or grants), which you ‘buy’ with the work you turn in. This in turn makes the work also a commodity, or a ticket to be punched.

Actually, there are extremely few professors, with extremely few assignments (unless we’re talking about research assistant assignments for which you get paid in actual money), who give a damn about the product you’ve turned in. The point of a grade is to certify to the world that you have demonstrated a certain skill. The assignment is meant to give you an opportunity to demonstrate that skill, and sometimes it’s worded in a way that’s meant to force you to demonstrate that skill whether you know you have it yet or not. Universities are accredited in the same way, to certify to the world that they have the apparatus (the appropriately trained graders) to certify your work.

Therefore, we don’t want you to turn in the first acceptable thing you can lay your hands on, “just so we have the product.”  Neither should you want that. Having a product, any product, is irrelevant in this context.

We grade you in order to give some accounting to others of what you can do and what you can’t.

You don’t start with an A and get points knocked off whenever the prof is in a bad mood. You start a course as a novice, with zero points if you want to think of it that way, and every time you demonstrate that you learned something, you EARN points, which eventually result in a final grade. And again, the final grade serves only to give an outsider a rough guide to how much knowledge and what level of skill you demonstrated in this instance as compared to others. It’s not an assessment of your value as a human being, or your intelligence, or how much the prof liked it.

The real work of education is in teaching you the knowledge and skills, which comes before the grades. Your goal in doing the required work for a class should be to get as much as possible out of it for yourself – to learn as much as possible, to discover new ideas, new methods, and new skills, and to demonstrate to others the absolute highest level of performance of which you are capable.

If you can’t fathom how the work you are being assigned can give you anything of value, ask your professor. And ask the question with an open mind. Think about what you are told. If, after an honest and open-minded effort, you still can’t see the point, maybe you should be putting your time and energy into something else right now.


UPDATE: See also this wonderful post.

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How Not to Write an Email to Your Professor

Email-not-availableUnfortunately, this is the kind of thing I frequently find in my inbox, from something like “dragonboy785@gmail”:

Hey Prof!

I need the notes from last week. Did we do anything important in class?

Besides being rude and demonstrating very little investment in the course, I can’t possibly respond to it because (1) I don’t know which student wrote it or which course it refers to (I usually teach three courses each semester, with 30-50 students in each), (2) I don’t give notes to students and (3) there is no possible good answer to the final question.

Here are some guidelines to follow when corresponding with your professors.

Definitely don’t start with “Hey” or “Dude” or the prof’s first name (unless she has given you permission to use it). Use “Dear Prof. Lastname,” and spell the last name correctly (check the spelling on the syllabus, which of course you keep with you always, right? you should).

Don’t use text-speak. Complete sentences are your friend. Like it or not, your intelligence, social skills, literacy, and professionalism are all judged by your writing whenever you send an email in any serious context. Make an effort to be clear, correct, and concise.

Don’t give your professor orders. Your professor is not your secretary. She’s there to help you, but also to evaluate you. It’s not in your best interests to be a jerk. (Helpful hint that applies to all of life: always be nice to secretaries, too.)

Don’t give your professors intimate details of either your relationships or your illnesses. We don’t need to know how many times you vomited. If you’re ill or going through a personal crisis of any kind, say so, and make responsible arrangements to make up your work, take an incomplete, or if it’s not too late and seems advisable, to drop the class. If you foresee falling seriously behind in your work for more than one class, you should also contact your dean of students (with documentation if possible). Be realistic about what you can and can’t do.

Never, ever ask, “did I miss anything when I was absent?” This implies that you normally assume nothing is happening in class. Be more specific—ask for announcements and handouts, and state that you are already making arrangements to copy notes from another student (and do so!).

Never ask a question for which the answer is already on the syllabus. Read the syllabus early and often! It is full of information that is important to your success in the course.

Don’t make your professor guess which “Jessica” or “John” you are. State your full name and the class you’re taking, and if you are referring to assignments or readings, be specific: “the primary source paper due next week” not “the paper,” and “the Suny textbook,” not “the book.”

Don’t send your message from an email account that has a suggestive or ridiculous username such as “sexxxytime69@yahoo” or “prettyprincess@gmail.” These kinds of account names should never be used for school, employment, or any other serious purpose. People will make fun of you for years over something like this.

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Top Ten Things Most Americans Don’t Know about the USSR and the Cold War

10. The Cold War marks the greatest period of affluence and stability Russia ever enjoyed in the 20th century.

Which still isn’t saying much, sadly.

9. The Eastern Bloc countries “went Communist” on their own after World War II.

Arbatov Brezhnev Nixon

“No, you first.” “Oh, no, please, you.” “No, really, you first.” “Please, you first!”
Image via Wikimedia Commons.

In the aftermath of two world wars and a global Depression, many Eastern Europeans saw Communism as the only system left standing. This changed quickly, however, as locally elected Communist Parties became dominated by Moscow, and then went through a bloody process of Stalinist purges. From the Soviet point of view, however, the Eastern Bloc cost the USSR as much it gained. Though the USSR tried to exploit the resources of the Bloc, it wasn’t particularly successful, and meanwhile the Bloc countries’ continual dissatisfaction with Soviet domination cost Moscow a great deal of political and economic resources throughout the postwar period.

8. After Stalin, Soviet ideologues mostly really believed their empire was essentially defensive

Stalin invented the notion of “socialism in one country.” This was in contrast to Trotsky’s (and others’) earlier doctrine that socialism in Russia couldn’t survive without worldwide revolution. Stalin argued that it could. While many Western observers believed (or told their publics) that Soviet Russia existed to spread socialism around the world, that wasn’t really true in any practical way after Stalin took power. The ideology behind the Brezhnev Doctrine, Brezhnev’s justification for sending tanks into Prague in 1968, was that capitalism was a vicious, ruthless enemy that corrupts everything it touches. Socialist countries turning capitalist was not only a potential threat to the USSR’s security, but there was a moral imperative to help “fellow socialists.” This was understood by the Kremlin as a defensive ideology, not expansionist or imperialist.

Yes, in other words, the Kremlin’s thinking in the Cold War was very much like the thinking behind the domino theory in the West. Funny, that.

7. NATO is a Cold War institution, founded as a military alliance to protect western Europe from the threat of Soviet aggression. NATO’s mission to protect Western Europe from a Soviet nuclear threat has been over since 1991, yet NATO continues to expand.

This is considered an act of aggression by Russia.

6. The Soviet Union did not have nearly the defensive, much less offensive, capabilities that US military intelligence believed it had.

But probably only the Politburo knew this.

5. The so-called “totalitarian state” did not have nearly as much control over its own population as it pretended to have.

Open resistance from dissidents, pressure from international human rights organizations, regular strikes, the black market and organized crime, and low-level but constant everyday passive resistance all constantly undermined the regime’s ability to control its economy, foreign policy, and the everyday life of citizens.

4. From a Soviet point of view, the US was decadent, exploitative, imperialist, amoral, and inherently untrustworthy.

This is essentially how Marxist-Leninist socialism defined capitalism, and every Soviet child was taught all about it in school.

3. The Kremlin really believed the US was capable of starting a nuclear war.

And they had some reasons for this: see the Able Archer NATO military exercises of 1983.

2. The Kremlin really believed that Ronald Reagan was a lunatic.

Reagan’s CIA Director William J. Casey convinced an undereducated Reagan with incomplete data on the Soviet economy that it was within their power to take down the regime from without by outspending it. Reagan publicly refused to rule out nuclear war as part of his campaign to force the Soviet Union to direct all its resources to defense. Kremlin insiders apparently took him at face value, and thought he was actually irrational enough to start a war that would inevitably lead to the destruction of the human race.

1. Reagan didn’t win the Cold War by spending the USSR into collapse.

Soviet spending on defense actually maxed out decades earlier. Soviet growth (only a semi-accurate measure of the state of the Soviet economy) shows a steady decline from 1950 on. Western experts overestimated Soviet growth from the mid-70s, and this got worse in the 1980s as they tried to “correct” previous errors. These mistaken estimates probably account for the whole theory, which with benefit of hindsight makes no sense. Recent analysis shows that Soviet defense spending hindered growth only slightly, but the planned nature of the economy (for which we can blame both Lenin and Stalin, but mostly Stalin) hindered growth enormously in all facets of the economy.

That said, Reagan’s clever use of international human rights agreements to push the USSR into concessions on various arms agreements was arguably one (of many) significant factors undermining Soviet foreign policy in the 1980s.

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Mission Statement

This is the personal blog of an academic historian.

Like most academics, I like to pontificate, and doing so in the classroom and in my research is not enough to fully satisfy the urge, so I started a blog to pontificate some more. After all, blogs are ideally designed for pontificating.

So, if reading an academic pontificate annoys or offends you, you may want to avert your eyes immediately and not come back. This is fine by me! I enjoy putting my thoughts into order via the written word, and finding an audience is secondary, so I’m okay with it if no one reads this blog.

Alma Söderhjelm

Finnish historian and the first female professor in Finland Alma Säderhjelm. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Assuming someone does read it, though, I have some hopes about what this blog might accomplish. If you take a moment, right now, to contemplate whatever subjects you know best—your job or hobby or whatever you happen to know a lot about—I’m sure you can come up with a list of things most people don’t understand about it. I’ve got a list like that, too, and so one of the things I’d like to do with this blog is to put out into the world some of the things I know about that I think are important, which (I gather) many people don’t fully understand or frequently misunderstand. In my own little way, I want to contribute my bit to the vast soup of knowledge about how the world works, by reporting my own experiences.

More specifically, and more politically, these days there are aspects of what I do for a living that are so misunderstood in mainstream American media as to actually put my livelihood—and my purpose in life—in jeopardy. Obviously this concerns me very much indeed, so I want to do my small part to combat those specific misconceptions about what I do.

Another reason I started this blog is that I get a lot of questions from students that aren’t really about the subject matter of my courses, but more about how to be a student, what the academy is all about, what history is about, and so on. I wanted to answer some of those questions here, partly because there is never enough time in class or in office hours to address these issues, and also so that I may reach more people than just the 100-150 students I get each semester. Blog posts that answer these kinds of questions will all be tagged “FAQ” and thus can be isolated by clicking on that tag in the sidebar. If you (as a student, a parent, or just a reader of history) have a question you’d like me to address here, send it to me by email or put it in a comment.

Finally, I started this blog because I’d like a place to be able to share some of the really fun and interesting pieces of information that I come across in my research and teaching that don’t belong in a scholarly article or book. This is a place to put those tidbits, where I hope they will be enjoyed by others. Such tidbits will be tagged with “HistoryIsFun,” so you can isolate those posts if you want.

I hope it is obvious that whatever I write here is only my opinion, and is not any kind of official position of my institution or anyone else.

Further, while I hope to pontificate passionately on a number of issues, it should always be kept in mind that I am only an early-career scholar (beginning my 5th year of a tenure-track teaching job as of the fall of 2012), and my experience of academia, teaching, and the world is limited not only my relative inexperience, but by my perspective as an American specialist on Russian history. My perspective is based on U.S. Institutions and practices. I know no more than the next person about subjects other than Russian history (though I’m fairly reliable also on knitting, managing migraines, and how to waste time on the internet). And even in Russian history there are many, many vast subjects I haven’t really gotten around to yet. What I say here is what I know as of the time of writing, and nothing more.

Like any other piece of writing, this blog shouldn’t be given more authority than it deserves to inform, persuade, or offend.

Comments are open and I hope that those who read will let me know what they think.

But because uninformed, and/or downright nasty comments are not worth the energy taken to type them, let alone the energy taken for others to read them, such things will be deleted as soon as I see them as a matter of course, along with spam, so that thoughtful readers may venture into the comments section without having to gird their loins for mental assault.

Also, I’m notoriously long-winded, as you may have noticed (thanks for reading this far!). Consider yourself forewarned on that front. This is why I don’t tweet. Update: Okay, now I tweet. Mostly I just retweet, actually.

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