Points noted

August 28, 2007

Some links to follow, as I try to distract myself briefly from funding applications, the aftermath of clearing, and the temptations of eating even more biscuits.

A new blog from the National Inventory of War Memorials. Looks good.

Robert Fisk’s article from the Independent about the Armenian Genocide (sadly without the images from the paper edition). Nothing too new for those who already know something about it, but some interesting comments about remembrance.

For the next week you can listen again to Radio 4’s Book at Bedtime, Virginia Nicholson’s Singled Out,about the ‘generation’ of women who never married because all the young men had been killed in the First World War. Although quite why you’d want to, unless you just want a good ahistoric cry, I’m not sure. The odd interesting story, but presented totally without critical analysis of the sources, statistical evidence, or counter-examples. Shockingly, Vera Brittain gets used (quel surprise) as an example of those who lost. Oh, except she did marry. Bah, now my radio has a great big dent in it from where I threw it across the room. A great case of how a romantic version of history can get on the radio when more accurate appraisals can’t.

Osprey publishing starts up its own blog and gets its staff to identify their favourite tank. Not quite sure whether I think that’s nicely tongue in cheek or embracing the stereotype a bit too eagerly. Oh all, right. Probably this one, because I’d always back the underdog.

Kevin Levin posts on the use of titles to attract readers. My own personal favourite, via the footnotes to Adam Tooze’s Wages of Destruction – W. Pieper, ed, Nazis on Speed: Drogen im 3. Reich (Loherbach, nd.). Alan Coren once supposedly delivered a manuscript to a publisher only to be told that it wouldn’t sell – the only books that sold were those that featured golf, cats or Nazis. His next book looked like this.

It’s been said before – what we need to get people to change their ideas about the First World War is a series of books featuring a dashing romantic hero, who shows the reader just how well British infantry tactics developed over the course of the conflict and who knows that he’s actually fighting a just war. The ‘Anti-Blackadder’ if you will. The sort of man who isn’t afraid to wear a dolman jacket and tight trousers. The sort of man who women want and men want to be. The sort of man who has a fanbase that demands the institution of a national day in honour of a fictional character. Time to start writing that novel, Dr Todman.


Historical Writing 2

August 28, 2007

Thanks to those who commented below, apologies for a belated response. And thanks also to Jack McGowan, who has posted his comments on his own blog, and to Victoria Carolan, also one of PhD students, who has made very useful suggestions in person.

One point raised by Alan, below, and by Victoria, was the confrontational tone I’ve adopted. Not just confrontational, in fact, but divisive – most of the time I try my best to adopt a non-hierarchical voice, and I’ve spent a lot of words elsewhere in the Historical Writing coursepack suggesting that all members of the department – undergraduates, postgraduates, research students, academics, administrators – are part of a historical community to which we all contribute. So I can only blame the extraordinary anger that builds up inside me when I have to deal with plagiarism for making me adopt the tone I did.

I still feel that anger, of course. And I am not sure that this is a problem that is best dealt with by tolerance. Yes, plagiarism can occur inadvertently – and probably all of us who write historically have had cause at some point to worry about how we’ve expressed something. Anyone who teaches will have encountered students whose plagiarism is accidental. But my personal feeling – and since I am identifiable I must emphasise that it is solely personal – is that this allows an easy escape route for many students who plagiarised deliberately. ‘I didn’t mean to do it’ or ‘I didn’t know what I was doing’ gets you one free pass. And it shouldn’t. For me, this is a bit like the issue of drug taking in sport: the athlete has responsibility for everything that goes into their body, whether they’re a chemist or not. Just because they didn’t know that coach’s funny syringe contained more than vitamins doesn’t absolve them. If you plagiarise at all, for whatever reason, you get 0 for that piece of work. If you get caught twice, you’re out of the department. But, probably fortunately, I don’t get to make those calls.

But I think that – thought I hate to use this word – a piece of writing that encouraged more ’empathy’ might be less aggressive and more effective. As has been suggested, ‘how would you feel if you opened your lecturer’s best-selling book and discovered that they had copied from your third year dissertation?’ is perhaps a more respectful approach, and more thought provoking.

My fear about discussing established historians who have ‘got away with it’ is that there’s a risk of blurring the line. But I take the idea that this might be a useful means of engagement. I have to say that they have not necessarily ‘got away with it’ just because they’ve kept their posts or are still getting contracts. In a field as gossipy as academia, once you’ve been tarred with that brush it won’t go away. I ‘m sure we can all think of examples where new graduate students are warned about letting Professor X see their work without having hedged it round with statements to ensure they get credited. I don’t think there’s space on this course for that sort of in-depth discussion – but I would _really_ like to develop a similar module to this for subsequent study years about public history, its demands, successes and failures, where such material would be appropriate and useful.

Points about software (although I can’t really see anyone taking that as a challenge), generic questions (urgh – laziness on the part of the instructor), coyness and so on all accepted and will be worked into the re-write.

Historical writing

August 16, 2007

The summer months typically see me doing a lot of writing, with the result that I restrict my use of the net a lot more, and my postings become ever more feeble. I notice that this happens to some other academic bloggers as well. In the meantime, I thought that I might post up some parts of the course pack I’m in the middle of updating for the history department. We have a compulsory course for undergraduates called Historical Writing, which introduces them to essay researching and writing skills at university level. The current version of the course was set up very well a couple of years ago by Dr Jon Bulaitis – but this year I’m responsible for it, and I’ve tried to tweak it a little – adding in a few things I care about, drawing on my own teaching experiences, and trying to fit the whole thing around the history of London over the ages. The pack that accompanies the course is more extensive than for others – it’s almost a textbook. I’ve been updating that as well.

Here is the section I’ve just been writing. I should point out this isn’t all rant: there are lots of exercises and tasks on each side, and the seminars deal with lots of material in an approachable fashion. But I thought I’d take the opportunity to spell out more explicitly than ever before why this offence makes us angry, and why it’s usually so stupid as well as so wrong. Comments, as ever, welcome
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