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Minding Your Manners

This installment in the Grad School Survival Guide is brought to you by the letters P and Q (and if you’re old enough to get that joke…)

It’s actually inspired by two things that happened recently: first, a friend asked me to look over a draft dissertation proposal; and, second, I got a nastygram (which had nothing to do with that post that I’m tired of talking about now).

Both of them have to do with how we treat each other in academia. I know I’m not the only person to bring this up, but I’m going to say what I have to say about it anyway.

Don’t Bash the Historiography

When I was early in my dissertation writing process, my advisor and I were having a meeting by Skype, and he made an observation that resonated with me. I don’t know why this was some sort of Transmitted From Yoda Secret that needed to be broadcast from On High; in fact, ever since he pointed it out it’s become something I’ve noticed a lot.

What he said was this: “You’re at that point we all find ourselves at while writing: the documentation isn’t giving you what you want, and you’re trying to figure out how to move forward. One of the things people do when they’re in that situation is that they start beating up the historiography; don’t do that. It tells everyone you’re not that confident in your own argument.”

There it is.

[Oh, for the record, if you find yourself in that situation, sit back, look at the documentation, and see what it’s telling you. Make it tell you where to go rather than trying to tell it where you want it to go. This may involve taking some time away from it.]

But since this conversation … I see it a lot. Cover letters. Proposals. Abstracts.

“I am the first…”

“I am the only…”

“Other scholars have failed to notice…”

“The scholarship has ignored…”

They’re all variants of the same thing: I did something no one else did.

Congratulations! That’s what academia is all about.

However, scholars of the new generation (every new generation) tend toward the enthusiastic, and want to trumpet their accomplishment, and they run afoul of the classic mistake of announcing that everyone has done it wrong, and that they have done it right.

Critiquing someone else’s scholarship for failing to come to the conclusions you have reached, or for not identifying an issue at the same level of importance that you’ve ascribed it, basically comes down to this: you’re criticizing them for not being you. They’re not you. They’re them.

Put yourself into the conversation

You can’t ignore the existing historiography, or wave it all away by wishing it had been done differently. This goes back to the issue of intellectual genealogy that I discussed in my post about reading and taking notes for qualifying examinations.

Let me use myself as an example here.

The history of the 20th century Eastern Mediterranean tends to use the nation-state as its unit of analysis. In some cases, it uses nations that didn’t yet exist as the unit of analysis–for example, you can find histories of Israel that cover the first half of the 20th century even though it only existed for the last 18 months of the first half of the 20th century.

The reason that these histories are written this way is that scholars began grappling with the national histories that were constructed from the 1920s onward, and wanted to evaluate them (the most famous example of this is the “New Historians” movement in Israel, but each country in the eastern Mediterranean from Egypt all the way around to Turkey has their own such intellectual genealogy).

So, it’s easy for me to come in three intellectual generations later and say, “but no one has done the transnational”–that is to say, work that crosses borders to look at movements, connections, and cross-currents–but the fact is that I can do the transnational now because of what those who came before me have already done.

Their work makes mine possible, because they’ve gotten the national histories to the point where we can say, “Okay, we understand what’s going on inside these nations, now let’s look outside them.”

So, as you develop a prospectus, or a cover letter, or an abstract, pay attention to how the historiographical trends have developed, and the big questions that have been asked and sought to answer. Your intervention–your work–is part of this lineage whether you want it to be or not. You’ll get much further by explaining how what you’re doing is going to add further to the conversation than by suggesting that everyone else has been having the wrong conversation.

As I was warned during my oral qualifiers… after I did exactly that… “Don’t go after them. They know more than you.”

Or as I put it more crudely: make them want to read more. Not to read you aloud at the departmental holiday party to peals of laughter.

It works both ways

Moving on to the second half of this, I got a nastygram on my academia.edu profile from a retired Ivy League professor who read a historiographical essay I wrote years ago and apparently didn’t like the way I mentioned him in a footnote (I guess?). I’m not going to name him.

The message was probably supposed to be some sort of Maggie Smith-in-Downton Abbey-type burn but it really just confused me and I had to show it to several people before we collectively decided I was being chided.

The gist of the chide, near as I can tell, is that he felt that I, a scholar who hadn’t published as many books or had as many years of experience as he did, and therefore had no right to something something I don’t even know what. I will never entirely understand the impetus of a retired scholar to spend his free time trolling the internet looking for papers that mention himself and send nasty messages to people if he doesn’t like them.

So, in all fairness, I will acknowledge that my suggestion that the new generation should not be dismissive of the previous extends in both directions. I have seen too much of this. I once had a LinkedIn troll who — regardless of what this week’s episode of my podcast was about — had written about it years before and needed me to know. I finally blocked him.

But it’s also true that I see little encouragement by senior scholars of the next generation. Many of the conferences I attend have rooms full of Emerti who offer the dreaded “comment not a question” that seems basically intended to make sure everyone in the room knows they’re still alive.

This is not to say that it doesn’t happen. A few years ago, Suraiya Faroqhi, a distinguished scholar of Ottoman history whom I will name, came to a conference on Ottoman history here at Texas and made a point of offering very constructive–and kind–feedback to all of the graduate students and untenured panelists. It was so rare that I tell people about it. Suraiya Faroqhi did that. What a class act.

After all, folks, someday we’re going to be that generation … and it would be nice if people said they were conversing with us … and we should remember to converse back.

The Curious Case of the Thomas Cook Hospital in Luxor

Over the weekend, the Thomas Cook company went bankrupt and shuttered operations, leaving hundreds of thousands of people stranded worldwide and searching for flights home.

A number of us Twitterstorians became particularly concerned about the impending demise of the company a few days ago when Ziad Morsy, a martime archaeologist and Ph.D. candidate at the University of Southampton tweeted that Thomas Cook’s historical archivist had lost his job.

The Thomas Cook company was 178 years old when it collapsed (just over a month before Britain may or may not exit the European Union–coincidences which have been commented upon elsewhere). Some of its history in relation to British imperial history was covered by another colleague in a Twitter thread yesterday:

Inasmuch as it’s easy to point to the Thomas Cook Company’s early days as those of a commercial company essentially making money off of the expansion of the British Empire, there are occasional glimpses at a richer and more complicated role for the company in various contexts (@afzaque covers several of them in his thread, which is worth a read).

It’s these sorts of things that make the potential loss of the company’s archive particularly painful, as it is one of those out-of-the-box sources for material that can shed startling new light on historical periods.

And hence, I present …

The curious case of the Thomas Cook Hospital

I ran across the hospital while writing the first two chapters of my dissertation, which wound up comprising a comprehensive history of public health in Egypt between 1805 and 1914 as one did not already exist. (Wanna publish it? It’s not going to be in the monograph.)

4472016022_01761fe8b9_z.jpg
The West Bank of the Nile, opposite Luxor, in 2010.

It was located in Luxor, a settlement that is notable mostly for what people were doing there thousands of years ago, as it is built on top of the ruins of what was almost certainly not known to its inhabitants as Thebes, but was one of the New Kingdom capitals of ancient Egypt. Across the Nile River, wide and lazily flowing at this point, is the pyramid-shaped hill that marks the location of the Valley of the Kings.

Given the numerous pharaonic sites that dot the landscape up and down the river from Luxor, Cook had the bright idea to utilize boat travel for wealthy tourists to visit them without the hassle of having to move constantly to new hotels every night. Luxor, at the epicenter, was the site of the train station from which Wagon-Lits and other operators operated sleeper trains to Cairo.

In 1890, Luxor was a small town — perhaps five thousand permanent inhabitants, which could swell as high as twenty thousand during tourist season when there was work to be had.

John Mason Cook–the son referred to in the company’s official name “Thomas Cook & Son” after 1865 — had the idea to open a hospital as early as 1887:

In 1887, he decided, driven by the reactions of rich foreigners–British, American, German–in the face of the unfortunate hygienic conditions of the local population, to construct a hospital. “Accomplished in 1891, inaugurated by the Khedive Tewfik Pacha, it comprised 26 beds (of which 8 were for women, 10 for men)*, the buildings well constructed, each isolated from the other, in a healthy and fortuitous position.”

*(no, this doesn’t equal 26).

Jagailloux, Serge. La Médicalisation de l’Égypte Au XIXe Siècle. Synthèse 25. Paris: Éditions Recherche sur les civilsations, 1986. (translation mine).

The hospital was co-directed by a Syrian doctor and an Englishman (only the latter–a Dr. Saimders–is named). Given that neither were in residence in Luxor in the off season (April to November), a third doctor–an Egyptian–was appointed to see patients in the off-season.

It was estimated that over 120,000 patients were seen, with over 2,000 operational procedures performed, in its first twenty years of operation. The hospital was presumably built primarily for the treatment of visiting foreigners, with Egyptians working in the tourist industry as a secondary priority.

_One_of_the_dahabeahs_of_Thomas_Cook_&_Son,_(Egypt)_Ltd._.jpg
“One of the Dahabeahs (sic) of Thos. Cook & Son Company (Egypt)”
Berlin: Cosmos art publishing Co., 1893.
Collection of the Brooklyn Museum

What is interesting is that, with Cook’s blessing, the hospital was opened to the public as well. In 1898, The Lancet enthusiastically reported that people were coming from over two hundred miles away to seek treatment at the facility. (“Egypt.” The Lancet 152, no. 3905 (July 2, 1898): 59.)

After the British occupation in 1882, funding for public health flatlined. Under Lord Cromer, the public health budget never exceeded 100,000 Egyptian pounds (at the time LE 1 = £0.95).

Hospitals in the provinces, which were already run down and developing a bad reputation among patients (most of them had been built in the 1840s), were frequently closed or moved to other, newer buildings that were not purpose-built to serve as hospitals.

The construction of private facilities was encouraged by the Anglo-Egyptian government; the government would not open new hospitals or dispensaries (a combination pharmacy/clinic used to supplement hospitals in smaller settlements) in towns that had “good” private facilities. Many of the hospitals were funded by local European communities to serve their own–Austro-Hungarians, French, Greeks, Italians, and Anglo-Americans all had their own facilities in Cairo and/or Alexandria, most of which referred their Egyptian patients to government facilities.

Hence, it is a point of curiosity for me as to what inspired John Mason Cook to open his hospital to the general public, especially given that his company did not lack for wealthy clientele to fill its beds.

It suggests that, even at the height of imperialism, with a company that can (and has) be considered an agent of an imperial power, things are never quite as simple as they might seem.

As I was writing this, Ziad tweeted me this tantalizing entry from the archival catalog:

Hence, the answer to my questions may lie in this box, whose future is now in doubt.

What you can do to help

If you’re one of us history types who has benefitted, or could benefit, from consulting the Thomas Cook archives, this thread has specific action items you can take to let people know that there is interest in saving the archive and not letting its contents be dispersed or destroyed.

Wading into the Duke-UNC Middle East Consortium Mess

Note: This originally appeared as a really long thread on Twitter. I had originally colored edited or new text in blue, but have now edited so much that it’s kind of lost all of its meaning and just gave up.

It’s Sunday morning, I have my first cup of coffee, and I’m about to wade into the kerfuffle over the Duke-UNC Middle East Studies consortium.

So let’s get started, shall we?

First off, let me say that I worked for over 15 years for a Title VI program. I left a few years back when writing my dissertation, and there’s been a complete turnover in administration since my day–in any event, this column isn’t about my former place of employment. Nonetheless, let me clarify that what follows here is my opinion alone based on my own observances working with the Title VI grant program writ large.

Note: upon reflection, I have things to say about this opening paragraph. First, after I posted the Twitter thread, a couple of colleagues who still work for NRCs at different institutions contacted me privately to let me know they were either reluctant to speak publicly on the issue, or had been asked not to.

That was when I realized the deeper implication of me starting my own twitter thread with a disclaimer that I no longer work for an NRC and am speaking on my own behalf.

Second, while I know people who work for the Duke-UNC consortium, I am not in a position to evaluate their programming. Nor do I know anything about the Gaza conference that was held which apparently started this whole thing; I have no way to judge whether the criticism it attracted was warranted or valid.

Note: a commenter (scroll all the way down) who was on one of the panels at the Gaza has written an account of the event at her blog.

Background

Title VI, the Foreign Language and Area Studies Act is a federal program administered through the US Department of Education (US/ED) allowing universities to apply for designation as a National Resource Center (NRC) on a four year cycle (always at the same time; the last competition was in 2018; the next should be in 2022).

Despite the emphasis in coverage on the Middle East NRCs, there are NRCs on pretty much the entire world now, including Canada and Western Europe (Title VI used to be exclusively non-Western, although Latin America was included).

Various tweaks have been made along the way, and these are important to understanding what is happening with and to Duke-UNC. Under the Bush administration, a group of neoconservative advocates were able to get language inserted requiring “presentation of multiple perspectives.”

Under the Obama administration, the emphasis placed on STEM education resulted in an absolute priority being added to the competition (meaning, do this or you aren’t eligible) to increase foreign language training among STEM majors.

The same year, a mandate to work with Minority Serving Institutions and/or junior and community colleges was also added.

Title VI doesn’t provide blanket funding. Applicants have to specify what they’re going to do with the money. It cannot be used for faculty salaries, and only up to 50% of administrative salaries, for example. The focus is on developing programming and resources, and training students (a related program that can be applied for either in conjunction with NRC status, or independently of it, is the Foreign Language and Area Studies (FLAS) funding which is used exclusively as fellowships for students pursuing advanced language study).

The Obama era additions were rather restrictive, and some institutions chose to close their programs (notably Harvard’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies) rather than accept money that was so restricted.

Title VI also requires significant investment from the institutions themselves. At one point, my institution estimated that for every dollar in Title VI funding received, they were spending three from other sources.

US/ED doesn’t seem to know its own regulations

Like any grantor of funds, US/ED absolutely has the right to request clarification to ensure that its funds are being spent appropriately–I am certainly not arguing to the contrary. That said, in my experience, in the past when US/ED has wanted such clarification, they have asked for it in private communication with grant recipients; they don’t publish public letters in the Federal Register

What is being missed in the coverage of the Duke-UNC issue is that the letter sent by Assistant Secretary King displays a startling lack of understanding of the Title VI program’s own regulations.

The media has focused on issues like the way Israel and Islam are portrayed in classes and lectures. Let’s leave those aside for a moment and start with the paragraph that suggests that the consortium has an anti-governmental bias and is discouraging students from working for the federal government.

This is a stunning allegation to be made without any sort of proof.

The letter goes on to complain that, instead of choosing to work for the government, students are going on to graduate education or working for academia.

This is an acceptable outcome according to Title VI’s own regulations.

Title VI is not just a university-to-government pipeline. It is also meant to ensure that there will be qualified instructors for the next generation.

Let’s not even discuss the fact that small programs like the Duke-UNC consortium don’t have career counselors.

It is truly shocking that the Assistant Secretary of the Department of Education would look at placement data and–based solely on this data–assume not only that students were choosing not to work for the federal government because they were being coached not to do so, but to then repeat this allegation in an open letter published in the Federal Register.

The letter also bemoans the fact that foreign languages are being taught by lecturers and not tenured faculty. As mentioned above, Title VI funds cannot be used to hire permanent faculty. It can be used (partially) to hire lecturers.

Universities cannot snap their fingers and make tenure track positions appear. Believe me, I and a number of colleagues on the job market right now wish that they could. Duke-UNC is doing the best they can with the resources they have. All universities are having this issue.

The tone of the letter also suggests that languages would be better taught by tenure track faculty. I have worked with extremely talented lecturers who are just as dedicated (if not more) than any tenure track faculty member. This letter is also a slap in the face to them.

Education is not a zero-sum game

Let us move on to the most troubling passage: the one that assumes that Islam is being presented more positively than other religions in the Middle East.

Let me tell you about the data this accusation is being pulled from.

Twice a year during the grant period, NRCs have to submit data on what they’re doing with the grant money. One of these is strictly financial, the other includes narratives and comprehensive lists of all events, lectures, workshops, conferences, etc. that were supported.

These are exhausting. They take hundreds of hours of staff time to compile. And feedback is … nonexistent. In fact, I was told once in private that no one at the Department of Education really ever looked at them.

The amount of text you get to describe a single event is fairly limited, and I can’t speak for Duke-UNC, but I will say I never put in a lot of substantive effort into writing descriptions because I had dozens more events to enter into the system–and because in 15 years of submitting these reports I never got a single question, request for additional information, or feedback from anyone, so there was an existential issue of how much I should really bother being complete and creative.

I can say definitively that there is no place in the system to upload fliers, programs, supporting documentation. If it’s a multi day conference, the names of all the speakers usually don’t fit in the text box.

I bring all of this up because Secretary King makes some interesting assumptions about the event that he refers to based on the limited data he has in front of it. He assumes Islam is being portrayed positively, based on … the title of the event?

He assumes that other religious traditions in the region are not being covered, or are being covered less … actually, let’s start with not being covered. Again, I question the basis for the assumption. Does he have the program in front of him? Copies of the materials given out?

The next bit, however, is the red flag, and this one is key, guys, and I’m sorry to have buried it so far down in the thread.

It’s the assumption that if Islam is being portrayed [too?] positively, then by definition any other religion discussed must be portrayed negatively.

This right here is absolutely key, because it has been at the center of neoconservative complaints about Title VI for the past two decades.

It assumes that education does not teach people to think critically, present nuance, and that students must adopt their professors opinions in order to pass the class.

This isn’t how it works, folks.

There is absolutely no basis for the assumption that if one speaks positively about Islam, then we must be speaking negatively of Christianity or Judaism. Education isn’t a zero-sum game. University classes aren’t about which religion is “good” and which is “bad.”

This is a conservative talking point. I know this because the exact same language popped up with the Texas State Board of Ed, who cheerfully admitted who brought their attention to “this important issue.”

Update: it was pointed out on Twitter that the letter critiques Duke-UNC for offering lectures and events focused on Islam instead of other religions, not about the manner in which they are portrayed in comparison to each other–this critique of my comments is perfectly fair.

The crux of my argument here is less about the specific criticism, but rather that the letter strongly suggests that judgement about the worth and value of programming and courses has already been made based on the scant information given in the annual NRC reports and before seeking additional clarification from Duke-UNC. My reading is reinforced by the inclusion of derisive editorial comments in the letter itself ridiculing courses based on their title, and sarcastically questioning how they could possibly be relevant to the NRC mission.

A much more neutral request for information —  for instance, “We see that funds were used to support this course which, based on the title and description, seems to be somewhat esoteric in regards to the NRC mission. We’d like to see the syllabus and have you explain how the course content helps meet program objectives,” would have been more professional (for a start) and much more assuring that the inquiry into Duke-UNC is an honest attempt at administrative oversight.

How many perspectives are multiple?

More to the point is what the media and others have correctly noted is the “chilling” impact this could have on education, if the Department of Education is going to start policing what universities can and cannot include on their syllabi.

The concerns in the letter raised about “multiple perspectives,” for instance, are based on a single event. The way my university approached this was to ensure that multiple perspectives were employed over the program year, not at each individual event.

There is a single example given in the letter from Secretary King. One. “This doesn’t appear to be a balanced event.” Okay. Did Duke-UNC hold other events that provided an alternate perspective on the issue? We don’t know. That information isn’t provided.

It isn’t feasible, possible, or even desirable to turn every academic talk into a point-counterpoint debate.

Presenting one single lecture as an example of “unbalanced programming” is a cheap card trick.

What’s next?

Now, I’ve gone on far too long about this, but to wrap up.

As I mentioned at the very beginning, there are around 120 NRCs around the US, focusing on all regions of the world. The attention in the media has focused on the Middle East ones, but there are plenty of others.

Should the East Asia centers be tweaking their language curriculum so that students learning Mandarin get instruction on how to discuss trade negotiations? Should classes on Korea be required to teach that Kim Jong Un is “a nice guy”?

Should courses on contemporary politics avoid criticism of Russia because “he’s a good guy. I believe him?”

These may seem like over-the-top examples, but … why? If US/ED gets to determine what material and approaches are and are not acceptable–based entirely on course titles and 250 word descriptions–where does it end?

One of the criticisms lobbed at Title VI is that critics feel it should be upholding American interests. This means that professors might have to change out their curriculum with every new administration—even contradicting what they said four years earlier. (Imagine, if you will, the about-face professors would have to do to incorporate Trump administration priorities after spending eight years teaching those of the Obama administration, and that after eight years of the Bush administration.)

This isn’t how education works. American interests are best served by creating a cadre of experts who understand how the rest of the world works and advising the US on what should be done as a result.

That’s what Title VI is supposed to be for.

Update

UNC has responded to the Department of Education. The letter makes numerous references to documentation the government already has in its possession that would have clarified what was happening. See it here:

Writing Your First Book Review

pile of books
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

I wasn’t actually intending to write about this as part of the Grad School Survival Guide, but I sat in on a seminar yesterday to discuss a colleague’s new book and the idea came up. I hope the students don’t mind me using our conversation as a jumping off point (I won’t name them, at any rate), and for borrowing a couple of ideas that were circulated.

The issue that came up toward the end of the discussion is that these students, most in their first or second year, were feeling a bit intimidated about writing critical book reviews because they didn’t feel like they had enough grounding in the subject matter, and also they were afraid of offending senior colleagues in the same field.

I’m not going to dismiss these concerns, because they’re certainly understandable, and, when I offered my own advice to them I admitted point blank that I knew exactly where they were coming from.

Writing a book review for a seminar, a graduate student journal, or pretty much anything else is, first and foremost, going to require a lot of the skills I covered in my post on how to read for graduate school. However, as a graduate student it is also one of the easiest ways to start racking up publications credits early in your career.

The standard format of a book review in the humanities (and be sure to check the standards for your discipline, as well as the specific requirements of any venue through which you plan to publish) is that it should be between 1,000 and 1,200 words; that it begins with a paragraph describing the book, goes through chapter by chapter in subsequent paragraphs, and then wraps up with one or two concluding paragraphs.

What the students I met with yesterday were struggling with–and, again, I am familiar with this struggle because we all struggle with it–is how to transform this basic format from a summary into an actual review.

Critique vs. Criticism

One of the classic tactics that early graduate students often adopt to overcome this hurdle is to bludgeon the book to death with over the top criticism that questions the legitimacy of the author’s birth, educational credentials, choice of car, and worthiness as a human being consuming oxygen and food resources that, the review implies, could be better spent on, say, perpetrators of genocide serving out life sentences at The Hague.

The problem with this approach is that much of the substantive criticism of the book tends to revolve around the reviewer’s assertion that they wouldn’t have written a book on this topic the way that the author did. In short: the reviewer isn’t reviewing the book for what it is, they’re criticizing the text based on what they think it should be.

First and foremost, this is both unfair and somewhat unprofessional, and speaks much worse about the reviewer than it does about the material under review. Don’t be this person.

Also, resist personal attacks. At no point should an author’s credentials come into play unless the author is completely unqualified to write the book they’ve written–and even then … an academic book has made it through the proposal stage, blind peer review, and editing, so someone out there who knows this field has decided the book has some merit. If the book didn’t go through peer review, that changes the calculus, but still — personal attacks on the author are petty and weaken your argument. Stick to the text.

This is where the difference between critique and criticism comes in to place. Critique should be somewhat constructive (the author did this well, but their argument could have been strengthened with field work or more archival sources). Criticism, on the other hand, tends to be much more dismissive of the idea that the text has any merit (this book isn’t worth the paper it’s written on). Even if you happen to be of the opinion that the book isn’t worth the paper it’s written on, you’ll get much further and be taken much more seriously by engaging with the argument presented, taking it on its own terms, and outlining the issues with it.

Where To Begin

I referenced the How to Read Post above for a reason: in that post, I offered some suggestions for thinking critically about a text, and one of the easiest places to begin is to locate that section late in the introduction of the book where the author lays out their argument and their plan for the book, and evaluate how well they did.

For example, in yesterday’s seminar, one of the students observed that the author had a tendency to drop what seemed like the beginning of an interesting story that had the potential to illustrate a point … and then abandon it and move on. This is an astute observation, and would be a good point to raise in an review.

It’s also common in first books that come out of dissertations. The author has spent so much time working with the material that they start to think some of their illustrations are common knowledge and don’t need to be fully fleshed out. (This is also a sign of a cursory editing job).

When you’re writing your dissertation you’ll probably experience this once or twice. I literally had moments of despair because I ran across a book that used some of the same sources that I did–and therefore “everyone already knows this” and “I’m not doing anything new.” (They don’t, and you are.)

Here are some other things to take into account:

  • What methodology or theoretical approach is the author using? Is it presented in a way that makes sense. (A lot of historians in particular are allergic to theory and only introduce it at the end in a “I have to do this” sort of way. Does it show?)
  • How is the author contributing to the historical literature? What conversations are they contributing to? How might someone who works on a different area find the book useful?
  • Does each chapter have an argument? Is the argument fully supported? How does the chapter contribute to your understanding of the overall argument of the book?
  • Do the chapters flow from one to the other? (In a book where each chapter is a difference case study they should still fit together somehow in the end).
  • What sources does the author use? Are there sources you might have expected to see that aren’t there? Conversely, are there sources that you didn’t expect to see that are?

Critiques don’t have to be negative

It is often easier to write a review of a book you didn’t like. That said, while “critique” has something of a slightly negative connotation, it is actually a neutral term. Remember to point out things that the author does well–a mix of positive and constructive comments helps demonstrate that you have approached the book on its own terms.

When all else fails, take a look at reviews of books (one of the students in the seminar yesterday mentioned Goodreads, which I’ll admit I haven’t looked at in years). While everyone loves to circulate the fire-and-brimstone type reviews that throw lightning bolts at texts, you really want to get a feel for more nuanced reviews.

In particular, spend time reading reviews that are mostly positive–a lot of students struggle with these because they don’t want to come off as fawning or sycophantic; learning how to write a positive review takes some practice, but you also shouldn’t scour a book for something negative to say just because being fully positive is too challenging.

The more you write reviews, the better you’ll get at it!

Transitioning from Research to Writing

It’s time for another installment of the Grad School Survival Guide.

You’re home from your research year. You’ve been all over the place, and have thousands of photocopies and scans and lots of great material!

So … uh, now what?

This column is going to be one of those ones where I tell you what I wish I had done, rather than emphasize what I did.

What I did was this: I came home, worked another month at my job, quit, went to Mexico for two weeks to visit in-laws for Christmas, came back and started prepping my first adjunct class at a university nearby (not the one where I was working on my Ph.D.). It was the following summer before I even started working with the material I’d brought home and I’ll be honest: my memory isn’t as good as I had hoped it was.

Here’s what I wish I’d done instead.

adult blur business close up
Photo by Nguyen Nguyen on Pexels.com

Don’t worry about writing yet.

We all have this fantasy that we’re going to get off the plane from research and immediately start writing our dissertations. Some of us probably set out for research with the expectation that we were going to get a bunch of stuff written while we were doing research.

In my experience, writing while doing research is minimal, and being able to compose those beautiful paragraphs right after research … let’s just say there’s a reason it takes a while.

In other words: if you’re sitting there thinking that you don’t know where to begin, you’re in the majority. Breathe.

Go through everything you collected

Unless you are an absolute superstar and heavily annotated every document you photocopies and scanned (in which case you don’t really need my advice), you probably did so-so on this.

Even if you did a decent job, you probably did what most of us do: your understanding of what you collected is based on which archive you got it from. Now, obviously you don’t want to forget this because it’s important information that you’ll need, but more than that you’ll want to know what everything you collected says.

In order to get excited about writing, you need to both simultaneously go through all of the stuff you collected in order to synthesize it, and gain a bird’s eye view in order to start seeing the linkages in the material. This sounds tedious (I won’t lie, it can be), but it can also get your brain cells firing up and ready to start composing text.

Here’s where you start.

Whether you use post-it notes, an Excel spreadsheet, the notes and keywords function in Zotero, or some other program and system (I would suggest doing it electronically rather than pen and paper as the search function is going to be a key factor in making this useful), start going through and giving your documents a closer read and collecting useful data.

I suggest that at a minimum you’ll want to track:

  • Names (sender, recipient, subject of the document, any other key personnel you think you might want to search for later)
  • Dates (the date it was authored at a minimum)
  • Places
  • Title (if the document has one)
  • Subject matter — (this doesn’t have to be super detailed: “Letter from H.C. [High Commissioner] to Interior Ministry re: sale of onions in 1917” is fine.)
  • Connections (see below)
  • What I Need (see below)

If you have multi-document PDFs (for example: if you scanned a box or file that all has the same file number and you want to keep them all together), create internal bookmarks for each sub-component so that you can easily locate a document within the larger file. I’ve lost hours scrolling up and down looking for one-page memos lost within a 90 page PDF. You’ll thank yourself for this later.

As you do this, you’ll start to notice trends and connections between documents. This is where you’ll want to go back and add items to your “connections” category — whether it’s “compare to [document reference]” or noting that the other half of the story is contained in a file you found somewhere else, or whatever you need it to do.

I also kept a running note of What I Need–I used this for two purposes. First, I used it to write notes to myself to do a little research in areas that I just didn’t know very much about. If the document referred to an incident or event or person that I didn’t recognize but seemed important, I’d make a note.

I also used it to record articles or books I knew were out there or things I wanted to review (“I know Gallagher discusses this in her book — revisit.”).

The biggest and most important piece of advice I have is this: NEVER EVER TRUST YOURSELF IF YOU FIND YOURSELF SAYING “I’LL REMEMBER THIS.”

You won’t.

Write it down.

Starting the writing process

At some point–hopefully–in all of this, you’ll find yourself with a story you want to tell. Start telling it. Open up a word document, and write it out (don’t forget to cite things!)

At this point, don’t worry about linear writing — none of the chapters in my dissertation were written straight through from beginning to end. Start writing things down as they come to you, and as they interest you. It doesn’t matter if it’s not very good and you’ll never show your adviser — at this stage in the game, what you’ll want to get over is the oppression of the blank document staring back at you from your computer screen.

In the early stages you’ll have a bunch of paragraphs that don’t link together — that’s fine. You’ll have stories that have a beginning and a middle but no end, or an end with no beginning — that’s fine too.

Potters don’t throw a lump of clay down and create beautiful vases immediately — they do a lot of molding and shaping and sometimes if it sucks they smush the clay back into a lump and start over. Writing is the same way.

What you want in this beginning stage is to get a feel for what you have in your documentation and what stories you’re excited to tell right up front. Let the structure of the document form around it. Don’t worry about whether it’s what you set out to write at the beginning–that can all come later.

Believe me, you’ll get plenty of practice in the months to come!