Someone else is doing my topic. Is my academic career over??

Another query from a friend – hopefully they won’t mind me using our discussion as the springboard for a post, because they are not the only person I’ve had this conversation with. Not only that, but I, myself, have been talked off this very same ledge more than once.

It goes something like this. You’re past prospectus, you’re getting reading to embark on research–or perhaps you’re mid research, or even writing your dissertation.

At some point, someone mentions to you–or you see an article, or somehow it is brought to your attention that there is another scholar working on a topic similar to yours.

And you go see what they’re doing.

And you realize their topic sounds familiar.

Very familiar.

And you start to feel like you’re having an out of body experience.

And, at some point, you realize it’s been about twenty seconds since you last inhaled.

Because … they’re doing your topic.

And your palms sweat.

If someone else is doing your topic … then your work isn’t original any more! It’s too late to start over now! I can’t start over! Am I doomed? Is it the apocalypse?

No. No, it isn’t. (Okay, in full disclosure: it may be the apocalypse, but this isn’t why.)

Your work is still original, and so is theirs.

Let’s counter the irrationality of panic and insecurity with some cold hard facts.

You have your sources, your framework, and your theory. No one else has this. Even if the other scholar is looking at the exact same topic as you, the two of you are not going to write the same thesis. It’s just not going to happen. (And if it does, this isn’t the column for you. You need to be looking at pieces on plagiarism and academic dishonesty because that just doesn’t happen).

We put such a premium on the doctoral process involving An Original Piece of Research to The Field that we miss the fact that we’re supposed to be entering a conversation with other scholars. Other people are going to comment on your work. You’re building off of a cadre of scholars who are adjacent to your subfield. And, yes, maybe one of them will know something about your topic too. It’s okay! That’s what academia is all about (or it’s supposed to be, anyway).

But this is a hard lesson to come to. For years, whenever I read anything that came a little too close to my own research my face would start to burn and I’d feel like a fraud. My work isn’t new, I’d tell myself. Everyone knows this. I’m just rehashing old territory.

You’ll feel like this a lot when you’re in the midst of research and writing because you’ve spent so long with the material that it feels like common knowledge. Trust me, it isn’t.

I guarantee the other scholar isn’t using your sources. They have stuff you don’t have. You have stuff they don’t have. And even if you come to the exact same conclusion, you’ll have taken different routes to get there, and both of your works will benefit. Don’t see this as a threat to your own work.

Edit: when I posted this on Facebook, a colleague commented that:

A graduate student emailed me freaking out that I had “beat him” to the topic. Since then, we’ve submitted grant applications together to conduct an expansive oral history project.

Think of the opportunities: conference panels, grants, etc. You’re starting to find your tribe!

Do, however, take steps to protect your own work. I never posted anything dissertation-related online, except for some public history pieces and a very short (10 page) paper I gave at a conference. I’m happy to share my work with interested scholars, but until I’m ready to publish it and put it out there for the world to see, I’m not broad-banding the draft versions. This is just common sense, and I’d recommend it to everyone. You can’t be too careful.

In my next posts in the Grad School Survival Guide, I’ll discuss the process of planning a research year, and how to try to get through it in one piece. Stay tuned!


Grad School Survival Guide: Oral Examinations

For this entry in the Grad School Survival Guide, I begin with a story.

In the fall of each year, my department had meetings with the students in their first, second, and third year (individually) to discuss benchmarks in the program, student concerns, etc., sort of as a coaching meeting at the beginning of the year.

I was not in my third year when this story took place (in fact, I was in my eighth, and final year), and I had absolutely no intention of attending the third year meeting. I was just looking for a place to drink my coffee before meeting with a new visiting research fellow who also worked on Egypt, and I figured that the fourth floor common area outside the research fellows’ offices would be empty.

I was wrong.

Off I walked from the elevator in my best “I’m not teaching today and don’t have to look pretty” clothes (which is to say, the ones that didn’t have visible stains on them or had been co-opted by the cats as a nest on the floor of the closet) with my headphones in, carrying a paper mug from the ‘bucks and I don’t know what else … and discovered that twenty sets of eyes were watching me do so.

Had I but been naked it would have been a scene from a nightmare.

“Oh, hi.” I said over whatever Scandinavian pop-rock I was into that day blasting into my ears. “Um, can I sit here quietly? I’m meeting someone in twenty minutes.”

And that was when the invitation was offered. “The students are a bit nervous about comps,” said the graduate advisor. “Come offer words of wisdom.”

Trying to wrap my head around the need to be social–I am an introvert. I have learned to be an extroverted introvert, but I still, in my mid-40s, do not react well to discovering that I need to be social when I was not expecting to be–I came and took a seat at the table and asked the assembled group, “So, what about comps is stressing you out?”

It transpired that the students were nervous about the oral component of the comprehensive exams. And herein I said something that made our normally unflappable graduate advisor flinch:

“Oh, orals stressed me out. I was way more stressed about my oral comprehensives than I am about my dissertation defense.”

And, for the record, having now been through my dissertation defense (successfully), let me say definitively: yes, I was much more stressed about my oral comprehensive exams than I was about the defense.

If you are feeling as though this might be the case for you, let me offer this piece of sage wisdom: it’s not just you. And also, relax.

man in white shirt using macbook pro
Photo by Tim Gouw on

Why you’re stressed

You probably don’t need me to delineate the causes of your stress, but let me boil it down to one simple thing that, for me, fed into all the rest of my comps-related stress: I had absolutely no idea what to expect.

You see, oral comprehensive exams aren’t open to the public. I think they do that so that there’s no additional pressure on the examinee, but I’m not sure that’s actually the end result. By the time I started my doctoral program I had attended a handful of dissertation defenses. I knew what sorts of questions were asked, and I knew what they sounded like when they went well.

Later, I would discover what it sounded like when they did not go well (disclaimer: it wasn’t mine). One defense went so poorly that one of the committee members later apologized to me in her office because she said that “you poor students all looked pretty traumatized, and I want you to know that’s not how things normally go.” There were a lot of extenuating circumstances. I won’t go into it here, as it’s not my tale to tell, but it also served to demonstrate that for things to go that badly at a defense you have to put some effort into it. If your advisor and committee tell you you’re ready to defend, there’s absolutely no reason to lose sleep over the defense.

But … what about comprehensives? I’ve heard of people who don’t pass their comprehensives. What sorts of questions are asked? What does the right answer look like? I mean, this one time at a defense I saw a candidate deflect a question by coolly responding, “That’s an excellent question, but I would have to argue that it’s outside the scope of this project.” And the committee accepted that! Can I do that in comps? (Note: I wouldn’t advise it).

For a long time there was even a prohibition on sharing the written examination questions and essays with colleagues. I don’t know if it’s still in place, but I do know a couple of colleagues who posted their comps portfolios online. In my day, I didn’t even have a sample of what the stupid things were supposed to look like.

adult blur business close up
Photo by Nguyen Nguyen on

A note on the written examinations

You’ll notice that I haven’t written a separate entry about the written comprehensive essays. And this is because they are not one-size-fits-all. Some universities put you in a room and give you x amount of time to do a brain dump of everything you’ve learned. Some give you a couple of days per essay. Mine gives you a month to do all of them. In short: advice that worked for me probably won’t work for you.

I had all my sources and materials at my beck and call. The “short” essay–at 24 pages–had hundreds of footnotes. If you’re locked in a room for eight hours and doing a stream of consciousness data dump of the previous year’s reading based solely on your memory, my advice will be completely useless.

For the written: Paint with big strokes, identify large themes, and write until you’re done. The purpose of the essay is to demonstrate the wide breadth of knowledge you’ve accumulated. The best advice I can give here is to suggest that you treat your written examination as a preparation of the orals. This is a document you’ll be coming back to in that session. Lay out your argument and explanation here.


So. Orals.

There are two very helpful pieces of advice that were given to me about comps.

The first is that the oral exam is that it’s like an Oral Proficiency Interview in a foreign language. Now, if you’re in one of those lucky fields where you don’t have to do these (or you specialize in dead languages), let me explain how these work. The test is designed to determine how high your language ability goes. The key–and often missing–piece of information for the testee is that in order to determine how high your ability goes, the test has to exceed your ability to communicate in that language–in other words, for the test to work, you have to fail.

The conversation will begin with “hello, what is your name?” and proceed through “order this at the grocery story” to “please explain the macroeconomic impacts of Prince Feisal’s plan to develop the natural gas sector of the economy” gradually and slowly over the course of the session. At some point, your vocabulary and/or grammar will run out, and your ability to communicate will break. It’s supposed to, unless you’re a native speaker (in which case, why the hell are you taking a proficiency interview in a language you speak natively?).

Your language aptitude is then measured at the highest level where you were able to perform competently. Some mistakes, but you were able to plow through and make yourself understood despite them.

The comprehensive oral examination is a bit like this. The questions will be probing. You’ll be asked about areas that the committee feels you deviated away from, or didn’t address as fully as they wanted. They’ll push you to defend certain points you made. You might have been wrong once or twice. (These are all things that happened in mine). The idea is to see how much knowledge you built up over the past year and determine that it is Satisfactory.

You will not be asked names, dates, and places. More likely you’ll be asked about authors and arguments.

What I find helpful about the OPI analogy is this: you’re not expected to be able to answer everything. Not all questions are for answering. Some are to make you think. Knowing this makes a huge difference in how you react.

The other piece of advice I got, which I fear is also true, is that the comprehensive oral examination is academic hazing.

In my case…the committee decided before I even entered the room that I had passed the exam and spent the next ninety minutes putting me through the wringer mainly to get me to think about the things I hadn’t addressed fully in the written portion, so that I could be aware of them as I moved into the dissertation phase.

Why they couldn’t just tell me this I don’t know. There is an element of “we went through it, so you will also go through it” to all of this.

The Bottom Line

If you’ve done well in your reading for the exams, if you feel like you’ve done competently on the written essays (no one feels like they aced them, except for that one friend of mine who will message me the moment he reads this to tell me that he did … I see you, CMB), you should be well prepared for the orals.

If, on the other hand, you just skipped an entire section of your reading list because you found the material boring and uninteresting, then you probably have reason to be worried.

I know people who feel the need to “cram” for their orals. If this makes you feel better prepared, I won’t discourage it, but by all means don’t pull an all-nighter. You’ve had a year (or longer). You’re not going to shovel it into your brain at the last second. Re-read your written essays and get some sleep.

You’ve made it this far. It’s in no one’s interest to see you fail now!

Grad School Survival Guide: How to Study

If you missed it, the first installment of my Grad School Survival Guide described how to read (or, why everyone seems to have something to say about this week’s readings but you.)

So, now you know how to read in the way your professor expects you to. But you’re taking three seminars, and maybe also a foreign language class, and somehow you’re supposed to read four books a week and do two hours of homework a night. Is your social life over? Will you ever see daylight again?

Let me say that I am no stranger to this question. Halfway through my first year in the doctoral program, my first long-term relationship (11 years) ended. Trying not to commit academic suicide by negotiating a move while working full time and enrolled in two classes, I remained co-habitating with my ex through the end of the spring semester (this was probably a bad idea). A few years later, I got married (also in the middle of a semester), but I was reading for comps that year. We’ll cover comps soon.

For the first six years of my graduate program, I worked a full time, 40-hour a week job. I was fortunate in that said 40-hour a week job was at the same university in which I was enrolled as a student, so it was both a source of financial aid (staff education benefit), and lenient enough that I could swap out a 3-hour block of time during business hours for shortened lunch breaks other days to make up for it. (I also took a reduced course load, averaging 6 hours per semester instead of the usual 9).

So, what I’m saying is that you can have it all! Or you can have enough. And part of this is accomplished by developing study habits that give you what you need to be successful, but don’t take over the rest of your life.

One of the things I see lots of graduate students doing is acting as though their career as graduate students is temporary and “normal life” will resume when it’s done. Considering it takes an average of 7 years to get through a doctoral program, that’s a lot of “putting life on hold,” and, more to the point, John Lennon was right: life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans.

You need to be able to maintain a work/life balance. Everyone knows that one apocryphal student who only studies and never goes out because there’s a lecture on something on a Friday night or there’s an exam in three weeks — whatever happened to that guy, anyway? (It does seem to always be a guy, for some reason).

Don’t be that guy. Here are some things I’ve learned about organizing your studying and reading life.


1. Your professor doesn’t expect you to have the book memorized.

First off, buy nothing before you get the syllabus on the first day (unless it’s otherwise requested). Look at the syllabus. If there’s a different book every week, that means that you’ll literally be reading each book to discuss in class once.

If you buy them all, that’s a lot of money you’re pretty much wasting on books that will be read once, put back on the shelf, and resold at the end of the semester for a fraction of what you paid for them. Just don’t.

In all likelihood, the copy that your professor put on reserve in the library is going to suit you just fine. Don’t run out and buy every book listed — if you think something is going to be useful for your research later on, then you can buy it from the used listings on Amazon or at the local used bookstore.

Okay! So, you went to the library and got your course reserved book, and it has to be back in two hours. Now what?

Remember the four questions I posed in my previous post?

  1. What is the argument that the author is making?
  2. How is the author’s argument new and different?
  3. Does the author’s argument make sense?
  4. Does the author successfully prove his/her argument?

Prioritize the two hours you have with the book to answer those four questions.

I’m going to repeat the importance of these four questions over and over again. Get used to answering those four questions. You’ll need them every week in seminar, and they’ll be doubly important when reading for your qualifying/comprehensive examinations.

As you progress, you’ll notice that seminar discussion really doesn’t stray far outside of these questions. Anecdotes that either the professor or other students share from the book’s content will mostly be presented in the context of addressing these.

I pretty much guarantee that your professor will never give you a pop quiz and ask what happened on November 10, 1789 (Ronan, that was for you!) unless what happened on that date was important to the author’s argument, in which case that’s probably what the question is really about. And there will almost certainly never be a pop quiz.

Take detailed notes and bring them to seminar with you. Personally, I liked handwriting my notes because I felt like I retained the information better. Some people do this just fine with typing. Try both, see what works for you.

You probably won’t need the book in front of you (notice that students who bring the book to class don’t open their copy that much, if at all). I would wager that half of the students who bring the book to class are trying to look prepared primarily in order to impress other people. Ignore this.

If you don’t trust yourself to be able to carry the conversation without paper backup, scan or photocopy parts of the book that you think are important to back you up–the intro and/or conclusion are the obvious suspects, or a section where you feel that questions 3 and 4 are being illustrated well (or poorly, depending on how you answer the questions).

In short order, you’ll learn to extract what you need from a book — and what you won’t need. This will give you a good sense of how long you need to spend with a book to get what you need — and that’s key for maintaining a good work/life balance.

2. There will be weeks you don’t have all the reading done.

It happens. Hopefully it won’t be the same week that everyone else in your seminar had a massive research assignment due for someone else. At the very least, plot out two hours to spend some quality time with the book so that you have something to say, and focus on the four questions above (it’s always about the four questions).

I focus on getting it done in two hours because that happens to be how long you can borrow course reserves at my university’s library, but also because I learned how to get through a book in two hours and answer these questions. It may take you a while to learn the mechanics of it, but you can spend just a couple of hours with the book and arrive at seminar with things to contribute to the discussion!

If you have one of those weeks where it just all went to hell and you didn’t even look at the book … well, speaking personally: If class participation is part of the seminar grade, your professor would probably rather you didn’t come at all than have you sit there for three hours not contributing. You’ll notice early on that you can always tell who’s trying to BS their way through the conversation without having read the material. Just because no one said anything doesn’t mean they didn’t notice.

“Dad, isn’t this usually the time of day you pull out a book, and I help you read by rubbing my face all over it?”

3. Schedule study time, and make it sacrosanct.

This is really important for the work/life balance. If you have people in your life (partners, children, parents, friends) who aren’t also in graduate school, it’s very easy to treat your workload as an inconvenience or secondary in importance. Don’t.

I set out certain blocks of time that were Study Time. In my case, they were more procedural blocks of time (i.e., Saturday after the grocery store run, Sunday after breakfast) than, say, a firm “I will study from 3-4 on Wednesdays”–but that also works. The important thing is that you have a mental time slot when you “should” be studying and to get both body and mind to expect it, and to signal that something is off if you’re not doing it.

The firmer you are about this, the easier it is on everyone else. I liked to read in the mornings because my brain was fresher, and because it was less intrusive: usually if we were going to leave the house for something it would be an afternoon movie or to go out to dinner. It also made it much less stressful for me to schedule plans with friends with confidence; otherwise they become sources of tension and angst on your part.

That said, I did have to put my foot down a few times and ask my fiancé (later husband) not to schedule things on the weekend without consulting me first, especially toward the end of the semester when I also needed to be doing research and writing.

However, on the flip side, once I had developed a set schedule and knew what I could accomplish within it, I also had more confidence about scheduling leisure activities in my free time.

4. Environment is important.

Where you study is just as important as when you study. Find a place where you can study successfully. I highly recommend that it not be the same place you do other kinds of reading (leisure reading) or watch TV. It should “feel” like the place where you go to get things done.

For me, it was the dining table. We don’t use it much, so I could leave books there. Books went flat on the table, my feet were flat on the floor, I was sitting upright. It’s also quiet, although occasionally I did have some unexpected help.

“Your thesis was not valid, so we deleted it. You’re welcome.”

A lot of people like to go to coffee shops or the library to study – if that’s your thing, great. It doesn’t work for me. The popular campus coffee shop where everyone at my university likes to hang out is loud and boisterous and the chairs were clearly designed by a devotee of the late Marquis de Sade, and I just don’t understand why people think it’s all that (and the coffee tastes burnt).

In addition to my well-documented hatred of That Place, I also always felt like that I was putting too much pressure on myself to be productive once I arrived, got situated, and opened a book. I felt like I would spend more time evaluating whether I had “done enough” to justify the trip than I did paying attention to the material. I also discovered that if I drank coffee after noon I would have problems sleeping.

The idea is that you should feel like you’re in a place that merits serious attention. When you’re here, your brain is primed, and your body reacts accordingly. This is why I don’t recommend mixing the physical locations where you enjoy leisure time with the location where you’re being studious. (This is an actual thing, psychologically speaking, and it can lead to both anxiety–which there’s enough of in grad school as it is–and insomnia.)

5. Know your limits.

I worked full time for 11 years before starting my doctoral program. During that time, I got used to the concept that when I got home from work at 5:30, the rest of the day was mine. It was a very hard habit to break myself of–in fact, I never successfully did so.

When I first started my graduate program, I tried my best to come home and be productive, but I was usually tired (because I was in the office at 7:30 am), and my brain was uncooperative. The most productive time I was able to eke out on a weeknight was about an hour. I could get through an article (singular), but it wasn’t enough time to get through a book, and I realized that my ability to retain any information about a book was diminished if I split it up over multiple days. I also noticed that I was looking at the clock a lot more than I did on weekend mornings.

Eventually, once I realized this, I shifted most of my productive time to the weekends (this was why I had to be more militant about ensuring that I had some control over weekend scheduling).

I also noticed that I was better at working through books with longer stretches of time (like two hours), and that I was at my best if I didn’t try to get through them right before the seminar where they would be discussed.

Your mileage may vary, and you’ll realize your own quirks and how you work best. Pay attention to the mental and physical cues your body and mind give you, and don’t struggle against them.

6. The first five are a lot. Speak up if you’re struggling.

Your professor is probably teaching at least two other classes, and in all likelihood the other two classes are undergraduate lecture courses that require a lot of work. Most of us operate under the assumption that if a student needs help, they’ll say something. And, whether by hook or by crook, graduate students tend to get less attention because it’s assumed that they’re more mature and capable of speaking up if they need something.

Unfair, but true.

Graduate students often experience depression and anxiety, and it can be bewildering if you’ve never experienced it before. And as difficult as it can be, often times it is incumbent upon the student to make the first move.

But please do.

If you’re struggling with the workload, talk to your professor. Speaking personally, I will bend over backwards to help a student who is struggling (and reward the effort come grading time.) I can’t help if I don’t know.

If you’re struggling with your mental health talk to … someone. Your professor. Your advisor. Friends.

Look up the student disability services office (because mental conditions count) and see what services they offer.

Find a yoga class.

Work out.

Take a mental health break.

Take care of your mind. After all, graduate school is about training your brain, so keep it in tip-top shape!


This post has gone on long enough at this point, so I’ll wrap up and promise that, in the next installment, we’ll discuss what happens when the reading becomes your entire life: how to prep for your qualifying/comprehensive exams!

What else do you want to know about grad school? Post questions in the comments section!

Grad School Survival Guide: How to Read

So you got into graduate school. Congratulations!

(Note: I went through a humanities program, and most of my advice in this and future posts in the Grad School Survival Guide is aimed toward humanities/social science programs. Hard sciences and advanced degrees in fields like law and medicine have their own skill sets, although you’ll still probably find what I say here somewhat useful.)

You’re probably looking at the title of this post and thinking, “I learned to read in the first grade, dummy.” Of course you did. (Or didn’t. I assume if you’re reading this you’ve mastered the skill at some point.)

When you arrive in the humanities or social science graduate program of your choice, however, you may find yourself in the following situation. Maybe it’ll be the second seminar. Maybe it’ll be the fifth. But you may find yourself realizing that other people in your seminar seem to have an awful lot to say about the readings for this week…and you don’t.

Why don’t I have anything to say? You will ask yourself. Is there something wrong with me?

The answer to the second question is probably best left to the medical or mental health professional most familiar with your specific case. The answer to the first, however, is much easier to address: it’s because when you arrive in a graduate seminar, the professor expects you to know how to read academic books and articles, but most graduate programs offer little to no guidance on how to do this.

This will especially be the case if you’ve entered a graduate program in a different discipline than your undergraduate degree. In my case, I did my undergrad in International Relations, my master’s in Middle Eastern Studies (an interdisciplinary program), and my doctorate in History. I was always playing catch up.


How You Learned to Read and Why It’s Wrong

Most of us learned to read for class in grade school, using dry, corporately produced, written-by-committee textbooks that make people think they hate history because it’s presented as a list of one fact after the other, to be duly memorized, spit out at exam time, and then forgotten.

A lot of us employ the same skill as undergraduates. When assigned chapters from a book, we search for names, dates, events–tangibles we can get hold of and cling on to–and ignore the dry stuff. If we asked ourselves the question of what was important about the reading, we usually meant some variant of “what is important to know for the exam?”

Much of the time, our undergraduate classes consisted of lectures in which the professor echoed the material presented in the books, and often by the end of the semester we had stopped reading because the material was redundant and the professor was more interesting and had the added advantage of knowing what was going to be on the final.

In graduate programs in humanities and the social sciences, however, most classes consist of smallish groups that engage in discussion for the whole of each session (If you’re in the UK, substitute “module” for what I call a “class”). Professors lead discussion, but they don’t lecture. They expect you to show up with something to say about the readings. It’s bewildering at first, because you’ll feel like you’re constantly unprepared. And you may find yourself staring at a page of text trying to will yourself to have an opinion about it.

For me, the moment of realization came in a graduate seminar taught by a Name Professor housed in the department of anthropology. Every week, this seminar met and his doctoral students–a doting, adoring (nay, sycophantic) bunch–would dominate discussion. Their commentary was completely unintelligible to us lowly Master’s students, and they seemed to be engaging in some sort of unspoken competition to invoke the most obscure French poststructuralist.

[For the record, seventeen years, two graduate degrees, and five semesters of teaching later, I am more than ever convinced that this is exactly what they were doing.]

I would stare at the material and think, Why am I not seeing this? Why don’t I have anything to say?

If this is causing deja-vu, Fear not, I have suggestions.

How to Learn to Read–Again

Unless you’re in a graduate program–or were lucky enough to be in an undergraduate program–in which someone takes the time to explain to you how to read an academic monograph or an article out of an academic journal (and these are, sadly, few and far between) you’re probably approaching the material in the exact same way you approached a textbook.

Herein lies the issue.

Stop seeing the material as a series of facts to be memorized, written by an infallible author, and start seeing it like an academic (which you are): an argument-driven thesis written by a scholar whose work may not be perfect.

Academic monographs are an argument presented by their author. This is why they’re not that lovely, flowing, easy to follow narrative employed in a textbook.

The entire text has an argument. It’s set out to prove something (and bear in mind that what the author wants to prove may be a how or why rather than a what or when). Each chapter has an argument that is meant to support the overall argument of the book in some fashion.

The argument will have nuance. You’re not going to read an article or monograph that argues that the French Revolution happened in France in 1789. You may read an article or monograph stating that the French Revolution happened, in part, because of a meeting that happened in Switzerland six years earlier (I am, for the record, not a French historian and am completely making these examples up). Or that the French Revolution happened in 1789 because there was a period of warm weather that caused crops to fail in Bordeaux the previous summer, and we just figured this out based on atmospheric data.

So, if you find yourself feeling left behind in class discussion, or like each class meeting is like dropping into the middle of a conversation that started without you (and believe you me, I felt this a lot), it most likely boils down to this: your classmates are treating the book as an argument that can be critiqued, while you’re viewing it as a set of facts to be taken at face value.

My classmates in the anthropology seminar were using theorists to suggest that, if one looked at the argument from a different perspective, one could deconstruct and reconstruct the author’s argument in radically different ways. (This does not change my conclusion they were trying to one-up each other in naming obscure theorists, though).


Where do I find the argument?

Well, funny enough, it’s probably been staring you in the face all along.

Monographs and articles are structured in much the same way–at some point, you’ll be instructed on how to construct your writing this way, too.

Start with the introduction. These are wildly inconsistent–sometimes the introduction is called “Introduction,” sometimes it’s called “Chapter 1.” (It’s never the acknowledgements and usually not called Preface.)

They usually begin with a hook to get you into the story. An anecdote, something to illustrate why what is being discussed is important. (They don’t always–some of us [embarrassed cough] employ this technique heavily, others just jump right in.)

Then you’ll get into an arc that will present the basic issue, usually explaining how it’s traditionally been seen in the field.

Then there will be a literature review. You’ll know this section because of all the footnotes or inline citations. (Pro-tip: if you found this book or article because you’re writing a research paper, this is the section to mine if you’re looking for tips on who else has written about this topic). This is the second most important section of the introduction.

Then you’ll see a line that says something like “[Title of monograph] argues that” or “I posit that” or “The thesis of this book is that …” Here’s your argument. Star it. Underline it. This is, for the author, and for you, the person who has to discuss what the author has done, the most important sentence in the entire book. (Note: in an article this declaration may come before the literature review.)

After presenting the argument, the author will lay out their strategy–and the way they will do this is by outlining the book for you. In Chapter 1, I will describe A and demonstrate B. Chapter 2 continues this by describing how B then led to C. And so on.

In other words, it’s the section you’re often tempted to skip right over because you’re going to read the book. Why in the world would I waste what little time I have reading about what’s in the book when I can just read it?

Now that you know what the author’s argument is, you can explore why it matters.

Back up and look at the literature review. (In history books the literature review tends to come before the author’s presentation of their argument, but this isn’t set in stone. It may come afterward).

The literature review is meant to answer one basic question: how has the issue that the author is presenting been described by other scholars who’ve approached the same or similar issues?

Your task as a reader is to answer two basic questions:

  1. How is what the author is doing revisionist? (read: new and different. In the field of history, revisionist can be a bit of a loaded term.)
  2. How have other authors written about this topic before?

If you can answer these two questions, 75% of your work is done.

The rest of what you need to address in your reading of the material consists of:

3. Does the author’s argument make sense?

4. Is the author’s argument convincing? (This is similar to, but not the same as, the previous question. It is perfectly possible for someone to put forward a sensical argument and then do a poor job of backing it up. This is, in fact, a good place to start your evaluation of the text.)

You’ll notice I haven’t asked you if you can remember what happened on November 10, 1789. And your professor probably won’t, either. Remember, it’s not that kind of class.

Okay, I did that, but I still don’t have much to say …

If you’re still a little lost, or have done all of this but aren’t sure how to move from “Okay, I understand the author’s argument, but I still don’t have much to say about it,” don’t be afraid to look at book reviews of the title you’re reading (this is harder with journal articles, but not impossible. Check out Google Scholar and search by both title and author).

This is especially important to do if you notice that the author takes particular issue with another scholar’s work–see if that scholar responded or had something to say about your author’s critique. Obviously if one of the two was dead when the other was published, this won’t work as well.

Reviews also give you some insight as to where to start looking if you’re not sure how to go about critiquing. Your first semester in, you probably aren’t married to a particular theory, school of thought, or have a favorite theorist–and that’s perfectly fine (I still don’t).

Even if you found the argument and have answered questions 1 and 2, you may still be a little unclear as to how to go about answering questions 3 and 4.

First off: It’s okay! You’re still learning. A good graduate seminar will pull in a lot of books from different perspectives, and it’s totally understandable that you won’t be well-versed in all those fields.

You should, however, be able to follow what’s going on when classmates offer critiques or comments better than you were before. The more you practice this kind of reading, the better prepared you’ll be. And after a few weeks, you’ll be able to jump into the discussion yourself.

Next up:

How to read a book (or more) a week … for each seminar … and still have a life. It is possible!

Tips for Your First Visit to the Archives

I offered some unsolicited advice on Twitter (he says, as if there is any other kind of advice to be found there) about the first trip to the archives which was, for my not all that popular account, kind of a popular post. So, I’m going to expand on it here!

Believe it or don’t, this was the best piece of advice I got before my first trip to the archives.

A lot of the advice I got was practical: dress comfortably, make sure you read the rules and regulations of the archive before you get there (especially the documentation you need to gain access), check what you can actually bring in with you so that you don’t bring too much.

This was the one I heard and thought, Oh yeah, right.

It’s also the one that I remember the best now. Because it’s true. That first day never goes quite as expected. If you don’t believe me, take it from Randy:

You’ve compiled a massive list of documents you want to see, files you want to read — it never goes quite the way you expected.

Especially if you’re working with material that was generated in the pre-typewriter era.

Or it’s in a foreign language, and you discover that your ability to speak rapid, native sounding Spanish is not matched by your ability to skim Spanish.

Or you discover that your productivity is interrupted by mandatory tea time. Or that you have to leave the reading room for an hour.

Or maybe they will let you handle one document at a time.

Or, in my case, you weren’t thinking literally enough when you discovered a series of files called “Summary of Intelligence Reports Received,” and sat down, expecting to find a treasure trove and instead finding a ledger detailed how many intelligence reports were received every day.

Womp womp.

There’s always setbacks.

But somehow, the first day is always the worst. It’s the day your expectations and hopes collide head-on with reality. If you know that’s part of the process, and you’re prepared for it, it really makes a difference.

I thought about this a lot my first few days in the archive. It’s not a race. You’ll find what you need, and you’ll get there.

And if it doesn’t lead where you were hoping, you’ll adapt. Very, very few people actually come out of the archives with the same project they had when they went into the archives.

When I posted this, Melissa Johnson (@Lady_Historian) offered a tip in response:

Here’s some more that came up in response:

I would add to this, photocopy (or photograph) things you’re not sure you’ll want to use later. Your project will evolve over time, and you never know …

Definitely true. Especially if you’re far away from home, in a country where you’re working in a second language you’re almost-but-not-quite fluent in. The excitement wears off and suddenly you realize you don’t know anyone, and you’re going to be here for how long?

Check out Paula’s blog post for more advice!

And @pearcele is quite the optimist:

Keep them coming!

What are the tips for archival work you’d offer your past self? Let me know in the comments below!