Category Archives: History

Who Says I’m Qualified to Contribute to Academic Conversation?

So I am in middle of writing a twenty-page paper about Woodstock, which means my writing muscle is pretty occupied right now. (Though seriously, the organizational disaster that was Woodstock is an incredibly interesting topic, and it’s worth reading and laughing about sometime. 400,000 hippies hanging out in the mud, with almost no food and only 600 bathrooms for them all – sounds like a great time!) Fortunately, I previously did a post on the hair-pulling anxiety that is writing a paper, which seems appropriate to re-post today. After all, it is exactly the same hair-pulling anxiety that is seizing up my brain at this very moment. So I present you…

Why It’s Harder to Write a Term Paper Than a Blog

Some people might think blogging is pretty scary – putting up stuff for all the world to criticize, and maybe to use to your disadvantage when you run for President someday. However, I realized these past two weeks that writing academic papers scares me more. Then I started wondering why, and ended up writing:

 The Utter Bloody Fear of Handing in a Paper

OR: Who Says I’m Qualified to Contribute to Academic Conversation?

 Whenever I write a paper for university, I have a period of at least day of paralysing fear, where I’m certain I’m about to fail this paper and never pass another course again. I don’t get this with exams. Exams you can just write the thing and walk away, and if you forget an important thing it doesn’t mean you’re stupid, you were probably just stressed out.

But when writing a paper, you’re expected to poke holes in ideas of people a hundred times smarter than you, and hand it in to someone a hundred times smarter than you. Well – when I’m rational I try to convince myself the prof probably isn’t that much smarter than me, just disciplined enough to finish a doctorate in the subject. But that don’t negate the fact I’m walking into THEIR territory with this paper, and they know this stuff and I’ve just taken a two month course on it.

I mean, honestly, you want me to criticize Karl Marx? Or Foucault, or Hayden White, or whoever the theorist of the course happens to be? I might disagree with them, but I can hardly engage them on their own terms. In fact, I’m usually having trouble grasping exactly what they’re talking about. And since I hate misrepresenting people’s ideas (even on this blog, I’m always afraid to misquote someone), I feel pretty unqualified to comment on someone’s theory when I’ve only read a half-page excerpt of what the guy actually said.

So, thinking about this, I realized I have this trouble in real life conversations too. They always describe academic publishing as like a conversation, and this may explain why I feel so uncomfortable jumping blindly into the conversation. I don’t like entering a conversation unless I actually have something interesting to contribute. So sometimes when people think I’m quiet, I’m actually trying to avoid repeating bland ideas that have already been said a hundred times before. As well, if the topic of conversation is video games, hip-hop, movies I haven’t seen, or any other topic I don’t know enough about, I really don’t feel expert enough to interrupt the flow and jump in with something, just to remind everyone that hey, I’m standing in the group too. However, in academia, it is essential to remind everyone you’re still standing there – it’s ‘publish or perish,’ after all. But still, I hate pretending I know enough to actually write on this stuff.

All the same, writing papers is probably a good thing. It teaches you to take a position, and back your opinions up. Sometimes taking a position in these debates is the only way to feel your way around, and find out what the debate really all involves (and sometimes you find out your initial position is wrong, too, of course). You might be surprised, say, by what Karl Marx actually said, even if you still think he’s wrong.

Still, it is strange writing papers scares me more than blogging. Even if I get two hits a day, that’s still several more people reading my stuff here than the one prof and maybe a TA who read my academic papers.

Well, wish me well as I go to slay the anxiety dragon!

The above post was originally posted here. I did modify it a little in the re-post.

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Why Writers Should Take a History Degree

University of Oregon by Jeff Ozvold. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic

“Take journalism,” people will advise young, aspiring writers who feel they should go to university to get a degree in something. “You’ll learn more about writing, and get a practical job out of it too.”

Clearly this was not advice I took, or could take, since none of the colleges around where I live offered journalism as a degree. And journalism looks less and less like a practical career when you look at the declining numbers of jobs in journalism, but that is beside the point. Somehow, this advice always sat strangely with me. Because journalistic writing and fiction writing just seemed so different to me – one is so succinct and factual, and the other attempts to take you out of the real world. I’m sure there are many advantages for writers who take journalism degrees, including meeting other writers and learning to meet deadlines (though you’d think most degrees would encourage you to learn to meet deadlines by holding the threat of failure over your head). But I don’t think journalism is the only degree an aspiring writer should consider, or even the best degree for every writer.

And that’s why I’m going plug the degree I ended up taking, History, as a good option for writers. The drawback is that the obvious job path after you graduate is not as clearly laid out as in journalism. But there are several advantages to writers:

You Have to Write. A lot.

People who hate writing papers avoid history classes, because they know you almost always have to write a paper in them. And while writing two thousand words on the Cuban Missile Crisis may not appeal to every fiction writer, part of being a writer is learning how to produce. Get those words out of your head, somehow, and onto the paper. Get over the fear of what other people will think when they read it, and just start putting something down. (For me, the fear of what other people will think of my writing still ties me up in knots, even if I know my prof might be the only one who’ll ever read it. At this point, pouring words on paper, even if it’s gibberish, is probably the only way to get over it.)

You also, as I mentioned before, have to meet deadlines. If I had a few more strict deadlines on my fiction writing, I might get more of it done.

You Have to Learn to Research. Properly.

I barely passed the first paper I ever submitted in university, despite being a writer all my life (this was a nursing paper, before I switched to History, but still). I struggled with how, exactly, to combine all the facts I’d researched with my own voice, and organize it into something coherent that someone else would understand. I’d never done anything like that in my highschool life. And all my fiction I’d written up to this point was either set in made-up fantasy lands, or non-specific towns in a non-specific period in history (don’t use that as a setting, by the way, it’s a bad idea). But like I said above, in History you have to write. And the only way to get better at something is to do a lot of it. Writing good academic papers was never the top life goal of mine, but through doing more of it I did move from ‘barely passed’ to having a prof write ‘good paper!’ across the top.

Writers who persevere will have their research skills overturned. They’ll learn how to structure and organize a paper. And they will be able to insert their own ideas into the world of thought that already exists.

Academic writing and fiction are very, very different. But you often do have to do research when you write something, because you rarely know everything about everything you’re writing about. Organizing a chunk of information into something readable, in any genre, is always a skill worth having. And on top of all that, I do believe fiction authors are in an unacknowledged dialogue with each other, just like academic writers always claim to be. We fiction-writers riff off each others’ ideas too, or firmly reject the way another author tried to approach some part of everyday life.

You Learn About the World You’re Trying to Write About

I’ve heard the argument that writers should use university not to learn to write better – which they can do on their own time – but to expose themselves to as many ideas as they possibly can, in order to write about the world better. And I think that true, and there is one advantage a History degree has over Journalism. Because in History you learn that the world was not always the way we see it today, and people did not always think the way we do. I am ever so thankful I took a bunch of courses on Classics, because I knew almost nothing about ancient Greece and Rome, and those cultures are the basis for most of our society. And if someone randomly references the Battle of Thermopylae, Oedipus clawing out his eyes, or the wrath of Achilles – do you even know what they’re referring to? I know five years ago, I wouldn’t have, but now I see references to these all the time. And half the time the references are used wrongly, so knowing how to avoid that is another benefit.

It also shakes you out of the egoism of your own time. We tend to think things have always been this way, because that’s the only way we remember. We judge people who lived before us because we think they believed exactly the same things as we d0. But if you learn to approach the past on its own terms, your mind can be blown away by how different it is.

 

And that is why I’m glad I’m taking a History degree. I truly think my writing has been improved because of it. And I’d recommend it to any other writers out there, who are trying to decide which degree to take in university.

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Two Myths About History (Refuted)

 The course of history, like the course of true love, never did run smooth.

Besides being a writer and a lover of books, I love history. It’s sad no one knows any history, and worse that no one teaches it (I do not count ‘Social Studies’ as history). On top of that, the little history people do seem to have absorbed is usually 1.) a long line of progress that produced us, or 2.) a reason to feel superior to everyone who came before us. Both of which are horrible misconceptions. Here’s why:

History s a Long Line of Progress, Marching Straight to Us

Yep, here’s where our selfishness shows through. Our society’s pretty great, and obviously a bunch of history stuff happened before we existed. So all of history led up to us, right? If we look back we can see what people did that made us the way we are.

As if history existed just for us, as if Newton was coming up with calculus because he knew how important it would be to the future, as if the march of technology has all been merely to bring us computers. News to self-centered us – history does not exist merely for our sake.

And linear! As if history was ever linear! The only linear thing about history is that it occurred in time, which we generally agree only marches one way. But to describe the events as linear is crazy. About a billion things happened at the same time back then, just as it still does today, and every little thing affected every other little thing in a multitude of ways (you know, like the butterfly flapping its wings theory, except we’ll never know how many butterflies existed in the Middle Ages). And as if it always progressed to modern times! Did you know they had a steam engine in Alexandria in the Roman times? Or that everyone around Athens thought the idea of democracy was scary “mob rule” (and indeed, the Athenians did overwhelming vote to murder all their generals at one point, so there may’ve been some truth to that).  History starts to look not so much like a march of progress, but a snarl of events.

Let’s talk about scurvy – everyone knows sailors used to drop like flies from this disease, until one day someone experimented with citrus juice. And who knew, drinking the juice kept away the dreadful disease, and scurvy never plagued mankind again. Except it did – through a combination of factors, what we’d call ‘progress’ in history (the discovery citrus juice prevented a disease) was ignored, and they came up with a theory that explained scurvy came from a mythical product called ‘ptomaine’ in tainted meat. (The full, well-written account of scurvy and Vitamin C can be found here.) Clearly, history does not always move forward. Or in a straight line at all. And simplifying history to a line usually ignores the context completely.

Take a simplistic look at the history of astronomy – Copernicus put the sun in the center, Kepler added elliptical orbits, Newton added gravity to explain why the planets go around, and eventually we ended up with the theory of the solar system that we all know and love today. Let’s just ignore the fact Copernicus put the sun in the center because he was obsessed with circles and wanted to find a way to make each planet’s orbital circular. Or that the theory he came up with was just as accurate as assuming the earth was in the center, like everyone did before. No, Copernicus was ‘progressive’ because his theory agrees with the theory we have today, whereas everyone else was ‘ignorant’ because their theories don’t. Let’s completely ignore that from the point of view of people at the time, there was absolutely no reason to view one theory as better than the other.

When we look at history from where we’re standing, it’s incredibly easy to cherry-pick events and make a nice chronology that explains exactly how we got here. It’s easy to demand people in the past see their world in the same way we see our world today. And to laugh at them if they don’t. Because…

 People From the Past Were Stupid (of course)

People, like, used to knock rocks together in their caves or something, right? You know, until they accidentally discovered fire or something. And they used to slice people open to let out all their blood when people got sick, so they must’ve been stupid. It’s pretty obvious blood-letting just weakens people, not makes them better.

Or, maybe people were exactly as intelligent as you or me, and were just a product of their time? After all, we might believe stuff about the world that will be proven wrong in a couple decades, but we wouldn’t accept that as a reason for why we’re stupid. And it’s true, not everyone flat out says they think people in the past were stupid, but every time someone comes up with a list of things people used to believe and laughs at it, I really wonder if that person would’ve believed anything different if he lived back then.

The most obvious example of this is the flat earth myth – the idea people in the Middle Ages thought the earth was flat. As a kid, I myself was told by trusted teachers that people thought Columbus was stupid for sailing west, potentially off the edge of the earth. This is a wonderful story – people were stupidly petrified of sailing out of sight of land, but one brave soul sailed off into the blue and discovered the land that became the wonderful North America that we know today. But no, actually, Columbus was not blindly sailing west in the firm belief he was right and everyone else was wrong about whether the earth was round. Everyone knew the earth was round already! The Ancient Greeks knew the earth was round already! (As I said before, the Greeks seem to have thought of everything first.) Really, the real reason this myth gets thrown around is because then people get to paint the Catholic church as the obstinate villain again, angrily insisting that no matter what the evidence was, the earth must be flat. (In reality, there was pretty much a consensus on the earth being round by the 14th century).

Interestingly enough, Columbus did disagree with everyone else on something, and he actually was the one who turned out to be wrong. He sailed west because he thought the circumference of the earth was far smaller than everyone else did, and so he was sure he would quickly hit China or India. Which is why, of course, he was so convinced that the islands he landed on were part of India, and no one could convince him otherwise even though he sailed there four times himself and couldn’t find a single thing that resembled Asia or India.

The myth that people in the past were stupid is attractive, because it makes us feel smart. And it’s a pretty easy myth to gather evidence for. After all, the people back then didn’t have computers, did they? If they were so smart, why didn’t they invent a computer, huh?

Okay, I’ll send you a couple hundred years back in time, and see if you can come up with a computer all on your lonesome. You’ll already be several steps of everyone else back then, because you can conceptualize an idea of a computer, and possibly have some idea of how to put one together. Still – good luck, without an electrical grid. Hopefully you can figure out how to find silcon.

Which brings us to our last point….

This is not a myth – History occurs in context. Always

There’s a difference between the steam engine Heron built in Alexandria, and the steam engine of the Industrial Revolution. And no, I don’t mean the fiddlely little differences between the kinds of parts they used. I mean the more obvious difference – the societies surrounding them were completely different!

The Roman Empire had tons of people to keep in line. Tons of freshly conquered, restless people who were sure to make trouble if they weren’t kept busy. You think the Romans were looking for easy, labour-saving devices?

Not to mention Heron’s steam engine was apparently viewed as more of a toy, making it a bit harder to think of further uses for the thing. After all, when was the last time you looked at – I don’t know, Tickle-Me-Elmo or something – and wondered how you could convert it into a productive mechanism for helping society?

Which brings everything back to context – people allowed blood-letting because everything in the society around them (ancient authorities, the scientific and medical theories, doctors, etc.) told them it was the thing to do when you were sick. And if you don’t know germs exist, how would you know health is not a product of your four humours remaining in balance? Context is generally what gets forgotten in a straightforward, linear tale of history, but it is context that makes the story interesting. Why did Kepler come up with the Second Law of Planetary Motion? Not because he knew it would be a good basis for Newton to start his calculations on! (Really, Kepler’s theories were weirdly connected to his ideas of theology, but I won’t get into that.)

So there you have it, 2 Myths About History, Refuted. Now you know more about history than you did before. And maybe something about the wild, woolly world of the past sparked your interest. (After all, “the past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”)

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The First Shall Be Last

Why we don’t actually know who was first, why being “first” isn’t so
clear-cut, and why it’s best not to be first anyway.

First! (public domain)

There was an annoying internet trend a few years back, where people would race to post comments like “First to post!” or “Yes! First” under every article, without any useful contribution to the conversation at all. Fortunately, that trend seems to have gone the way of the dodo bird by now – though the vast majority of internet comments are still strangely content-free* – but it does show humanity’s preoccupation with being first. At anything, however meaningless. Being first gives you bragging rights, something to be put down in the history books for, a reason to claim to be an expert on something. Actually, that’s garbage. The trick is to convince everyone, especially the historians, that you were first. Whether you actually were or not is beside the point.

Who was the first to figure out calculus – was it Newton or Leibniz? Who came up with the idea of evolution – Darwin or Alfred Russell Wallace? Which of these guys made it into the history books, and whose names do you know?

Newton’s and Leibniz’s supporters fought tooth and nail, but it’s not actually resolved who unquestionably “invented” calculus, or what exactly one would have to do the would prove they came up with calculus first. Then, of course, there are those that argue we should go farther back, and that Archimedes did enough to be called the inventor of calculus (there’s different types of calculus involved here, but not being into math, I’m not going to go into that). Well, if we pick Archimedes, there was no one around the time that would know of to compete with him, so that could solve a problem.

Then take the Darwin example. Does the title of “being first” go to the guy who thought of it first, or the guy who published first? Because Alfred Russell Wallace clearly published a paper on his theory first. But maybe Darwin thought it of it first, because he’d taken years to publish his ideas, and thus we still can recognize him? Well, if we go in that direction – how on earth are you going to know what people are thinking? That’s just asking for a floor of crackpots claiming they thought of relativity before Einstein.

Or, you know, if you want to make things easier you can always go back to the Greeks again. There was a guy running around and telling people that humans evolved from fish, so that may be close enough to count. After all, whatever theory of evolution scientists are working with now is not exactly the same as what Darwin came up with anyway.

But it’s that way with so many theories. Copernicus put the sun in the centre of the universe, but he thought the universe was finite and the planets were carried around their orbit by gigantic solid spheres of something-or-other. In fact, he put the sun in the centre so the spheres carrying the planets wouldn’t physically bump into each other. Being completely wrong on that helped him be completely right on something else, and for that we regard him as the guy who re-invented astronomy. Because of this, Copernicus’s system had to be improved by Brahe, Kepler, Galileo and so on, so the kudos for re-inventing astronomy don’t belong to him alone. So who should get the credit for the theory we ended up with – Copernicus, who put the sun in the centre, Kepler, who added elliptical orbits, or Galileo, who observed a bunch of stuff through a telescope that backed Copernicus’s theory up? It begins to look like credit is a difficult thing to parcel out. But we can at least give Copernicus the credit for putting the sun in the centre – except several Ancient Greeks argued that hundreds of years before. Maybe we just have to concede the Greeks were first at everything.

Okay, maybe it’s just science that’s weird. But the first person to climb Mount Everest – that pretty concrete, right? Or who discovered America, or who reached the North Pole, or who invented the airplane? No dice. Sir Edmund Hillary is well-known for being the first to climb Mount Everest, but tell me the name of the sherpa would helped him get there, and stood with him near the top. (That’s right, it’s Tenzing Norgay – though he did graciously allow that Hillary set his boot on whatever counts as the summit first.) To make things more complicated, Hillary may’ve been beaten by George Mallory and Andrew Irvine in 1924, but they died on their way down so no one can proof they got to the top. You know, if there’s no proof you were first, then you weren’t first, even if you were. Same with the North Pole – several people claimed to have reached it, but Robert Peary convinced enough people that he had, though nowadays they think there’s not enough proof. (And there’s certainly no proof anyone tried to get there before the twentieth century, but who’s to say no one did?) Maybe Roald Amundsen was first after all – yes, he’s the guy who reached the South Pole first too.

And the whole “discovering America” thing? That’s a quagmire to wade into. Shoot, Columbus met *people* living on that continent, and yet the place still didn’t count as “discovered” until he set foot on it. Not to mention the fact the Vikings beat Columbus to it, and yet they don’t count because they abandoned the place and forgot about it. Here in Canada, we claim the first European “discoverer” of Canada was John Cabot, but there’s a distinct possibility Basque fishermen were here before him, and just didn’t bother telling anyone important they’d discovered land.

To drive the point home, look at Apple (yes, Apple Computer, I’m leaping to the twenty-first century here). They were the first at nothing. They didn’t invent the MP3 player, the cellphone, or the tablet computer. They just made those things better. They’ve built their whole company around, not coming up with new stuff, but making clunky gadgets that already exist into something irresistible. In fact, there’s a huge disadvantage to being first at anything – it means whoever goes after you gets to watch your mistake and do what you do better. (The Wright Brothers’ “first” airplane was unstable and difficult to steer, something which subsequent inventors immediately improved on, and the Wright Brothers made zero advancements in airplanes beyond that. However, they did convince American museums to acknowledge them as the first to fly, so they pretty much had figured out what would make them famous.)

MP3s, cellphones, tablets – we don’t even know who invented each of these. They probably were developed by a team of people. Does this mean our society is moving away from its obsession over firsts? Not as long as history books and textbooks continue to claim they know who was first at what, and only these people’s names deserve our effort to memorize. Fortunately, many people now realize it isn’t so clear-cut. (After all, the CD, the atom bomb and the internet were invented by a team of people, so who’s to say who was first?)

Obviously being first has prestige attached, and people are still going to want to do it. But being first is a complicated process of being acknowledged first by others, possessing some proof of being first, and getting people after you to remember you were first. What, you mean you have to do more than just show up somewhere before anyone else?

Oh, buddy, since when was anything that simple?

* Excepting the lovely commenters who comment on my blog, of
course.

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Why It’s Harder to Write a Term Paper Than a Blog

Frustration! by Bev Sykes. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution LIcense 2.0 Generic

Some people might think blogging is pretty scary – putting up stuff for all the world to criticize, and maybe to use to your disadvantage when you run for President someday (fortunately, there’s no chance of me doing that). However, I realized these past two weeks that writing academic papers scares me more. Then I started wondering why, and ended up writing:

 The Utter Bloody Fear of Handing in a Paper

OR: Who Says I’m Qualified to Contribute to Academic Conversation?

 Whenever I write a paper for university, I have a period of at least day of paralysing fear, where I’m certain I’m about to fail this paper and never pass another course again. I don’t get this with exams. Exams you can just write the thing and walk away, and if you forget an important thing it doesn’t mean you’re stupid, you were probably just stressed out.

But when writing a paper, you’re expected to poke holes in ideas of people a hundred times smarter than you, and hand it in to someone a hundred times smarter than you. Well – when I’m rational I try to convince myself the prof probably isn’t that much smarter than me, just disciplined enough to finish a doctorate in the subject. But that don’t negate the fact I’m walking into THEIR territory with this paper, and they know this stuff and I’ve just taken a two month course on it.

I mean, honestly, you want me to criticize Karl Marx? Or Foucault, or Hayden White, or whoever the theorist of the course happens to be? I might disagree with them, but I can hardly engage them on their own terms. In fact, I’m usually having trouble grasping exactly what they’re talking about. And since I hate misrepresenting people’s ideas (even on this blog, I’m always afraid to misquote someone), I feel pretty unqualified to comment on someone’s theory when I’ve only read a half-page excerpt of what the guy actually said.

So, thinking about this, I realized I have this trouble in real life conversations too. I don’t like entering a conversation unless I actually have something interesting to contribute (and yes, hopefully this blog isn’t a useless piece of online chatter, but actually thought-provoking once in a while). So people may sometimes think I’m quiet, but actually I’m just trying to avoid repeating bland ideas that have already been said a hundred times before. As well, if the topic of conversation is video games, hip-hop, movies I haven’t seen, or any other topic I don’t know enough about, I really don’t feel expert enough to interrupt the flow and jump in with something, just to remind everyone that hey, I’m standing in the group too. Of course, some of my friends know if you wind me up on a topic I actually feel like I know something about, I can rant about my opinions for hours.

All the same, writing papers is probably a good thing. It teaches you to take a position, and back your opinions up. Sometimes taking a position in these debates is the only way to feel your way around, and find out what the debate really all involves (and sometimes you find out your initial position is wrong, too, of course). You might be surprised, say, by what Karl Marx actually said, even if you still think he’s wrong.

But still, I hate pretending I know enough to actually write on this stuff.

 

So, I’m handing a couple papers this week. I’m writing this to procrastinate, and also to get my thoughts about this down on paper, which seems to help me think. Hopefully all will go well!

 

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