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Friday, 28 October 2011

Professor Grumpy's Ten Top-Tips for Academic Writing

Many of my friends, I know, have difficulty with the writing process.  I, by contrast, can churn out the verbiage as easily as scrambling eggs.  So here are some tips that those confronted by academic writer's block might find useful.  It might, I know, appear arrogant to set these out but - hey - you know me; I am arrogant!  Nonetheless if they help, they help.

Tip 1: The Word processor is your friend
This is the meta-tip, if you like.  I am lucky in that I guess I was part of the first generation to write their PhD thesis on affordable word-processors (thanks to Alan Sugar for that if nothing else) - an Amstrad* PCW 8256: the size of an old cathode-ray telly with a memory (hell, without even an internal hard-drive) a tiny fraction of that on my lap-top today.  I know fine (and productive) scholars only a few years older than I am who typed their theses and whose writing processes are still profoundly influenced by that - hand-write a draft, several drafts, and work over them before typing it up.  By contrast I soon internalised the beauty of the word-processing, er, process - which is to say that you can bang out the words to create text as easily as anything, and always go back reshape, cut, paste, delete, move to another file, and so on.  Create text and treat it as clay: that is my advice.  In other words, use the word-processor to create a lump of about the right size that you can shape and re-shape later on.  Similarly, do not get attached to your words.  Cut and paste, or delete with abandon (there is a further tip, no.8, below, to ease the pain).  Once you have cranked out the right quantity of 'clay' in roughly the right shape, you can trim, refine and shape it to the exact form you want.

Tip 2: Have a plan
OK: this one isn't at all original.  But have a plan anyway.  For myself, in line with the above, I only start with a very general plan of the points I want to make and in what order.  Someone (Helmuth von Moltke, I think) said that no plan survives first contact with the enemy; my experience is that no writing plan survives first contact with the keyboard.  My plans tend to evolve with the writing process.  I am also blessed with the ability to think clearly (which helps writing quickly, but ought not to be confused with the latter) and to keep a lot of stuff in my head.  Nevertheless, of course it matters to have a plan and the better the plan the better the process.  That is always true.  As the Revised Annals put it in describing a Frankish defeat: 'since the approach went badly, badly went the battle.'

Tip 3: Write 500 words a day
This is my other major tip.  Write 500 words a day - as the first thing you do.  Just churn out 500 words.  Remember you don't have to keep any of them in the long term.  They don't even have to be factually accurate; at this stage it doesn't matter if you can't remember whether what you're saying is 'right' if the notes you have to hand don't have the right information (see below).  Don't get interrupted - just write.  Get yourself a pot of coffee (or tea), sit down and write 500 words.  If you are on a roll, or have more time, write more, but do not use that as an excuse to write less the next day.  Building up a bit of 'excess fat' is good in case of emergency, to ensure you can average 500 a day, but work that out after you've been forced to miss a day.  In a week and a half to two weeks you will have an article's worth; in three weeks or so, a chapter.  And so on.

Tip 4: Don't foot-note as you go
Related to Tip no.3, do not, on any account, foot-note as you go.  This is the academic writer's displacement activity.  This is understandable; there is (and I know I ought to get out more, but still) nothing as satisfying to an academic, in the creative process, than an impressive and impressively laid-out foot-note, but ignore its lure!  If there's something you really think you'll forget, of course, add a general note (in brackets or as a foot-note) but if you get involved in proper, conventional foot-noting, you will grind to a halt.  That stuff comes later.

Tip 5: Check it all afterwards
This, of course is the indispensable corollary of the 500-words a day 'clay-creation' scheme.  Once you have your basic text, then you can go through footnoting and checking the facts etc.

Tip 6: (Really) Check it all afterwards
Check it all afterwards.  E.H. Carr said that 'accuracy is a duty, not a virtue'.  We all make mistakes but there's no point writing stuff quickly if it all turns out to be, in technical jargon, bollocks.  Remember this epigram of Professor Grumpy (based on one about composers): 'Good historians are slowly discovered; bad historians are slowly found out.'  I know of one book about Carolingian society which garnered great praise and prizes when it appeared, largely by virtue of the fact that it parroted all the choice interpretations of the 'the Bucknell Group' (which de facto and whether it likes it or not, is broadly equivalent with the British early medieval historical establishment), except from the one reviewer (in the AHR) who bothered checking it.  Sad to say, every factual statement that I have checked in that book is wrong - not 'interpreted in a questionable way' but wrong (just plain wrong) in the sense that the documents cited don't actually say what they are claimed to say.  We all make mistakes, but, a: there are degrees of mistake (from the irritating betise - saying the passage is in Gregory of Tours' Histories Book 6, chapter 3, when it is actually in Book 3, chapter 6 - to the unforgivable - saying that a document comes from Paris in 693, when in fact it is from St Denis in 694 and then getting the contents inaccurate), and b: there are  limits to the acceptable number of such mistakes.  You don't want to acquire the reputation for being routinely unreliable.  Let that be a lesson.  Festina lente (once you've got your basic text done).  However, all this still makes the overall process quicker than checking and foot-noting as you go, not least because you can do it all in one solid block of time (when you have such).

Tip 7: Edit and re-edit
Once you have your text, you can edit - and re-edit.  No text ever suffered from being polished.  No text ever suffered from being shorter, either.  In my experience you can always lose 10% of a draft just by stylistic changes.  I am always struck by how flabby my first drafts are and by how much repetition and needless extra argumentation there is.  So cut it!  Don't be afraid to lose whole sections or to move chunks around to see whether they work better somewhere else.  But this is always better done- and easier, once you have a basic text, generated as above.

Tip 8: Create a 'dust-bin'
This is to ease the pain of cutting stuff, especially those nice (or catty!) comments or phrases or bits of argument or evidence that, in the end, aren't necessary to what you are writing. You do have to be ruthless here so I ease the pain by creating a separate file as a 'dustbin' - a file to which I paste such 'nice bits' as I cut from the main piece, allegedly for use later. They have titles like 'Barbarians Dustbin' etc. Although I almost never do use these shavings for anything else, the fact of saving them up, makes me feel better about hacking them out of my original text.

Tip 9: Put some music on
I always find that the composition or creative process is easier with some background music.  However - and here is my top tip - make it something without lyrics (either that or songs that are such old standards that you don't even have to think about the lyrics to).  Jazz and classical music are my favourites in this role, but nothing too 'demanding'.  Kind of Blue, the later oeuvre of Bob James, and Faure's Requiem have all served me well over the years...  (as have many other pieces which I am too embarrassed to mention).

Tip 10: send it off
Here is something else that I have long been way too bad at.  Once you have polished and foot-noted and checked, send it off to the journal.  No point sitting on it.  Readers' comments are usually helpful, whether or not the piece is accepted. and if it is rejected, then make the changes you think can usefully be made to improve the piece and send it somewhere else.  Don't (as I have done) stick it in a draw, go into a decline and forget about it.  I sat on my piece on the Preface to Gregory of Tours' Histories Book V for maybe seven years after an especially mindless reader (I know who...) rejected it from Speculum (thus for about ten years after I first gave the paper upon which it was based!).  Don't do that.  It's stupid.  And I should know.

*  Alan Michael Sugar TRADing (for those who don't know).

Thursday, 27 October 2011

The Kids Are All White: Who Powers Northumbria University?

Some of you might have noted the Northumbria University advert that pops up on this page.  If not, it has a series of images detailing the alleged characteristics of the said University - that is to say Northumbria University - and the people who power them - that is to say Northumbria University - in these various endeavours.  Well ... suffice it to say, if you see this ad have a watch and see if you notice anything - how shall I say? - odd about the people who appear, that is to say the people who power Northumbria University.  Are there any groups of people being targeted, or more to the point NOT being targeted by Northumbria University?

And yes, I have used the phrase Northumbria University as often as possible in the hope that it will show up prominently on Google searches...  Yes, that's Northumbria University, the University in Northumbria (specifically Newcastle).

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Worlds of Arthur

I heard today that Oxford University Press will publish my next book - Worlds of Arthur: The History and Archaeology of Britain After the Romans.  I am (needless to say) delighted about this and look forward to working with them on the project.

Riot Analysis

The Government's own analysis of the social make-up of the rioters, reported in The Independent today (http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/crime/official-cabinet-ministers-wrong-about-cause-of-riots-2375515.html), provides little comfort for its own 'just feral criminality' interpretation.  It will not surprise the rest of us.  The low percentage of gang-members is of less relevance than the comment that they were 'not pivotal'.  13% could have been decisive if it had formed a well-organised core.  As it is, the Metropolitan Police's dreadful, arrogant bungling of the initial (peaceful) protest about their handling of the shooting of a suspectled to a violent upsurge of suppressed resentment and frustration that, contrary to what I said before, in some respects was quite 'tactical' in its initial stages, in that it was aimed at the police who were seen as the root of the problem.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

A Year in the Blogosphere

Well, it's more or less a year since I started doing this blogging lark 'seriously' (the inverted commas are obviously necessary).  And, as they say, what a roller-coaster of a year it's been.  I've shut down the blog twice, brought it back twice, come to the verge of formal complaints being sent to my university twice (once justifiably, once most certainly not), lost at least one friend, lost 99% of the respect I had for someone I had hitherto held in high esteem, quite possibly lost the chance of a job I wanted because of this blog, taken some pretty visceral abuse, and so on.  All good fun!

On the other hand I have learnt some lessons.  One is that even bastards have feelings.  Another is that if you have twenty-odd followers and maybe 100 hits a day, that (allowing for hits from people looking for something else, like Elizabeth Kostova's novel The Historian or ever-popular balding guitarist The Edge) does not mean that  only twenty or thirty people in the whole wide world read your blog.   Thus you need to be a bit more careful about what you say and how you say it.  I've also learnt that eminent historians don't always read what you write very carefully, and just how deeply-ingrained the elitist culture of the British historical profession is, as well as just how few principles are actually held by the overwhelming majority of the practitioners of said profession.  And this in response to something that I actually thought long and hard about how I wrote.

And as a result of all this I have realised that no good is going to come of me continuing to smack my head against the glass ceiling that those of us not from 'a particular socio-educational background' (you know the one) eventually run up against. 
 
All told I have managed, just about, to internalise the important fact that, as Newsthump put it, 'stuff you put up on the Internet goes on the Internet.'  Much of it underlines a lot of what Jeffrey Jerome Cohen writes in this very good piece about the Darker Side of Blogging (and I speak as someone who has all-too-embarrassingly-often adopted the 'drive-by' approach to internet exchange, especially when I was going through a particularly angry phase: I hope I have grown out of this, but if I had a fiver for every time I've said that, I'd have ... well, a good 35 quid by now).

But I've also made new contacts which I hope to build on in the future, and learnt a lot from discussions and corrections on this site.  I remain convinced that it is 'a good thing' for someone who has managed to get as high up 'the greasy pole' as I have (and thus has less, perhaps, to worry about) to put up one's research, at embryonic stage for discussion and for those who are interested in reading it and who might not otherwise get access to it in 'learned journals' etc.


H.o.t.E. Hits by month
Blogger seems inexplicably to think that we moved
seamlessly from December 2009 to January 2011...
I have also been somewhat surprised at the size of this blog's audience.  I don't know by what sort of factor one has to divide the number of 'hits' to arrive at the number of active readers.  I am sure that something banal must explain the recent rocketing of the 'hit-rate' on this site to 400+ a day, from all over the world, such as the url 600transformer.blogspot.com being very close to some new eastern European porn site (H.o.t.E. is big in Poland at the moment, it seems) - perhaps the 'transformer' part of the url goes some way towards an explanation - but, be that as it may, that aside the number of page-views has risen steadily to 200 or so per day.  Clicks on specific pages have increased over time as well. 


Anyway, to all of you who read this site, thank you very much for your continued interest.  For those of you who are here looking for The Edge, sorry - he is a fine player who has done well not to suffer from passive pomposity after all those years stood just to Bono's left.*  Similarly for those of you looking for Kostova's The Historian - good novel, very nearly ruined entirely by the last couple of pages.

---
* Did I ever tell you about the time I saw U2 at Kidderminster Town Hall ...?  If not, you might be about the only person in the world that I haven't told about the time I saw U2 at Kidderminster Town Hall.  Anyway, basically, once I saw U2 play at Kidderminster Town Hall.  There were about 200 people there, at most.  They were good, too.

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

The Historian as Anti-Hero

[This is a snippet that I came across while putting my ideas in order for 'the next book' - which is provisionally entitled Escaping the Past: Why History Doesn't Matter.  In the interim I thought it might amuse you if I put it up here, and perhaps provoke some comment.  You can see that it is not unrelated to my previous thoughts about history and ethics.]

Feelings ran high at the International Charter Studies
Conference when Whittaker suggested that Chiklis'
reading of Sawyer 301 ignored the possibility
that it was a forgery
Historians used to be fond of the metaphor of the historian as detective, uncovering the truth about the past. As doubts have grown about the possibilities of historical ‘truth’, the metaphor has waned but it or something like it still seems to lie, implicitly, behind a great deal of writing about the practice of history. Historians now recover lost voices and uncover silenced pasts. The historian continues to play a heroic forensic role. In terms of method, there is (or there ought to be) something in the analogy but if I have a metaphor to offer it is rather the historian as the ‘Internal Affairs guy’. This is a well-known figure in popular TV ‘cop shows’ and rarely a ‘good guy’. He or she is there to suppose that the hero has lied or done something wrong and that the villains might have been wronged or be telling the truth. The character rarely turns out to be as unsettling as that but it works as an analogy.* For me, the historian is not there to provide comforting truths but to question them. The historian must always be prepared to wonder whether the ‘heroes’ of history are not, in fact, the villains, and whether, by contrast, the ‘villains’ have had a fair hearing. The historian, in this view, is rather more of an anti-hero. It is not the historian’s role to provide narratives that succour political or religious dogma or nationalist or racial chauvinism: quite the opposite. History should be troubling or unsettling in some aspect – at least – of its practice, and if it is not then I suggest that it is probably not being done properly.
 
 
The initial stance of the historian must be one of radical, almost Cartesian doubt. Until proven beyond reasonable doubt to be otherwise (and however little time it takes to do so) the possibility must always be retained that anything and everything might not be true, might be myth, might even be a tissue of lies in fabricated documents. Nothing at all can logically or consistently be excluded from the possibilities of such doubt. Indeed I maintain that to maintain democracy, it is dangerous to remove anything at all from such procedure (even if, to repeat, that procedure lasts barely a minute). Note, though, that I have employed the British legal qualification ‘beyond reasonable doubt.’ In purely philosophical terms, it is very difficult to get off the ‘lonely rock’ of complete Cartesian scepticism about the reality of the exterior world but in practice we have to do so every day. History must have a practical value, even if not in the usual ways, and this demands that we be pragmatic in our acceptance of basic ‘fact’.

The essential tenets of my stance are that historians (especially teachers of history) must take a politically-engaged stance; history is inevitably political; and an ethics inheres within its practice, which implies that the politics of good history are of its very nature those of the left (even if of the moderate or even centre-left): undogmatic, humanist and politically liberal. I will not convince everyone; I trust – even hope – that I will annoy a substantial number of practitioners of history (not all of whom I would classify as historians). Much of this argument, if carried through, will initially at least be disturbing, possibly even superficially offensive to people on the left as well as the right. This does not trouble me; as I have said, it is the role of the historian to make things uncomfortable. What I hope will be the case is that, at least after closer reflection and consideration of its thesis, an argument on these lines will provide a manifesto around which left-leaning practitioners of history can cluster. Using the thought of so-called post-modernists or ‘continental’ philosophers, as drawn from their actual writings rather than as glimpsed by unsubtle imitators or as caricatured in the scare-mongering or ill-informed (sometimes both) works of its opponents, whether historians or analytic philosophers, and whether from the political right or the left may suggest a means of using history to navigate between various unhelpful doctrinaire positions, for instance between moral relativism on one hand and claims to the superiority of modern western ideas on the other, while still giving it a vital political importance. It will also propose a consistent means of pedagogically employing a left-leaning political conception of history and its practice, influenced by the so-called ‘post-modernists’, in other words one that does not ultimately founder hypocritically on issues of academic power or on ill-theorised differentiation between contemporary and ‘secondary’ writings.

* The pic accompanying this post is from Season 6 (I think) of The Shield.  In Season 5 an IA man played by Forrest Whittaker was introduced by the writers to shed a light back on the fundamental nature of the lead character, Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis), a corrupt cop whose approval among the show's audiences had risen to surprising levels.  However, to their surprise, Whittaker's character came to be seen by viewers as the 'Bad Guy' and Mackey's approval ratings soared even higher!

Seniores and Iuniores: A foot-note (or two)

Two personal communications have added important modifications to the idea expressed in the previous post.

The first comes from Rob Jones and concerns the analogy with the Napoleonic Imperial Guard.  Rob points out that the career path proposed for the iuniores and seniores would not work for the imperial guard (promotion from the Young to the Middle and then Old Guards, before taking up a position as NCO or higher in the junior regiments).  To be honest I am not sure how exactly I meant the analogy to be taken (it being some time since I wrote the original foot-note to my CHW chapter) but if I meant it that exactly then I was wrong, and certainly it can be read as implying that.  It's possible that the analogy could stand in a 'weak' sense, in that the words 'Young' and 'Old' were simple references to the respective age and experience of the troops in the units concerned.  Rob suggests that a better career path analogy would be the formation of 2nd battalions from cadres in the 1st battalions of British regiments (and others).

The second addendum comes courtesy of Paul Browne, who says that M.J. Nicasie, Twilight of Empire: The Roman Army from the Reign of Diocletian to the Battle of Adrianople, pp.29 ff., is of use to the enquiry.  I should check that out - indeed I should have checked it out before now!

Thanks to both!

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Old lags and young turks: A suggestion about the late Roman army

Fatally for the Roman Empire, the army's camouflage
department never internalised the fact that not being able
to see the enemy didn't necessarily mean that the enemy
couldn't see you.
While writing my chapter for the Cambridge History of War I delved briefly into the issue of the paired regiments of seniores and iuniores in the later Roman army.  As it turned out, the chapter turned out to be much too long and required much cutting.  Thus, as this was really something of an aside, this section ended up on the cutting-room floor.  I'm not sure there's an academic article in it so I thought I would try it out as a short note here instead.

I came to the problem in thinking about the nature of western European armies in the period immediately after the dissolution of the Western Empire - so, say, 475-600 - when there seems to have been an important age-based element in military service, with young warriors - pueri - serving in the households of the elite, especially those of the royal family and its officers.  Older warriors (variously titled) appear to have been a separate body, perhaps a cadre around which the pueri were organised.  In connection with comments about how the post-imperial western armies were the recognisable descendants of the very last, fifth-century, imperial Roman armies, I wondered whether this age-based organisation might not also have a Roman origin.

Many late Roman units attested in the western section of the Notitia Dignitatum are divided into iuniores and seniores.  Attempts to explain this division have generally failed to convince (the evidence being patchy and subject to decisive change with the discovery of a new tombstone, something which put paid to the theory that the division related to the division of the Empire, between older and younger brothers, in 364, for example) and it may be that a straightforward reading in terms of the relative age of the recruits has much to offer.  The iuniores would indeed be the younger, new recruits formed around a cadre of ‘NCOs’ and officers drawn from the older, more experienced seniores.  After successful service the soldier might be promoted to serve in the seniores, possibly eventually returning to the iuniores as an officer. 

A parallel with Napoleon’s Imperial Guard might be instructive.  Only about a fifth to a quarter of the definitely identifiable ‘brigades’ of iuniores and seniores recorded in the Notitia are found together in the same army (though most are at least in the same half of the Empire), but equally, for example, the ‘Voltigeur Grenadiers’ of Napoleon’s Jeune Garde were often serving far from their elder brothers in the Moyenne Garde’s ‘Fusilier Grenadiers’ and the Grenadiers of the Vieille Garde (the corps’ ‘parent regiments’). 

Someone is sure to have proposed this before.  Does anyone have any thoughts?