Historia magistra vitae est: Learning from Past Mistakes Common problems, questions and advice: Content



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HISTORIA MAGISTRA VITAE EST: Learning from Past Mistakes

Common problems, questions and advice:
Content
Essays are meant to build upon the material covered in lecture, so please feel free to use images, artefacts, or case studies discussed in lecture. However, essays should take this information a step further, adding more depth, detail, and analysis of the sources. This is particularly true of PRIMARY sources, aptly named as the accounts you should read first. Essays that merely reiterate lecture notes will not attain good marks, nor will they develop your analytical abilities, which is the primary goal of the course.
PLEASE NOTE: The most fundamental difference in writing a university essay (compared with one for secondary education) is that YOU MUST CHOOSE THE RELEVANT MATERIALS AND STANCE FOR AN ANSWER. If you are trying to figure out what I WANT for an answer, then you are asking the wrong question. There are NO RIGHT or WRONG answers, there is NO CHECKLIST OF POINTS that you are expected to cover. So long as you answer the question and support your arguments with critical and detailed analysis of evidence: you can formulate whatever line of argument you would like, using whatever material you deem worthy.. but please be selective! If you think that you cannot include all the relevant material; then don’t! You do not need to show that you know every possible point or source of evidence (students often attempt this, and the result is a catalogue of numerous points and sources, which reveals a broad but superficial knowledge of materials (=a low mark). Two excellent essays on a topic can be completely different (opposing points, sources) but they will share the following: a compelling argument (and often an innovative approach) that is well supported by detailed critical analysis of a few sources.
The Introduction
I am often asked: what is supposed to be in an introduction? The introduction is a place where you ANSWER, SET OUT, and CONTEXTUALISE, an essay question. These items are listed, not in the order they need to appear in the intro, but in order of importance. An introduction is a guide/ roadmap to your essay: the reader should be able to state both what your answer is and how you intended to prove it, by then end of the introduction. If the reader does not have some idea of where you are going or how you intended to get there, he/she is likely to get lost. People often start an introduction by contextualising a question, providing a discussion of a topic, event or author, that shows a broader knowledge of how it relates to history (E.g. Slavery has existed for thousands of years in society, however in each society the parameters and practise can vary..) one can also attempt to define key terms (e.g. what is slavery?> Remember the purpose of the essay is for YOU to define the terms, so avoid putting forth a dictionary definition unless you plan to analyse/ critique it, do not let someone define the terms in your work!). You can also use the introduction to point out broader difficulties in a topic, source or event.
Structure
The most common mistakes in Essays have to do with structure. An essay without structure is often evident from the first paragraph (the intro) where a clear response to the question and a clear structure (outlining 2-3 main arguments in an essay) should be set out. To attain a level of depth in your analysis, you should not have more than 3 different arguments/points that you are making. Each of these points should be supported by a thoughtful treatment of evidence (1-2 examples). If you can begin an essay with a clear answer and line of argument, then you are already on your way to a success. If I read the 1st paragraph and I can’t see your answer or how you intend to support it, then problems tend to emerge.
TIP *After you write the conclusion, re-read your introduction. Do the two match up? Essays (and the minds that create them) are organic and can change as we write. If your essay has changed during the writing process (this often happens: you decide one argument could be the whole essay or the third point seems weak…). Don’t be afraid to re-evaluate or cut throughout the writing process, it is far easier to scrap an argument you that haven’t written than it will be to cut it later. Changes in an essay are often positive, and the ability to edit your own work, to cut an argument that is weak, is an excellent skill to develop (and eventually you will start to catch mistakes and/or problems as you are write). If you do make changes, be sure to reflect this in the introduction. Identifying and employing changes takes time. If you want to develop these skills, you should finish writing at least 1-2 days before the deadline, so that you can edit with a critical eye (which you won’t have at 11am after an all-nighter, an hour before an essay is due). Looking critically at an essay after you’ve handed it in is the epitome of “shutting the gate after the horse has bolted”: while it may develop your editorial skills, it does not let you employ (and thus benefit) from changes.

What is a thoughtful treatment of evidence?
Lectures are designed to illustrate thoughtful analysis, and to encourage your active participation in this process. Seminars are designed especially to hone these skills with dates about specific evidence, events and topics. Thoughtful treatment of evidence is NOT:
1. A general quote from a secondary source which interprets the evidence: e.g. Osborne says “the evidence of Cyrene shows economic motives for colonisation"

> A direct quote from Osborne is necessary only if you plan to analyse and/or contradict it. Obsborne’s summary does not deal directly with evidence nor does it show what you know. How did Osborne reach this conclusion? By assessing primary sources! That is what you are meant to do as well! You need to look at the archaeological evidence and lit sources: what are the limitations of these sources, what can you take from them? THAT is your argument. If you have come to a similar conclusion to Osborne, then you can reference him in a footnote as a source that supports you. If you use a quote from Osborne INSTEAD of analysing primary evidence, then you have missed the purpose of the formal essay: for YOU to engage directly with the evidence to create an argument.


2. Including an image of an artefact without further discussion. Material evidence is also a primary source and it too requires interpretation. An image or a passage from an ancient historian that is dropped into the text WITHOUT further comment (e.g. saying merely "This passage/vase shows how the hoplite formation works..") does not show direct engagement or analysis of the materials. If you quote a primary source passage or provide an image (and you should!), your analysis should consider how and why an historical passage or artefact illustrates a point (e.g. explain Herodotus’ passage illustrates the difficulties of colonisation and why (or why not) you trust him as a source). For an image, be sure to describe what’s there (where did it come from? How is it reliable/unreliable) and please provide a high quality image, which will allow you and the reader, a better chance to interact with the materials.
3. An essay that leaps back and forth through time and space

I do not possess a Delorean or a flex capacitor and while flashbacks work in film and TV they can be confusing and disruptive in a history essay (most importantly, they may not convey an understanding of historic events in sequence). In structuring an essay and an argument it is crucial to keep a sense of the chronological framework for historical events: one event can often have a "knock-on" effect on subsequent events and attitudes. Losing the thread of causality can weaken an argument.



Bibliography & Footnoting When to quote... when to footnote..
Fundamentally, a footnote is a way of showing the reader where your information has come from. It is key in avoiding plagiarism because it gives credit to sources from which certain ideas and analysis have originated. I have often been asked "how many footnotes should I have per page?"; there is not a right answer, but there should be a balance: if you have an entire page without any footnotes you are probably at an undesirable end of the spectrum. Equally, if you have a footnote in every sentence (or 10+ per page), it can imply that your essay is somewhat lacking in independent thought. Here are some basic guidelines:
If you are dealing with general information, e.g. the date of the Battle of Marathon, location of the battle, names of generals, this need not be footnoted (*unless, like the Trojan War, there is an ongoing debate about the date*). PLEASE NEVER FOOTNOTE OR QUOTE WIKIPEDIA OR AN ENCYCLOPEDIA. However, if you are citing a specific figure or information: how many men died, how many men fought in a battle, this needs to be footnoted to the primary account (Herodotus, Book, Chapter) OR the historian/ archaeologist who has come up with these numbers through analysis. Similarly, if you are looking at a vase and you see Achilles and Penthesilea fighting, his skin is dark and her skin is white (something that is represented in the picture) then you do not need to footnote this. However, if you choose to comment on the exotic quality her Phrygian sandals, then that expert knowledge (which I assume you do not yet possess) should be attributed to Osborne.

If you are discussing a battle or historic event and providing a list of the different things that happened, you should provide a footnote referencing the account (e.g Herodotus or Thucydides, Chapter, book), this is important as some accounts don't agree. You should always read the primary source account of an event (Penguin translations are excellent and widely available) or in a pinch, online translation can be used (though these are sometimes in arcane language (out of copyright), which can require its own translation). Unless you translate the work yourself (If you do, you need to say where your Latin/Greek text came from) you must also credit the translation in the Bibliography.


If there is a passage that illustrates the brutality of fighting, the character of a general or flourish with which Herodotus writes his history, this can be quoted in the text as evidence, but be sure to follow the passage with a specific discussion/analysis of the langauge, character, etc. it illustrates. If there is a vase that depicts Hoplite warfare, put the image in the text (footnote: where you got the image from and when you accessed the website) but be sure to discuss what it shows, do not just drop evidence and expect the reader to connect the dots. If a secondary source has noted an obscure fact about the fluteplayers in the vase scene, you can summarise this in your own words and cite it with a footnote. The only time it is absolutely necessary to quote a secondary source directly in an essay is if you plan to analyse the scholar's response. If you disagree with the role of the fluteplayers on a Hoplite scene vase, then you should quote the scholar with an opposing view, so that you can argue with his wording, his point or his interpretation of the scene. Please do not quote secondary sources as "analysis" instead of making your own and avoid using their eloquence to finish your statements "for man is a giddy thing.. and this is my conclusion” (Benedict in the final scene of Shakespeare’s, Much Ado About Nothing).
When in doubt about whether or quote or footnote consider how you are using the evidence: is this evidence something that I analyse as a focal point in my argument? If so, include it as a quote. If it is something that supplements your argument but is not subject to further analysis, it can probably be footnoted. If you are wondering if you need to footnote something, consider this: Can you explain how you came upon specific information? If you don't have enough history of art experience to identify the stylistic aspects of Phrygian sandals, then you should footnote the source, if you cannot explain how you came up with the figure of 50,000 citizens in Athens or the costs of export duties on Delos, then you should credit the source. If you can see the shielded men fighting or note the eye contact between Achilles and Penthesilea on a vase, then you don't need to footnote it.

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