Teaching Notes: Synthesis and Process

The main assignment for my graduate survey of modern Europe this summer was to write an essay that incorporated all of the assigned books and most of the assigned articles. I conceived of this assignment because of a similar one that I had had to do as a graduate student that I found especially productive, if difficult. (See “Learning to Synthesize History” on my old blog.)

The essays my students wrote fulfilled or exceeded my expectations in some cases, but there were others that did not go as well as they could have. In part, this was due to the compressed nature of the summer term, but more than anything else, I think building a deliberate approach to teaching the process of synthesis into the course syllabus would have helped. Yes, these students were in an M.A. program and had taken many history courses in their lives, but few had ever had to do such an assignment.

Of course, we spoke about process both in class and in individual meetings, but the current senior research seminar I am teaching, which includes explicit work on process, suggests to me that I should formalize such efforts in graduate courses too, if I am going to require an unfamiliar writing task. That’s not how I learned as a graduate student, but so what?

Reflections after Class

One of those questions came up in class tonight with a group of MA students discussing Peter Fritzsche’s Life and Death in the Third Reich (Cambridge, MA, 2008), a question where I grow perhaps too animated, maybe conveying impatience, even arrogance, or, if I’m lucky, simply passion. What was the difference between communism under Stalin and nazism under Hitler?

Continue reading

Requiring Students to Use Chicago Style (or Turabian or Whatever)

While talking in class tonight about forthcoming papers, I heard from several students that many of their professors haven’t cared which system they used, as long as it was clear and they could retrace the student’s steps if necessary. That’s also long been my implicit attitude, even though I ask students to follow Chicago or Turabian and I correct their papers accordingly. Lately, however, I have come to think that teaching a specific style is actually important, even if I have done little more than point students in the right directions for style guidelines, much as I was told to use a given style manual back in the day.
Continue reading

Military History Conference

I went to the annual meeting of the Society of Military History this year, because it was in the DC area, if way out in Crystal City. It was good to see and talk with people, especially a particular outside reader of my dissertation, who I was glad to run into. The book display was also interesting, because I discovered titles that the same publishers had not shown at the AHA meeting in January.

Less interesting were the panels, which are actually the main event of conferences. The problem was not the quality of scholarship but rather the fact that I have a low tolerance for being read to. Continue reading

Command Culture by Jörg Muth

Last week I read Jörg Muth, Command Culture.1 The book’s main subject is about training U.S. officers for war, and it draws on the German officer corps in the interwar period for its useful comparisons. I can’t offer a review, because my own expertise lies more with the Imperial German officer corps. Nonetheless, the book deserves some comment. Continue reading

Who Should Groener’s Schlieffen Plan Matter To?

As I try to write an article about Groener’s understanding of war, which led him to write about Schlieffen’s supposed “recipe for victory,”, I have to keep asking myself, so what? I don’t mean this is in a negative way. I haven’t tired of this topic. But I’m not always sure why it should matter to other people. Continue reading

Separating Writing from Formatting

As I began writing a manuscript that I plan to submit to a specific journal, I thought it would make sense to follow that journal’s style sheet, which is rather different from what I am used to. I noticed, however, that I was constantly looking things up, from the very first sentence. How do I cite that source with this particular system? How do I spell that word in British English? How do I handle quotation marks for this particular situation? It was hard to get any thinking and writing done under such circumstances.

I have decided to put an end to these unnecessary distractions by separating the formatting from the writing, making the formatting a separate step in my workflow. I will write in plain text documents without any formatting and using only basic parenthetic citations. I will focus on the content during all stages of the writing, editing, and rewriting. And then I will worry about the formatting. That will mean extra work in the end, but it will enable me to write without unnecessary distractions, which is what I need.

I handled many sections of the dissertation in a similar way, even when I was working with a style I understood, Chicago. In that case, I wrote five or ten pages at a time, and then I integrated it into the word processing document with formatting—after I was sure about what I was doing. This process also enabled me to devote those times when my mental energy was highest to just plain writing, and then I could turn to formatting when my brain was less sharp but still able to perform basic tasks.

One other advantage to the plain-text format: I will be able to edit or add text on the go with my iPad, whose text files I keep synced via Dropbox. Ideas often come to me on the bus, so this is no small thing.

Refuting Straw Men and Explaining What Happened

In a recent German History forum, Paul Lerner offers an interesting aside: “I used the medical Sonderweg as more or less a straw man in my 2003 book on German psychiatry, but I found that even as I refuted it, the need to explain the unique path of German medicine kept arising.”1 These words speak to me, because I used Groener’s biography to refute the rather untenable interpretation of a “feudalized” bourgeoisie in the Kaiserreich, even in the officer corps, but taking down that straw man hasn’t offered a satisfying answer about the meaning of Groener’s middle-class cultural orientations for our understanding of the Imperial German officer corps. Continue reading

German Handwriting from 98 Years Ago

This evening I pulled out old handwritten sources from 1914 to reexamine some quotes, because I wanted to use them in a different way than I did in my dissertation. To my initial consternation, I found them hard to read. (That’s what I get for letting so much time pass without reading that old handwriting.) Fortunately, there are so-called Deutsche Fibel around that children used to learn this handwriting back in the day. I’ve got a couple of these books that I used to teach myself well over a decade ago, so I pulled one of those out to review.

If you want to learn or practice yourself, I scanned one of these schoolbooks a couple years ago, and someone put a copy on the Internet Archive: A. F. Lorenzen, Deutsche Fibel (Columbus, OH: Lutherische Verlagshandlung, 1901).

Working through More Journals

I’ve been working through more journals, putting interesting articles and reviews in my bibliography database and reading the things. It might be faster just to search databases for what I’m interested in, which I also have to do, of course, but browsing many issues of a journal offers a helpful overview of what’s going on in the scholarship more broadly. I still have to pick and choose from the huge mass of offerings, but at least this way I see things that I likely never would have looked for otherwise.

I’m doing most of my data entry and sorting on my iMac with Bookends from Sonny Software, and I’m reading and reviewing on my iPad though the new Bookends on Tap, which syncs with the Mac nicely. And I’ve got the Mac database on Dropbox, in case I need to add or reference something from the office.

One valuable benefit of otherwise rather poorly paid adjunct teaching is the access I get to periodical literature online through the university library that is not available through my institute. But I’m finding that I’ll still need to visit Lauinger Library at Georgetown for some things, too. Fortunately, that’s only a thirty-minute walk from here, half of that through the woods, which can do this sedentary body good.