History is a liberal arts discipline. That means, among other things, that it is not good enough simply to learn the facts; you also have to learn how to analyze them, draw conclusions from them, and communicate your conclusions to other people, readers or listeners. Doing history right requires a lot of thinking, organizing, and careful writing and speaking.
The main way I can tell if you are acquiring and using the appropriate skills is through your written work, especially in your assigned essays. I have some definite expectations of your essays.
First, an essay should be a scholarly discussion of a historical problem. Your paper will look at a specific question (for instance, “Was Louis XIV’s absolute monarchy a success?”), and offer a well-argued answer to that question, based on documented facts.
An essay of this sort must have several features:
An essay must have a thesis. A thesis is a statement that you put forward and maintain by reasoned argument. (“Louis XIV’s absolutist government was strikingly successful in its early years, but as time went by, the inherent drawbacks of absolutism became clear.”) You will be trying to convince the reader of the truth of some statement; make sure the reader knows what that statement is!
An essay must establish clear criteria for judging the thesis it defends. What standards of proof are appropriate for convincing the reader? What kind of facts and arguments will you offer? This too must be clear. (“In this essay, the success or failure of Louis’s regime will be judged by its effect on the economic health of France.”)
An essay must document the facts it uses, and the contributions of other scholars to the ideas it uses. The reader of a scholarly work can’t be expected to take important facts on faith. You must give sufficient information that the reader can follow back your statements to the material on which they are based. You provide this information in your bibliography and footnotes (or endnotes). Sometimes students provide notes only for direct quotations. This is not good enough. Any facts that are important to your argument, unless they are common knowledge (“Louis XIV was king of France”), and any important ideas you found in other people’s work have to be documented with notes.
Second, your essays must be well written in standard, formal English.
“Formal English” is not the language of daily speech, but a special language that we use to get important ideas across to wide audiences. Almost any scholarly work produced in Britain, the USA, or (Anglophone) Canada, and many other countries uses it. The best “formal English” does not use a lot of jargon or current slang.
“Standard English” means English that follows the rules of grammar, punctuation, and spelling. These rules exist to help you communicate with the reader. If you don’t use them, you are making things unnecessarily tough for the person you are supposed to be convincing. This is both discourteous and self-defeating.
I consider it part of my job to help you learn the basic historical skills of finding the facts appropriate to a given historical problem, analyzing those facts, and writing up your conclusions a convincing form. I expect you to make a good effort, every time you submit an assignment. So here are:
1. No bibliography.
2. No notes, or notes only for direct quotations.
Papers with these faults are not scholarly discussions of a historical problem.
3. Large numbers of misspellings or typos. It is a good idea to use a spell checker, but a spell checker alone will not catch the most jarring errors.
4. Confusion of “its” and “it’s.” Note: “It’s” is an informal contraction we all use in speech to mean “it is.” Since your paper is a formal one, you should never use “it’s” at all. If it is there, it is wrong!
5. Confusion between possessives and plurals. Note: “Friend’s” and “friends” mean two different things. By the time you get to university, you should be able to distinguish between them.
6. Misspelling my name, the title of the paper, or the title of the course on the title page. These are infallible indicators of carelessness or haste.
7. No page numbers.
Faults of this sort (#3-7) will make me doubt that you have a serious interest in communicating with me as a reader. Every single one of them can be avoided by rereading and editing your paper.
For the first assignment, I will allow you a week penalty-free to resubmit
the essay. After that, returned papers will fall under the usual