Research


If you are a historian, the sugar museum in Maui is a bit Meh.* The section on the material culture of the plantation workers is the best part, and they look to be doing excellent work with tracking down family and oral histories and hosting reunions of the various plantation camps. The 10-minute video is a good glimpse into the industrial nature of sugar (though that is better represented by the billowing smokestacks just across the way), and they do a nice job of not being a commercial for sugar despite being owned by the big sugar company (but, since I grew up singing the “C&H! Pure cane sugar….that’s the one!” jingle, and was standing in the heart of its production, they probably didn’t need to).

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sugar cane

But, if you are a bookseller (or perchance the daughter of one), and you follow the signs that says BOOKS around four or five corners and over a mile or so of muddy road to the Friends of the Library store, you also get a nice little tour of the backside of the sugar mill, and even better, good views of a number of the remaining plantation buildings. And can wander around taking photos while your mother peruses books.

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If I understood right, the plantation workers lived in long buildings subdivided into small cabins.

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Not such a great shot, but I like the old plantation church next to the massive mechanical bits of the sugar mill.

The Maui Historical Society does not let you take pictures inside at all, and I found it rather more satisfying overall.

Both museums carefully tread the balance between the problems of colonialism and plantations and the fact that much of their money comes (I assume) from the descendants of colonizers and the owners of plantations. Although, I read in the local news that the sugar industry employs about 800 people on Maui. Three minutes of googling was not enough to tell me how many contracted laborers the sugar industry brought from the Philippines, Puerto Rico, Japan, China, Azores (“Portuguese”), Russia, Spain, US, and the rest of the Pacific, but I bet it was a WAY larger proportion of the population than 800 is today.

*Like the rest of us, I scorn the right-wing for seeing Hawaii as exotic. But I can’t tell you how many times I said “I’ll be back in the States mid-August” and even after consciously pushing myself through that, I still find that I am in my “pumping money into a developing economy” attitude about spending locally and paying for things like local historical museums.

Keep in mind that I’m not speaking from extensive personal experience. But my chats with people, and comments on yesterday’s post, suggest that lots of people have even less knowledge.

The impression I’ve picked up suggests that a writing coach is a combination of editor, deadline-enforcer, and therapist. Writing groups can be all that, but I think the dynamic of an individual who is paid is different. One, having admitted you need help, no need to front. Two, you’re paying them, so it’s okay to dump a complete mess on them. Three, more frequent feedback: my writing groups met maybe every 3-5 weeks, and I came up in the rotation once or twice in a year, while presumably a coach might be more like monthly. In addition, and I think this is most important, remember that if you had a good dissertation committee, they probably were acting as a combination of editor, deadline-enforcer, and therapist, and those are exactly the functions the university paid them to serve. So replacing that out of your pocket as an investment in your career shouldn’t really seem the leap that it is.

I’m glancing over my notes from a workshop in March (why didn’t I hire this woman then? well, let’s not go there). We went around and shared our difficulties. So right there I think there’s value in admitting “I need help” and being forced to do a self-diagnosis of “these are the problems I need to deal with”.

She had a nice analysis of why this is hard, that the requirement of sophisticated intellectual creativity hammered into a massively tight organization is actually a unintuitive and unnatural combination. And she offered some general analytical tips on that tension, e.g. that the process is really only about one-third mental, one-third emotional, and even one-third purely physical, which changes some of the anxiety around it. And she started out talking about the importance of knowing your own writing style and your own preparation style.

Then she had a lot of concrete suggestions to address difficulties, some of which I’ve heard before, some of which were new. Probably half the value in a writing coach is someone to force you to do what you know you ought to do, which, again, is the role that many dissertation advisors occupy. Some of her strategies:

I think we’ve all heard the advice to use a to-do list to break tasks down into small pieces (but how many of you actually always do it?) A writing coach will read your to-do list, but who gives that to a writing group?

I know I get overwhelmed dealing with the book, because it just seems like every subsection needs so much. An excellent suggestion on the editing process was to color-code the types of work necessary—say, yellow for “need to clarify idea”, orange for “needs more research”, green for “idea fine, need to write better”, purple for “fix footnote”. Then go through and work on one type of edit at a time.

Get positive reinforcements even at a trivial level. Find someone who will say “good job!” when you say “I wrote two pages today”, etc. Spouses/partners probably do this naturally, but a lot of us are single.
Rather than big goals (“If I write all week I can go to the lake on Sunday”) set up a self-indulgence kitty and pay yourself a dollar for each morning/afternoon of quality work, so that you both get interim prizes and save toward a big treat.

The usual advice, about managing your writing space, doing pre-writing to get the juices flowing, etc. Books on writing offer all this, of course, but it’s a different dynamic, and these strategies wind up individualized to you. Books don’t demand that we answer follow-up questions.

So, I don’t mean to suggest that a writing coach is the end-all, be-all, and each of us has unique needs, but I do think the option should be considered a more natural step than it is.

Yeah. Not science, not data, folks. Just some dressed up anecdotes.

GenePartner tested long-term couples’ HLA [type of gene involved in immune system] makeup and had them fill out in-depth questionnaires. “We asked them whether they find their relationship passionate, about the quality of intercourse, if it was love at first sight,” says co-founder Tamara Brown. With genetic data from 270 couples, the company came up with an algorithm for predicting compatibility based on HLA combinations.

And, 270 couples? Gee, Netflix gave people trying to improve their recommendation algorithm a dataset of 100 million ratings to work with.

or, Why I Hate Social Science. Examples of “studies” that actually just collect a whole lot of anecdotes and pretend they are statistics. Admittedly, historians also lean on anecdotes, but we don’t lie about it.

Wealthy Men Give Women More Orgasms

Mixed-Race Children Are More Attractive

Anyhow, I think it’s time to retire that cliche, because clearly, the plural of anecdote IS data.

[sorry, the studies are old. I wrote this months ago and never posted it]

I started my life as a professional historian early.

I once won a $200 savings bond from the local Civilian Conservation Corps alumni chapter for writing the best essay on the history of the CCC. I remember that essay and wince to the depths of my soul. It was like a very empirical encyclopedia article, and every single sentence was footnoted. 89 notes in 3 pages. I still have the savings bond—somewhere. I think it’s in a folder of important papers that I can’t find. I find it about every two years, and decide to keep hoarding it for a rainy day. I think the paper vanished into the transition from actual floppy disks to pretend floppy disks to college to my own computer.

I also won third place in the local History Day contest. That paper had a little more analysis—I think it argued Irish immigration enabled the civil war, which honestly, I still think is a decent argument to come up with in high school (I remember my mother kept wanting me to discuss the irony that the Irish factory laborers were basically enslaved, yet enabled the end of slavery, but I didn’t consider that relevant to the argument). Anyhow, third place was perfect—my paper was honored, but unlike my friend who won second place, I didn’t have to do any more work on it, because it wasn’t going onto the state round of the contest.

For some sort of application where I had to write an imaginary conversation with a figure from American history, I chose Henry Clay. For some reason, I thought his picture in the textbook looked kind of appealing (it might be this picture, although now he looks awfully snarky). And I liked his attempt at making a compromise, I’m big on compromises. I suspect that the total randomness of a conversation with Henry Clay had something to do with my successful application.

Wow. It doesn’t look faked, but it sounds unbelievable—yet, totally understandable in context. The author is a “history nerd” undergrad who has a whole series on her findings in the Princeton archives. Here’s the 1895 admissions examination.

The lesson here—go check out your college archives.

Question: would writing this type of series look good on a history grad school application, or brand you as an antiquarian?

My students just turned in a bibliography assignment. I teach world history. I’ve never researched any of the topics they landed on. Yet, I am able to give comments such as these:

Hmm….I’d say almost none of these look like primary sources—in general, things reprinted in books with these type of titles are not personal accounts of involvement, but scholarly analyses.

How is the student supposed to know that?

The primary sources I’d expect for this topic might be IMF/World Bank/UN papers, documents from the Brazilian government, newspaper articles, autobiographies of politicians/activists, magazine interviews with same, etc.

Okay, maybe that I could expect them to figure out, but I’ve never asked them to. How do you learn to know that? How do I teach that?

Is this early enough to match the rest of your sources? Something about the title suggests 1800s to me, not 1500s.

Now that one is just pure intuition (okay, learned from reading lots and lots of translated primary sources from the early modern era).

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