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UW-La-Crosse History Writing and Style Guide

 Faculty teaching history courses will ask students to write several different kinds of papers.  A student's first task is to understand just what an instructor is asking of them with an assignment.  An assignment or prompt may be distributed to a class in writing as a hard copy or increasingly in electronic form.  Instructors will prompt students with a question, questions, or set of statements of varying length, which is meant to promote thought appropriate with regard to a given topic in the context of a given course.  Instructors will often distribute prompts of this course in connection with writing assignments that are of the take-home midterm essay or final essay type.  On other occasions, instructors may ask students to write research papers or other kinds of papers where they may have greater freedom to write about what they choose.  In any case, determine what kind of writing one must do at the outset when instructors distribute assignments.  Frequently, instructors will have other specifications, such as number of pages (often within a range, such as 4-6 or 10-15).

    In general, instructors will ask students to complete typed writing assignments, which will almost always involve students using word processor programs, such as Microsoft Word with computers, and this generally makes life easy for students compared to their parents or grandparents who had to use typewriters.  Also in general, instructors will expect students to use formal language, which excludes slang or colloquialisms, as well as contractions (don't use them!) and the kinds of abbreviations many use when chatting online, writing email, texting, or tweeting (OMG, do not use those, LOL!).  Remember that as a rule of thumb, one should never write as one speaks.  Nobody - not even the most highly educated - speaks the English they use in academic writing.  To some extent, formal written English and spoken versions of English (they vary from place to place and change over time) are different languages.

    One cannot underscore enough that students should read assignments or prompts very carefully.  Instructors will often go over them in class with care, but not necessarily.  Different instructors at UWL, even those in the same department as is the case with the History Department, will have different policies and expectations.  Policies and expectations will also differ from assignment to assignment.  In fact, students should also read syllabi with a great deal of care, from beginning to end.  These documents explain in great detail instructors' expectations and policies, functioning like a map of the course from the first to the last day of the semester, which instructors prepare for students and expect them to read.  Different instructors have widely divergent policies regarding attendance, participation, late papers, and a wide variety of other things.  Prepare oneself by reading what instructors expect students to read.


What to Write

    From beginning to end, one's paper should avoid simple declarations of what one thinks is or is not true.  Instead, one should do something like what good journalists do.  Their doctrine is to always address the 5 Ws: who, what, when, where, and why, along with an H: how, which translates with a historical question regarding something that happened in 1492 into:

Who: Columbus and his crew.
What: sailed.
Where: from Spain into the Atlantic Ocean blue, and eventually to the Americas.
Why: to try to find a way to the "Indies."
How: by using the latest technology available in Europe (that originated in Asia): the compass and the lateen sail.

    Another fundamental element of historical writing is to focus on cause and effect, noting, as an example, that the desire to find a more direct and profitable way to access Asian spices caused Columbus and his crew to sail west.  However, because Columbus and his crew inadvertently ran into the Americas while sailing in the employ of monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain Columbus' voyages eventually caused Spanish domination for a time of much of what Europeans called the New World.


    It may help students if they use an outline to map their paper before writing.   An outline for a paper on the fall of Rome may look like this: 

I.  Introduction

II.  Pax Romana: the empire at its height

III.  Constantine the Christian emperor and the new capital at Byzantium  

IV.  Huns and Germanic tribes

V.  The dissolution of the western empire

VI.  Conclusion

    Writing with an outline like this could be an exercise like coloring within lines as with a coloring book; the outline establishes the lines, and once one has them, all that remains is to color them in with the raw material of information and knowledge that will constitute the substance of one's paper.  For example, in section III one would write mostly information to do with the emperor Constantine the Great who moved his capital to the Greek city of Byzantium, and in section IV one would discuss mostly information on the Huns and Germanic tribes and their contribution to the fall of the Roman empire.  Depending upon preferences of both students and professors, one could essentially leave one's outline in the complete paper as subheadings in bold (with or without Roman numerals) Note that sometimes it may work best to only write the introduction after one has completed the paper because introductions introduce the rest, and one will not know exactly what the rest is, perhaps, unless one has already written it.  Alternatively, one can write a tentative introduction and then rewrite it after having completed the rest of the paper.


On Getting the "Right Answer" and Learning in a History, Humanities, or Liberal Studies Context

    Today's high school students have usually been trained to take standardized tests of the multiple choice variety, and before taking such tests, they have the opportunity to learn or memorize the right answers to the question or kinds of questions that such tests include.  They learn to operate in a conceptual universe in which there are simply right answers and wrong answers and nothing in between, no shades of grey or meaning.  What students typically find in the context of a university-level history course is often entirely different.  Of course some things are right and some things are wrong, and students should strive to be accurate and correct as often and as much as possible.  True facts include that Madison, not Sacramento, is the capital of Wisconsin, and that Columbus first sailed across the Atlantic in 1492, not 1982. 

    However, the most important and most interesting questions are not so simple, and they often do not have a single "right answer."  Such questions might include: why did Europeans engage in imperialism? or why did the First World War happen?  One thing students of history should quickly learn is that two historians (or history students) can have exactly the same information available to them and they can each then argue entirely opposite views in answering such questions.  It is not that they are lying.  Honest people can interpret available information in various ways, really an infinite number of ways.  There are, however, some interpretations and arguments that support them, which are better than others.  Simply put, a better interpretation and argument to support it will use higher quality evidence that is more reasonably presented than lower quality interpretations and arguments.

    As general advice, instead of being focused on learning, memorizing, or knowing what one thinks may be the "right answer," it is better to attempt to formulate creatively a response to whatever one's writing assignment is in any given history course.  The way to do this is to first of all do assigned reading, look up (use Google or a dictionary) any words or concepts one encounters that are unfamiliar (this includes looking at maps), and come to lectures.  During lectures one should participate, engaging with the instructor and other students, and one should make a point to visit professors during their office hours in order to ask for clarification regarding anything one reads or hears that one does not readily understand.  The learning process is not something done to students or for students.  If it is to work at the university level, it is something in which students themselves must take a continuously active role.


Theses, arguments, and Introductions

    Introductions introduce, but critically and typically somewhere near the end of a good paper's introduction will also appear what is called a thesis.  A thesis is a sort of hypothesis or theory that one states near the beginning of a paper.  A thesis is related to the scientific hypothesis, which would then ideally be proved or disproved using scientific method and experiment.  An experiment is roughly analogous with the part of one's paper following a thesis.  However, usually nothing about history or historical analysis is as cut and dried as the results of a laboratory experiment. 

    Following an introduction and its thesis, the rest of the paper then attempts to demonstrate the validity or truth of that thesis with an extended argument.  It is important to understand the difference between three things: 

  1. Opinions
  2. Facts
  3. Arguments

    An opinion is simply what somebody thinks or believes, such as "La Crosse is a big city" or "La Crosse is a small town." A fact is a specific, verifiable piece of information like, "in 2010, the population of La Crosse was 51,320" or "the physical size of La Crosse is 22.54 square miles." Neither opinions or facts alone are enough for a well-written paper in the context of a history class at the university level. What is called for is an argument, and a thesis is one's argument in microcosm (condensed form). An argument in thesis form might be something like this: "despite La Crosse's relatively small size compared with Madison or Milwaukee, it has most of the amenities one would associate with a much larger city, and this makes La Crosse a fine place to live" or "because the population of La Crosse is relatively small it can be difficult to find entertaining things do during weekends, and because of this many UWL students return to their hometowns most weekends." In general, a thesis and the argument following it constitute something like an educated or well-informed opinion backed up by evidence or facts, and reasoning.

    Inexperienced writers tend to begin their papers with vague statements, such as, "history is very complex" or generalizations that are unprovable such as, "People everywhere have always enjoyed music."  Simple declarative statements asserting that something is true - often with an adjective (X is bad, good, complex, simple, round, square, etc.) - do not constitute good academic writing.  Avoid them and start making points and demonstrating something as soon as possible.  This ideally involves action verbs.  In other words, avoid sentences such as, "Columbus was bad" and write sentences such as, "Columbus' denigration and abuse of indigenous people in the Americas initiated the 500 years of European or European American mistreatment of them that followed." 

    Generally, an introduction should introduce the paper by first contextualizing one's thesis, giving the reader necessary background information on the more general topic the writer is addressing.  For a short paper (10 pages or less) it is rarely a good idea to have an introduction longer than a single paragraph.  It is usually a good idea for a thesis to be the "last word" of the introduction.  To reiterate, although there are no hard and fast rules to it, it may be a good idea to write the introduction last, or to write a tentative one, writing a final version of the introduction only after the rest of the paper is largely completed.


The Paper's Body and Style

    The body of a paper is the place where an argument is not only asserted or given in microcosm (small form) as with the introduction; in the body one fleshes out an argument.  Ideally, this happens with paragraphs that are well-structured, and an overall flow from paragraph to paragraph, which has the effect of presenting evidence in a well-reasoned and logical way.  One could imagine the paper as a train and each paragraph  can be something like a railway car in that train.  Just as it is a good idea to have something like diesel fuel all in one car, fruit in another, and refrigerators in yet another, one should dedicate paragraphs (or subsections) to given components of one's overarching argument.  With this train metaphor, the thesis-containing introduction is something like the locomotive engine leading and driving the whole paper, and the conclusion is something like a caboose.

    As an example of how paragraphs can divide ideas into more digestible forms, if one is writing a paper about the ramifications of La Crosse's size, a paragraph focused on its population could be followed by one on its physical size.  One could also have a subsection on La Crosse's population in which a paragraph on its population in 2007 could be followed by a paragraph on its population in 2012, which could be followed by its population compared to other cities in Wisconsin or the Midwest.  As a writer, students themselves are in charge of how they break up their argument into paragraphs.  There is no "right answer" or single way to go about this, and creativity is called for in this matter.

    However, the way that one breaks up one's paper or argument into components such as paragraphs ideally should make sense.  There should be a logic or rationality to how one does it.  Also, as a rule of thumb, paragraphs should be at least three sentences and should never be more than a single, double-spaced page with 12-point font.  In fact, it is probably a very good idea to never have paragraphs as long as a single page.  This tends to indicate rambling, and it is very difficult to read.  If a student's paper is difficult to read, this will lead to unhappy instructors, which may not hurt, but certainly will not help one's grade. 

     It is a very good idea to have topic or lead sentences at the beginning of each paragraph.  One might think of these as mini-theses for each paragraph, which ideally indicate the point of what follows and how the paragraph in question serves the paper and argument of it as a whole.  It is also good if one has final sentences to paragraphs that make logical transitions, leading the reader to the next paragraph and showing the relationships between paragraphs.  To return to the train metaphor, first and last sentences might ideally serve as mechanisms linking each paragraph the way that links and pins connect one railway car to another.


The Conclusion

    A conclusion is a good place for one to sum up one's main points.  Some might think of the conclusion as a reiteration of the introduction.  However, the reader of one's conclusion (unlike as with introductions) has the benefit of having read the totality of the previous sections of one's paper.  This being the case, how one states one's case in the conclusion must take this into account, and one's summing up in a conclusion can be done powerfully because one's argument in full has ideally already been made.  Additionally, conclusions can include a contextualization of what the paper has demonstrated, which means indicating its relationship with the body of existing knowledge written or known elsewhere; this kind of contextualization is especially appropriate for research papers.  Especially with a research paper, as well, it would be appropriate to use a conclusion to note the limitations of one's research, as well as to tentatively map areas of possible further inquiry regarding one's topic.


Sentence Structure, Active/Passive Voice, Specificity-Generalization, Which Person

    A properly constructed sentence in the English language needs two basic elements, a noun and a verb (unlike, for example, Japanese, which does not require nouns).  The noun forms what is also called the subject and verbs, potentially along with adjectives and other nouns, form what are called predicates.  "Run" for example, is not a complete sentence.  "I run" is.  In addition to adjectives (big, ugly, tall, blue, sad, beneficial). verbs (eat, drink, sleep, drive, talk, think), and nouns (me, you, the United States, bakery, dog, God), there are also adverbs, which describe how actions or verbs are done (quickly, intelligently, mistakenly, thoroughly); adverbs can also describe adjectives (incredibly sad, very happy).  In good academic and historical writing, it is best to avoid trying to make points with adjectives.  Saying something is an adjective just proclaims something to be true without supporting that claim in any way.  An example would be "running is good" instead of "running everyday has increased the level of my fitness."  Using verbs to explain why something is the case is better than just proclaiming something to be true with an adjective.  Writing that is filled with many adjectives and adverbs typically sounds "flowery" in a way perhaps appropriate to poetry and love letters, not formal and academic writing.

    Sentences in active voice feature the doer of an action as the subject, as in "I eat pizza."  Sentences written in passive voice feature the things being acted upon as the subject, as in "the pizza is eaten."  Both active and passive sentences can be written in past, present, present continuous, and future tense.  Passive sentences are generally not appropriate for good academic writing because they can conceal doers.  If I write "Baghdad was bombed" it does not indicate who was responsible for the bombing of Baghdad.  History writers should always strive to show cause and effect whenever possible.  Thus, "the US Air Force bombed Baghdad" is preferable.  Even though it is possible to add a doer or actor to the end of a passive sentence ("the pizza was eaten by me"), this is relatively awkward and the main feature or subject of the sentence is still a passive thing ("pizza" or "Baghdad") being acted upon instead of the thing or person doing the action.

    Actually, history writers should also always strive to be as specific as possible.  This means that unless one can assume that one's reader already knows all relevant information, a sentence such as "the US Air Force bombed Baghdad in March of 2003 with stealth aircraft" is better than simply stating that "the US Air Force bombed Baghdad."  Being as specific as possible is the inverse or flip side of generalization, and again, in history writing and formal or academic writing in general, one should avoid unprovable generalizations as much as possible, even if one thinks one can assume certain general things as commonsense.  In other words, even if one believes that there are certain truths one can assume about "all people," "people everywhere," "humanity," "men,""women," '"civilization," "all times," "all countries," and so on, one should avoid making claims about such massive categories of people, places, or things in the context of history papers.

    Writing can also be divided into first, second, and third person.  Writing or speaking in first person is when somebody discusses themselves as "I."  "I write" is a sentence in the first person.  The second person is when one refers to "you," as in "you write."  Third person is when one discusses singular or plural pronouns (they, them, it, we) or nouns (cats, automobiles, sushi, desks).  Proper nouns (names, which are capitalized, such as Tom, Jerry, Venice, Mongolia, Africa, and Harvard) constitute a special category of third person nouns.  Proper academic, historical, and formal writing always uses third person.  Professional scholars with Ph.D.s sometimes use the first person in their academic, historical, and formal writing.  Our high school English teachers told many of us that we could never write in the first person when it comes to school work, but some - not all - university professors in History or other disciplines will allow or even encourage students to use the first person.  Remember, however, that in formal and academic writing it is almost never appropriate to use the second person.  A related rule is that in academic, historical, and formal writing, one should never address the instructor, as if the paper is a letter to her or him.  It is also usually a bad idea to refer to the class or what happened in class.  One should imagine that one is writing for publication, even if this is not the case.


Types of Sources

    We can divide sources for historical analysis, which form the raw materials students use in their own writing, into ones of a primary, secondary and tertiary nature.  Primary sources include published materials (memoirs, diaries, magazines, newspapers, poems, novels, short stories), unpublished materials found in archives (diaries, letters, manuscripts, notes), records (government documents, census data, birth certificates, organizational minutes, business reports), images (paintings, posters, photographs, advertisements, maps, cartoons, graffiti, tattoos), film and television (from amateur footage or home movies to newsreels, television episodes, and feature-length cinematic features), audio material (oral histories, interviews, recordings, music), and artifacts (monuments, inscriptions, buildings, tombstones, clothing, tools, machines, public works, garbage or landfills).  Secondary sources are often produced by scholars and they include scholarly books, often in monograph form (written on one particular subject), journal articles, and essays in edited volumes (books containing pieces by several authors about a particular topic or theme).  Tertiary sources include atlases and specialized historical atlases with a great deal of textual information, dictionaries, and encyclopedias, which can be wonderful starting points, but are often not appropriate for citation or quotation in serious scholarly work.

    Another type of scholarly product is a textbook, which is the kind of book frequently employed in high school history courses (books such as American Pageant) and in survey-type courses at universities.  Some world history (HIS 110) instructors at UWL use textbooks, as do some of the instructors of history surveys in Asia, Europe, the United States, Latin America, and Africa.  Textbooks can be useful, but as with tertiary sources, they may not be appropriate for citation in some kinds of more formal academic writing.

    Most history courses involve instructors assigning readings of primary and secondary sources, along with tertiary sources in some instances.  Students must do this reading if they wish to write well for a course.  In some courses, especially more advanced ones, instructors may ask students to do more individual research assignments.  In that case, students would typically use secondary sources to frame the issue they are studying, learning what existing scholarship has found and how previous scholars have made sense of what their research has revealed.  Secondary and tertiary sources can also help one learn about available primary sources.  Students would then be generally expected to find and analyze primary sources themselves, which will often but not always be "raw" documents that they can locate in archives (places housing such materials). 

    One should note that whether a source is primary, secondary, tertiary, or even a textbook or not can depend upon circumstances. If one is studying the intellectual history of the nineteenth century, for example, then academic journal articles of the time would be primary sources, while more recent academic journal articles would be secondary ones.  If one studies historical changes in the representation of American history, textbooks from various eras might well be considered primary sources.  In short the borders between different forms of sources - like many other things in the real world - are not completely fixed. Furthermore, one should be aware of issues such as how translation effects the authenticity of primary sources. A language such as Classical Chinese, for example, has no punctuation, no tense, and no grammatical way to indicate plural or singular nouns. Translators often have to interpret, guess, or invent punctuation, tense, or singularity and plurality when transforming Classical Chinese into English. If this diminishes the authenticity of a translation, it is also the case, however, that a version of a translation of something into English can have historical importance in its own right, as is clearly the case with the King James Bible, which was originally in forms of Hebrew and Koine Greek, and was later rendered in Latin long before being translated into English and other languages.



    In many cases, instructors will ask students to provide citations in their writing.  The style of citation most commonly appropriate for historical writing is known as Turabian style, Chicago style, or Chicago-Turabian style.  Kate L. Turabian was the University of Chicago graduate school dissertation secretary, and she wrote a A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations (now in its 8th edition), which itself closely followed the University of Chicago Press's Manual of Style. With this style, unlike the one generally employed in the Social Sciences (Psychology, Sociology, Economics, Political Science, Anthropology, etc.), one makes citations with footnotes. 

    A fundamental question is: why do citations at all?  Many of us learned in high school that we had to do them to constantly prove that we are not cheaters, that we are not plagiarists stealing information from others and presenting it as our own.  Footnotes as intellectual theft prevention devices then attribute thoughts and words to others, noting that they are something like the private property of somebody else, and protecting us from accusations of dishonesty.  However, there are other, less onerous ways to understand the function of citations and footnotes.  They can be understood as a primitive form of hyperlinks, which connect what we write to the written work of others.  Readers can actually use our footnotes as something like very slow hyperlinking, by following up on them and finding the sources to which one has connected their writing.  Writers can, in short, creatively use footnotes to make visible a network of relationships between one's own thought or one's own writing and the universe of context outside what one has oneself written.  In fact, professional scholars and advanced students will sometimes write explanatory footnotes specifying relationships between one's own writing and other work, other documents, and other things. 

    The way to write a basic footnote in Chicago-Turabian style depends on the type of resource.  For a book, it is like this:

  • Joe Scholar, The Point of Footnotes: Adventures in Chicago-Turabian (New York: Columbia University Press, 2001), 5-6.

First comes the authors name with given name followed by surname, then, following a comma, the title of the book in italics or underlined.  The next part is in parentheses, including the place of publication, followed by a colon.  If the place is well known, only the city is needed.  If it is not so well known, one should include the state or province and/or country.  This is also the case if there is more than one place with the same name, such as Springfield (of which there are several in the US); it would also be the case in the much more likely event of referring to Cambridge, UK, versus Cambridge, Mass. (although it the location is Cambridge and the press is Harvard University, it is obviously in Massachusetts, so "Mass." may not be needed.  In the case of San Diego, California versus San Diego, Texas, for example, one would probably only have to specify the state if it is the one in Texas, which is much smaller.  After the name of the press or publisher comes a comma, and then the year of publication.  Then the parentheses close and there is a comma, followed by a page number or page numbers to which one is referring readers.  Last comes a period.

    Please note that when citing a work in a footnote, it is only necessary to include all bibliographical information as above the first time.  After that, only the author's last name and a page number or numbers are needed.  The exception to this is when one cites multiple works by one author.  In that case one must specify each one, which is typically done by indicating the year of publication.  Alternatively (as when more than one work by the same person was published in the same year), one can use all or part of the title of a book.

    The footnote format for a journal article is as follows:

  • Joe Scholar, "A Historical Analysis of Footnotes," History of Scholarly Practice Quarterly 61 (October 1999): 481.

With journals, one writes the author's name followed by a comma.  After that appears the article's name (not in italics or underlined) in quotation marks.  Before the second quotation mark comes a comma, followed by the journal's title in italics or underlined.  Next comes the volume number, followed by the month and year of publication, a colon, a page number or numbers, and a period.

    A newspaper article cited in a footnote should follow this format:

  • Joe Scholar, "The Problem With Kids Today - They Don't Know How to Do Footnotes." Los Angeles Times, August 18, 2006, final ed.

With newspaper articles, the format is name, coma, title of the article in quotation marks with a period before the second one, followed by the name of the newspaper, the date of publication, a comma, and if known, the edition.

    With websites, there is not yet a general consensus on how they should be cited.  But here is a possible formula:

  • Joe Scholar, "How to do Footnotes," (accessed October 31, 2013).

    With some websites, authorship is unclear.  If that is the case, simply do not write an author's name.  Even a title for a website can be difficult to ascertain.  If this is the case, improvise and come up with what seems like a logical name.  There are also, clearly, no page numbers to which one may refer.  But using information if available, write the author's name, the title in quotation marks with a comma before the second one; then put the web page address, followed by "accessed" and the date one accessed the website in parenthesis.  One should end a website footnote, as with all footnotes, with a period.

    Explanatory footnotes can sometimes include no bibliographical information.  Instead, they might express germane but supplementary information that one does not for whatever reasons include in one's paper's main text.  Here is an example of the kind of information one might put in an explanatory footnote: 

  • As a historian, Joe Scholar consistently argues in all of his writings that footnotes are the best way to make citations.  Although Sigmund A. Shrinker's work on citation agrees with Scholar on many points, Shrinker maintains that in-text citations using parentheses are a much more efficient way to cite sources.

In some cases, however, writers can combine bibliographical information with other information.  Here is an example:

  • Joe Scholar argues in "A Historical Analysis of Footnotes," History of Scholarly Practice Quarterly 61 (October 1999): 481, that explanatory footnotes can be very useful in elucidating one's main argument, but that one should also not overdo them.


Proofreading and Editing

    One of the most fundamental writing skills is editing one's own work.  This means several things.  First of all, it means catching mistakes of a factual or grammatical nature.  Along with this, it means transforming what is awkward and otherwise inadequate language (for example, passive sentences)  into better language (for example, active sentences).  It is often best to write simple sentences, which are as clear as they possibly can be.  In order to do the kind of editing I have mentioned so far, there are some "tricks" one might use, such as:

  • Printing a paper and reading it in hard copy.
  • Reading a paper from a screen or in hard copy aloud to oneself (others might think this is strange if they are around, but it is worth it.)

Doing both of the above will enable writers to catch errors they might otherwise miss.  One might also:

  • Have a friend read one's paper, especially if a particular friend is relatively gifted with language and as a writer; in many cases, mothers, fathers, and siblings can also be very helpful in this regard.

Note that it is especially useful to have somebody who is not in one's history class read one's paper because if they can understand it, then it probably is somewhat clear. 

    Also keep in mind that everybody has to edit in this sense because everybody makes mistakes; even published scholarly work that has been written by highly educated people, then read by reviewers and editors, and revised multiple times sometimes still has grammatical errors.  One might aim for perfection, but practically speaking one should work to eliminate errors as much as possible.  In this regard, use any tools available.  Only a fool who happens to have a word processor with spell check will neglect to use it.  Use spell check, but remember spell check will, for example, mark foreign or unfamiliar words as incorrect when they are not.  It will also not catch errors such as when one writes "piece" when they mean to write "peace" or "their" when they mean to type "there."

    Another meaning of editing is when one critically examines one's own written work, and eliminates whatever is unnecessary.  Unseasoned writers in particular tend to be wordy One should look at one's writing carefully and remove words, and even sentences and paragraphs, which are not requisite for one's argument.  One should also eliminate declarative statements that do not support an argument, eliminate superfluous adjectives that do not do anything other than declare something to be true, and eliminate redundancy (writing the same thing more than once, even in different words).


Note on Using the Internet

    The internet is a wonderful tool.  Many UWL faculty grew up and were even educated in an era of paper, ink, and typewriters.  We might sometimes wonder if our students understand how well they have it with computers and the internet (something like doing footnotes is now infinitely easier than it was with typewriters, by the way).  It used to be, for example, that if one needed information, one would have to know it already, know somebody who knew it, or find the information in a book, journal, atlas, encyclopedia, on a globe or map, or by using some other hard copy source of information.  Now one can find a lot of reliable information, such as definitions of words or information regarding unfamiliar concepts, regions, people, and just about anything else, with internet access, a few keystrokes, and a few seconds.  The UWL History Department encourages students to use the internet, but to use it well.

    Along with the wonders of the internet have come some problems and new ways we have to now understand and do various things.  For example, with information as readily available as it is with a Google search, one has to also be exceedingly careful in judging or ascertaining the quality and veracity (truth) of any information one finds online.  Wikipedia, for example, can be a good tool, but the fact remains that anybody can author or edit a Wikipedia page.  In contrast, the information and views found and expressed in scholarly journal articles or in scholarly monographs (books on one topic) are generally peer reviewed.  This means that other scholars in related areas of expertise examine and review articles and book manuscripts submitted for publication.  These reviews are often double blind, meaning that the author does not know who his reviewers are and reviewers do not know who an author is.  In theory, this peer-review system ensures that the quality of any published scholarly or academic work meets high standards.

    Something like the peer review system is often entirely lacking with regard to much of the information one can find on the internet.  Accordingly, educators such as those in UWL's history Department now have as never before the responsibility to train students to be savvy consumers of information because though it is amply available on the internet these days, it may be very difficult for untrained or uneducated people to tell the difference between low quality information and what is of value.  Furthermore, with information now so available, it is also in a sense "cheap," which simply means that it is very easy to get. Because of this, nowadays it is not only important for educated people to become smart consumers of knowledge and information.  It is also necessary for them to as never before become more than simply people who know things they have memorized.  It is easy to find out just about anything, so the truly educated among us must become creative producers and users of knowledge and information.  Writing a paper in one's history course is part of training along such lines.

    As with such issues as attendance and late papers, different faculty even in the same department will have differing policies with regard to internet use.  However, here are some general guidelines:

  1. One should corroborate any information one gets from the internet (or most other places, actually).  If various sources agree on a bit of information, this would increase the likelihood of its veracity.
  2. In general, academic sources with web addresses ending in "edu" are more likely than others to have valid information.
  3. News articles online from reputable sources connected to either print newspapers (New York TimesChicago TribuneBoston GlobeWashington PostLos Angeles Times, etc.) or broadcasting news organizations (ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, BBC, PBS, etc.) can be treated much the same as printed newspaper articles.  They are much more trustworthy than, for example, a random person's blog or something a friend wrote on Facebook.
  4. Encyclopedic sites such as Wikipedia may be useful starting points, providing basic information on a wide variety of things.  Wikipedia articles seem to continuously get better, with many of them, for example, having proper citation with footnotes.  Also, the references at the bottom of Wikipedia articles often contain links to valuable sources of knowledge and information.  However, because there is nothing like peer or even necessarily ongoing editorial review of Wikipedia, and anybody can write or edit their pages, using Wikipedia (or any similar sites, or even hard copy versions of dictionaries and encyclopedias) as officially cited sources in academic writing is usually not going to be a very good idea.  Such sources of information are simply too much like the fast food of knowledge or information.  One can figuratively or literally cut and paste from them without understanding very well what one is cutting and pasting.

    Lastly, Murphy Library at UWL maintains online databases where one can use search engines to locate full PDF versions of articles published in academic journals  Two of the most useful are JSTOR and Project Muse. One can use keyword searches in both of these to find articles from a variety of journals, including those focused on history and related matters. JSTOR has articles going back to at least the early twentieth century, but current articles do not appear on JSTOR until several months after print publication. Project Muse is more up to date, and tends to have articles of a more cutting-edge character. In order to access these databases from off campus, one must log in with one's UWL ID and password, but this is unnecessary on campus.


Concluding Remarks

    Writing various kinds of papers in the context of history course work at UWL is not simply a chore that one has to do in order to get a diploma after four or five years.  Instead, what one learns by doing this kind of writing is itself an important set of skills that are ideally themselves an outcome of one's education (and these skills may be practically worth more than a diploma). In other words, being able to communicate well in formal language is the mark of an educated person, and being able to formulate arguments is an indication of a fine mind.  These are transferable skills that will be of use for those entering a wide variety of professions, not just for teachers or historians, but for medical doctors, lawyers, engineers, scientific researchers, marketing professionals, artists, human rights activists, financial advisors, all kinds of managers and business people, musicians, accountants, human resources professionals, and others.  UWL's History Department hopes that this guide, as an ongoing work in progress, will help students become better writers, mastering the kinds of communication skills that peers and prospective employers will value.