Blog Post, Process Blog

To Panicked Dissertation Writers Everywhere

Words of Comfort from E.H. Carr

I plan to begin writing the dissertation in earnest next month, but it’s hard to quiet the voice in my head that shouts, “You aren’t ready yet!” My reading isn’t “done”; corners of my data remain unexplored. I’m not totally certain my original thesis still holds and any outline I write seems destined to change almost immediately.

I suspect this feeling of uncertainty is common to most dissertation writers – or perhaps just writers in general. Still, it was a great comfort to come across this reflection on writing by the historian E.H. Carr in his 1961 lecture series publication, What is History?

As soon as I have got going on a few of what I take to be the capital sources, the itch becomes too strong and I begin to write – not necessarily at the beginning, but somewhere, anywhere. Thereafter, reading and writing go on simultaneously. The reading is guided and directed and made fruitful by the writing: the more I write, the more I know what I’m looking for, the better I understand the significance and relevance of what I find.

Phew. Right.

I don’t know that I consistently share his “itch” to write, but I get glimpses of it sometimes. (I was definitely eager to explore the “history is boring” idea after rediscovering Professor Binns this summer.) Mostly, I just appreciate knowing that Carr, who is so foundational to historical thought and process, thought writing was a messy process too.

So. Repeat after me, fellow writers of dissertations: Writing is a process. It won’t be perfect from the start. I’m not the only one still figuring out what I’m doing.

Now let’s go write some stuff.

Blog Post, Process Blog

Harry Potter and the “History is Boring” Trope

[Edited 31 October 2018]

The importance of Harry Potter

The Harry Potter books are, arguably, the defining cultural touchstone for the millennial generation – of which I and my students are a part. Most of us can tell you what house Pottermore sorted us into (Gryffindor) – and which we really feel affinity for (all of them). We wish certain spells existed (Accio, please) and punctuate our tweets with Hermione GIFs. The life and death of Severus Snape give us a better understanding of redemption.

It’s worth paying attention, then, to how this series deals with history – and how that might influence students’ perceptions of history.

History of Magic: “the most boring class”

Most of the teachers at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry are competent individuals. But then there’s Professor Binns, the History of Magic instructor and the only ghost on the Hogwarts staff.

Rumor has it that poor old Binns died in his sleep after dozing off in the staff lounge. Undeterred by death, he woke up the next morning, left his body behind, and went to work as usual.1 Far from seeing this act as dedication to his craft, the students assume Binns has always been so uninteresting it didn’t make any difference to him or anyone else whether he was alive or dead.

A stylized Hogwarts crest featuring the lion, snake, badger, and eagle that represent the four houses.

In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, History of Magic is “easily the most boring class” on Harry, Ron, and Hermione’s schedule. Things do not improve by the students’ second year.2 In Chamber of Secrets, Binns lulls students into a stupor while he reads his lecture notes “in a flat drone like an old vacuum cleaner.”3 Indeed, Binns makes so little effort to engage his students that he’s genuinely surprised when Hermione raises her hand to ask about the legend of the Chamber of Secrets. He ultimately dismisses her question, declaring: “I deal with facts, Miss Granger, not myths and legends.”4

In short, Binns is so boring that he serves as shorthand for other exceptionally uninteresting tasks. When the odious Dolores Umbridge commands her students to read the first chapter of Defensive Magical Theory, Harry finds the reading “desperately dull, quite as bad as listening to Professor Binns.”5

Is Harry Potter really to blame?

Obviously not. J.K. Rowling did not originate the idea that history is boring, of course. Before Professor Binns, there was Ben Stein’s brilliantly monotone performance in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Stein portrayed an economics teacher, but his subject in the “Anyone? Anyone?” scene was historical change. Incidentally, if you Google “boring history teacher,” this scene is the first hit.

However, my students never referenced Ferris Bueller. Tweets and GIFs about Harry Potter, though, appeared throughout the semester. A total of twenty-four student tweets (out of 11,819) alluded to Harry Potter. Thirteen of the references were GIFs. Four tweets referred to Remus Lupin (thanks to our study of the Romulus and Remus legend in class.) Hermione Granger, Albus Dumbledore, Harry Potter, Molly Weasley, Ron Weasley and Argus Filch also appeared in the GIFs or text of tweets.

All told, only 0.2% of the semester’s tweets allude to the series in some way. None of the tweets or GIFs referenced Professor Binns.

So again, I’m not blaming Rowling’s portrayal of Binns for students’ assumption that history is boring. I just think it’s interesting that students consistently referenced a book series that also contains a deathly dull history professor.

“History can be boring”

I suspect students often conclude history is boring due to experiences with instructors like Professor Binns. At the start of this semester, for instance, a number of students approached me to ask how much they need to memorize for the class. This is despite the fact that exams are open book and discussions take up more class time than lectures. Yet many students assume history = memorization. This implies much of their past experience with history took place in a classroom like the one run by Professor Binns. “History” means a series of lectures, memorization, and grueling tests. Students don’t perceive the history classroom as a place for relevant and engaging discussion.

Creating Engaging History

In addition to anecdotal evidence, the tweets produced for Class 5, our first workshop for the group blogging project, suggest students think it’s difficult to make history interesting. Upon their arrival in class, I asked students to tell me either something they found challenging/daunting about the blogging project OR something they thought was exciting about the project. The students produced 165 tweets related to this question for Class 5.

A column chart showing the number of tweets in which students expressed something challenging, exciting, or challenging/exciting. There is also an uncategorized category.

Thirty-three of the tweets included something the students thought was exciting. One hundred and ten stated something a student found challenging/daunting. Four contained both an exciting and challenging element. I left eighteen of the tweets uncategorized. Uncategorized tweets typically were too vague, asked a question, or seemed unrelated to my original question.

What did students find challenging?

The chart below details what students considered challenging or daunting about the project. For the most part, their responses closely mirrored the rubric. Concerns about working with others and dealing with the amount of information in their sources also surfaced.

However, making the post interesting and engaging to readers was clearly the greatest concern.

A column chart showing what students initially found challenging/daunting about the blogging project.

Why were they concerned about engagement?

History is just plain boring

Students concerns about engagement partly had to do with their perception of history as an innately boring topic.

@VirginiaUGC111, for instance, wrote:

I think it will be challenging for me to write about a history topic in an engaging manner #hwc111 #c056

@pripri1816 echoed her peer’s perception, writing that making the blog post fun would be difficult precisely because it was related to history.

A third student, @ShrutzUGC111, chimed in along similar lines:

It would be challenging to turn something historical and content heavy into a fun writeup #hwc111 #c057

For @VirginiaUGC111, @pripri1816, and @ShrutzUGC111, the problem was simple: history is boring and “content heavy.” Making it engaging seemed innately challenging.

History can be confusing, easily skewed, or appealing to only some people

Other students, though, were more specific about why it might be hard to make history intriguing. Most commonly, students perceived history as complicated and confusing. For @HelloThisIsABot, the problem lay in the “dull past texts” that provided the source material for the blog post:

@yunpingugc expressed similar concern regarding the complexity and density of historical materials:


Other students worried less about confusion and more about accuracy. They articulated a different complication: how to communicate history in a way that was both informative and engaging. @kimblychang noted the challenge of bringing history to life in a way that accurately represented “the facts:”

@yzising expressed a different worry, namely avoiding personal biases that might skew history:

Both @yzising and @kimblychang, in fact, found it difficult to imagine presenting history in a way that was both true and interesting.

@jennjennjannah added an additional layer of concern: What if the post was interesting to the writers, but not the readers?

Finally, one dear student, @Fiworldciv, worried about narrowing down what was most interesting to their group and their readers:

History could be interesting for both @jennjennjannah and @Fiworldciv. The difficulty came in inspiring similar interest in others.

Conclusion

In sum, the content of the tweets makes clear that students do think history can be boring. The tweets also highlight the tension students’ perceive between informative and engaging historical content. Their reasons for this perception include (but are not limited to) concerns regarding:

  • the perceived dullness of history
  • the complexity of historical material
  • the difficulty of balancing accuracy and engagement and
  • the flexibility of the concept of “interesting”

The students’ tweets speak to many of the difficulties faced by professional historical writerstoo . More specifically, the students articulated difficulties related to how historians communicate history.

Indeed, how we communicate history matters. It takes a great deal of skill and practice to (publicly) communicate history in a way that is rigorously attentive to evidence, accessible to a broad audience, and both visually and intellectually interesting to a wide variety of people.

To return to Harry Potter…

Rowling recognizes the need for engaging historical communication in her penultimate reference to Professor Binns. In Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, readers find Harry in History of Magic for his last year of study (since, spoiler alert: Harry ultimately fails his History of Magic O.W.L exam):

Today they suffered three-quarters of an hour’s droning on the subject of giant wars. Harry heard just enough within the first ten minutes to appreciate dimly that in another teacher’s hands this subject might have been mildly interesting, but then his brain disengaged.8

Rowling recognizes history’s potential interest as well as the ways teachers consistently make it dull and dry. So I’d like to revise my opening statement.

Perhaps students don’t think history is truly boring. Maybe they simply recognize the reality that history is often taught in boring ways. They also acknowledge that crafting interesting and informative historical accounts is difficult and takes skill, effort, and practice. The beautiful thing is that this gives educators room to try – and fail – at the difficult task of creating engaging history. Our students are willing to learn alongside us.


Footnotes

1. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Kindle Edition (2015), 132-133.

2. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Kindle Edition (2015), 132.

3. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Kindle Edition (2015), 148.

4. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Kindle Edition (2015), 148.

5. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Kindle Edition (2015), 240. This is the last reference to Binns in the series.

6. Tweet no longer available. Original ID: 831714658264363009

7. Tweet no longer available. Original ID: 831310714744680448

8.Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Kindle Edition, p. 228