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

Students think history is boring. They also read Harry Potter, which means means history has a PR problem. Because Professor Binns is deathly dull… But does history have to be so terribly uninteresting? 

In this Process Blog post, I take a look at the “history is boring” trope in a popular series (Harry Potter). I also examine student tweets produced for my class/research last semester that expressed similar ideas. Voila – tentative dissertation-y ideas.

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, well-loved by their fictional students and readers alike. But then there’s Professor Binns, the History of Magic instructor and the only ghost on the Hogwarts staff.

The rumor is 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?

J.K. Rowling did not originate the idea that history is boring and the Harry Potter series is by no means responsible for the “history is boring” trope. 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 the first hit.

However, my students never referenced Ferris Bueller. The inescapable Game of Thrones was the most mentioned series, but most references occurred in a single class period. Twenty-five mentions, out of the total twenty-eight tweets and six GIFs, appeared during the Medieval Europe class when I asked students to name their favorite book, tv show, movie or video game set in the Middle Ages.

By contrast, Harry Potter tweets and GIFs 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 the most widely referenced series in the tweets 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” therefore means a series of lectures, memorization, and grueling tests – not a place for relevant and engaging discussion.

In addition to anecdotal evidence, I know students think history is boring because last semester they tweeted the idea. To be fair, only one student explicitly stated, “History can be boring.” But the tweets produced for Class 5, our first workshop for the group blogging project, suggest students think it is difficult to make history interesting.

Context for Class 5: Workshop 1

In the first workshop, I focused on helping students begin their work for Post 1 (of 2). The basic description of the assignment for Post 1 read:

Post 1 is a text-based, relatively traditional blog post. The post should be 1000-1500 words long. Use of images and engaging writing style are encouraged.

The grading rubric I provided for this assignment included:

  1. Core Elements (25 points): thesis statement, use of specific examples, clear statement of the topic’s importance
  2. Engagement (15 points): engaging writing style, use of media, potential inclusion of personal relevance
  3. Use of other creators’ material (15 points): paraphrasing, citations, use of Creative Commons images, references list
  4. Writing (10 points): grammar/spelling, presence of introduction and conclusion, organization of content
  5. Attention to detail (10 points): formatting of the blog post, use of categories and tags, word count minimum/maximum

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?

I suspect students took both the rubric and the medium of their writing into account when they considered the challenges of the assignment.

The rubric certainly impacted their concerns, but I don’t think it was the main reason for their concerns. It’s telling that elements from the Core Elements and Use of Other Creators Material categories showed up less often than Engagement. These categories were worth a greater or an equal number of points.

Students also may have expressed anxiety about this aspect of writing history precisely because they were tasked with creating a blog post. Blog posts are, after all, a social medium readers expect will be enjoyable and interesting to read. One student suggested as much when they tweeted:

Trying to make the blog post engaging seems like it’ll be challenging (since we’re used to academic writing)!6

Here, the student highlights the difficulty of shifting from one mode of communication to another. In this case, the difficulty of making the post engaging lies not in history but in the student’s unfamiliarity with public writing.

The tension between informative and engaging

Few other students worried about the medium, though. Instead, many students noted a tension between informative historical content and engaging historical content. Interestingly, the reasons for this tension vary. A closer look at a few examples helps highlight the diversity of reasons students see a tension between informative and engaging content.

TL;DR

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 ‘deadness’ of history
  • the dullness of past texts
  • the flexibiity of the concept of “interesting”
  • the usefulness of personal bias and opinion in engaging and audience and
  • the difficulty of condensing large amounts of information

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

I think consideration for how to communicate history well might even be the overwhelming concern. I would argue the tweets about interest/engagement, important/relevant, simple/understandable, and word limit tweets could be better thought of as sub-categories of “communicating history.”

How we communicate history matters

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.

Rowling recognizes this 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 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.7

Students, the public, and historians alike recognize the need for skillful communication of history. Yet historical communication isn’t typically listed as a form of “historical thinking” – perhaps because that term implies an internal process.8 Various definitions of historical thinking support this by emphasizing the concepts central to the historical discipline – context, continuity and change, historical empathy, historical understanding, historical significance, etc.. These are all concepts that students of history are expected to know and communicate9 – but not necessarily to communicate well.

This has started to change and I suspect the turn toward public history and digital humanities has aided that shift. The interdisciplinary History Communication syllabus, collaboratively developed by “historians, science communicators and media scholars,” is very encouraging. The course specifically addresses the intersections of history communication and media. That’s a useful and important effort in a world that prizes digital, social communication over more traditional forms

Conclusion

I’d like to revise my opening statement. Students don’t think history is boring. They recognize the reality that history can be boring – but doesn’t have to be. 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. Protected Tweet. ID: 831352590797398016

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

8. It’s possible I haven’t run across literature that more fully incorporates historical communication OR I’m not giving sources fair credit. Corrections in this area are welcome.

9. University at Buffalo, for instance, lists “write a well-organized historical argument” and “present research and findings in clear and compelling fashion” as learning objectives for undergraduates.