“What citation template do I use?” the student asked—just before launching into his complaint. “Research would be fun if it weren't for citations. They're too nitpicking. There are too many formats. History researchers need software that has no more than ten templates and will automagically decide which one best fits.”
Okay, Dear Student. You’ve vented. Can we now have a friendly little Attitude Adjustment Session?
Attitude Adjustment 1
The research process has three basic steps: preparation, performance, and reporting. If we use database management software or spread sheets, we add a fourth: data entry. In the popular mindset, Steps 2 and 4 get all the hype. News flash, everyone! It is those neglected Steps 1 and 3 that determine our success long-term.
Humans have adopted clothes for protection. They are adaptable to circumstances. We can layer them to fit the environment or weather. Society has created all sorts of ‘rules’ for when and where to wear certain items of clothing. We don't wear white after Labor Day. We don't wear jogging shorts to a formal wedding. Yet the layering process remains flexible. On a fall day, we may put on a sleeveless vest or short-sleeved tee atop a long-sleeved shirt; as the sun climbs, we’ll peel off the lighter item and keep on the long sleeves to ward off the chill.
Yes. Seriously. From Boston University to Brigham Young, and across the waters to the UK’s Strathclyde, Dundee, and Open University—as well as many lesser-known institutions in between. A century-old wall is crumbling between academia and family history. Should we be concerned? Or should we embrace the possibilities?
Sources give us information, from which we identify evidence. All undergo the evaluation process to produce proof.
Historians are expected to interpret what they find. That’s part of the job description. It’s also one of the most misunderstood aspects of the job. Where do we draw the line between “interpretation” and “speculation”? What relation does either have to the popular buzzword “hypothesis”? At what eventual point does interpretation qualify as “proof”?
Intellectual pickpocketing. Stealing a ride on someone else’s train of thought. Taking something from someone and making it worse. Larding your lean work with the fat of others.1 Wits and sages, through the ages, have described plagiarism in many ways—not one of them flattering. The P-word is a label none of us want the world to attach to us. Yet it can happen so easily when we are inattentive, naïve, or beset by a bout of laziness.
Petitions to the president. Petitions to Congress. Petitions to the governor. Petitions to the legislature. Petitions to mayors and local commissioners. Petitions can be found at almost every level of government. As students of history, how do we use these? What value do we squeeze from them? Do we systematically seek them? Or, do we occasionally stumble upon one that has a name of interest and think: Hmhh, could this be my person-of-interest?
Evidence can be messy. Because it is a mental construct, it rarely gives us the clear and simple answers that we seek. Sources, by contrast, are physical; we can touch them, see them, smell them, hear them. Information is also physical, visible, audible. Evidence, however, is intangible. It’s only what we think certain information means. That’s all it can be―until we make something concrete from it by processing it and molding it into a meaningful and convincing form.
How do we do that?