Skepticism and Historical Authority

Reading student work elicits all manner of emotions, but given time and support to do it properly I like it. I had better, given that my basic goal is to deliver a continuous stream of feedback to my students while having them write and revise as much as I can genuinely respond to in a semester.

This cycle offers two advantages. First, having students write regularly gives them opportunities to develop transferrable communication skills that people often use to justify teaching fields like history, but then don’t always actually teach. I like to put substance behind my words. Second, picking up on John Warner’s dictum that writing is thinking, having my students write gives me a good sense of what they are picking up and where I can help.

Today, for instance, I opened a class with discussion of one of their quiz questions from last week where many people uncritically repeated a claim found in ancient sources that one of the Ptolemaic pharaohs started the decline of the dynasty in part because his insatiable lust let him be ruled by his mistress. I pointed out that the way in which the sources (and more than one historian, let alone the students) talk about this make it sound like the problem is that he listened to what a woman had to say, rather than that she and her brother were (perhaps) using her relationship to get wealthy. Thus the entire episode, should we accept it, is about corruption at court, not that a woman was involved in making decisions.

This is a fine distinction, perhaps, but an important one that offers opportunities to inspect our own biases. Moments like this happen quite frequently, and regular written assignments give opportunities to catch and talk about issues that would otherwise slip right by.

Today’s example comes from an upper-level class with a lot of history majors and other interested folks, meaning that there is a relatively high baseline for basic skills and skepticisms, though there still remains a tendency that is more common to intro classes: deference to historical authority.

Students in my lower-level survey courses struggle with source analyses. In part they lack sufficient context, but I think that deference is a more pernicious and deeper-rooted problem, and the only remedy is “more history” (delivered in the voice of Christopher Walken, of course). Students weren’t there, so to speak, and the source was, at least in theory, so the source must be right. So too when they read history books they often default to reading for “how it was” than “what argument is being made,” and then to the professor and down the line. When students are coming from history testing regimes in high school that prioritize factual knowledge and at best the facsimile of an argument, then they have to be taught skepticism with regard to history that might come instinctively to other parts of life. This credulity is a matter of conditioning and experience, not intellect.

I don’t have statistical evidence support this observation, let alone answers, but it strikes me as curious that in an age seemingly defined by conspiracy theories and a resurgence of skepticism of things that can be tested, there is nevertheless a deference to history, a topic that by definition cannot. Even more curious is when “research” begins and ends with Wikipedia, or perhaps worse, when it entails carefully triangulating internet sites that echo each other as sources of legitimacy.

Learning to question historical sources––not to mention claims of historical authority––critically and carefully therefore not an idle pastime, but a critical life skill. Just because someone “was there” doesn’t mean that what he or she produced is accurate. Nor does an appeal to history automatically lend authority to a position, particularly if it is based on shoddy use of evidence. There is only so much that can be done in one class and no school is going to re-write its curriculum around history any time soon, but learning to think this way (skeptically, critically, carefully) is the most important skill a student can take away from any history class.

My Brilliant Friend

At that moment I knew what the plebs were, much more clearly than when, years earlier, [Maestra Oliviero] had asked me. The plebs were us. The plebs were that fight for food and wine, that quarrel over who should be served first and better, that dirty floor on which the waiters clattered back and forth , those increasingly vulgar toasts. The plebs were my mother, who had drunk wine and now was leaning against my father’s shoulder, while he, serious, laughed, his mouth gaping, at the sexual allusions of the metal dealer.

Back in 2017 I made a conscious decision to start reading more books by women, and have been richly rewarded by this choice. At the same time, intimate portraits of female friendship is an entire subcategory of these books that I hesitated to approach. This trepidation is mostly irrational, but stories that are first and foremost about male friendship tend not to be my favorites, either. This was the excuse I had given for putting off reading My Brilliant Friend, the first book in the Neapolitan Quartet, by Elena Ferrante*. Having finished the book last week, I can now say that waiting was a mistake.

[*Elena Ferrante is a pen-name for an anonymous Italian author. The critical acclaim and HBO show have led to people seeing to uncover her true identity, but she maintains that the authorship is irrelevant to the novel.]

My Brilliant Friend opens with a prologue where the narrator, Elena Greco, receives a phone call from Rino, the son of her childhood friend Lila, announcing that his mother has disappeared. More than that, every trace of Lila has vanished. This shock prompts Elena to trace back the threads of memory to the old neighborhood of her childhood where she can write her friend back into the world.

In those days, Elena Greco lived in a poor part of town, the daughter of a porter at city hall, and shared a grade with Lila, the daughter of the shoemaker. The neighborhood had a hierarchy; Don Achille Carracci is one of the wealthiest men in town, but might as well be an ogre; The Solaras, who own the pastry shop and bar, flaunt their wealth and are rumored to be involved in criminal activities; Donato Sarratore, a railroad conductor and poet, is a notorious Lothario whose liaisons bring tragedy; other people, including Elena’s family, scrape to make ends meet.

School is the great leveler for the children. Much to the shock of her family, Elena excels academically, but not as much as Lila, who is preternaturally brilliant. Unlike Elena, however, Lila chafes at the repressive structure of school so while Elena continues on into middle and then high school, Lila goes to work with the family.

At every turn Lila outstrips Elena––she is a step smarter, braver, more determined, and, eventually, more beautiful––and yet Elena is the brilliantly educated friend. Their relationship evolves, through school, through adolescence, through relationships with boys, and building to a matrimonial climax.

My Brilliant Friend is an intimate portrait of the relationship between Lila and Elena, but it is a masterpiece because of how the two girls develop in their neighborhood. Ferrante breathes life into this poor corner of Naples, slowly awakening Elena to the wider world and imbuing all of the relationships with the depth of live-in experience. The result is that what begins as the light, childlike interpretation of serious issues grows in emotional depth as the novel progresses until the the final paragraphs land like an emotional avalanche. I declared on Twitter that the final two paragraphs are perhaps the most powerful conclusion I have ever read, because amidst a joyous reverie three different emotional arcs simultaneously reach their climactic resolution.

My Brilliant Friend only covers Elena and Lila’s childhood and adolescence, making the novel feel uneven with a frame story that sets up a larger, as of yet incomplete, mystery. Without that frame, the novel is a spectacular novel about a girl’s formative years (Bildingsroman), but with the frame Ferrante invites additional questions about memory, both in the development of relationships and in how adults remember childhood, but I will need to read the rest of the series in order to find these answers. At least My Brilliant Friend has made it clear that the investment will be worth my time.


My recent schedule has mostly limited my reading time to the weekends, but I started reading Sara Novic’s Girl at War, which examines the trauma of the war in Croatia in 1991.


Thomas Jefferson once said “I often find that the harder I work the luckier I am.” Actually, probably not. He is attributed with having said or written something of the sort, but the accuracy of internet quotations is such that I didn’t bother looking up the exact phrasing.*** The sentiment is the same however, regardless of the original context.

This aphorism fits neatly into a motivation, can-do ethos that suggests anything is possible if you just work hard enough. It fits nicely on a poster, too, but so do a lot of statements.

The problem is that this ethos is also a recipe for burnout when taken to its logical extreme. Graduate school particularly suffers from this sort of progression, but a series of articles have recently look at burnout as a social problem crushing some combination of millennials, young people, and/or everyone suffering from precarity.

As a junior scholar trying to make my way in the world of academia, I came to hate the word “if” in 2018. “If” is dangerous. If I just do X, Y, or Z, ad infinitum.

Without perspective, “if” paves the road to burnout. The problem is that “if” brims with potential, with hope. Hard work and hope are both good, but sometimes they can come to naught. Sometimes the most important “if” is “if I get a lucky break.”

Not the luck of hard work, but pure, simple, ineffable luck of forces beyond your control breaking the right way.

I wrote this post in hotels and airports while returning to Columbia from a campus interview where I was a finalist for a tenure track job. As I sit in an airport in Dallas I just keep coming back to the question, “Do I feel lucky?”

I embargoed this post until the  job search ended. I found out this morning that the job went to someone else.

UPDATE: ***My father pointed out to me that the original quote is attributed to L. Anneaus Seneca. A cursory Google search says this attribution dates to at least 1912 in a collection of quotations, but is thought to be a corruption of De Beneficiis 7.1.4, on the best wrestler being not the one who prepares all the tricks, but the one who masters one or two and looks for the opportunity to use them.

Polishing Your Prose

“Writing is hard” is a truism, but these three words conceal a more complicated reality. Simple word generation, though looking for the right words is rarely simple, is comparatively simple. Taking words found on the first pass and polishing them until they shine––until they dance and sing when someone takes their time to read them––is hard. In short: writing is easy; editing is hard.

Fortunately, editing is a learned skill, and there is no shortage of guidebooks on the subject, each offering a series of rules, tips, and tricks. Polishing Your Prose, written by the brothers Stephen and Victor Cahn, belongs to this genre.

The first section of Polishing Your Prose, “strategies,” presents ten key concepts for clear and concise writing. They eschew the idea that these are “rules,” but go on to largely repeat commonly-held rules for writing such as eliminating empty constructions, redundancy, and jargon, minimizing adverbs and adjectives, and making sure that pronouns have clear antecedents. Other strategies are equally straightforward but more subtle, such varying sentence structure, using parallel structures for coordinating elements, using transitions to link ideas, and placing the most dramatic material at the end of the sentence thereby allowing sentences and paragraphs to build toward a crescendo.

The Cahns present each strategy simply, as though it is common sense, with the occasional gem of observational wisdom, such as “if you can’t find an appropriate transition, your ideas may not be as coherent as your presume.”

The second section puts these words into action with three paragraphs from an early draft of an essay on teaching math that eventually saw the light of publication. Word by word, sentence by sentence, and paragraph by paragraph, the Cahns work through these passages and talk about their thought process to polish the text. They suggest that the reader edit the paragraphs before reading on, but without an easy way to do this I skipped the step. Nevertheless, there is a lot to be gleaned from reading their thought-process, such as noting that paragraphs need to maintain unified themes and that careful use of a thesaurus is a writer’s friend. Most of all, as the conclusion reminds us, this section demonstrates that editing is not a straightforward process, but one that requires constant tinkering, reworking, and reconsideration choices, because editing, like writing, is a matter of choice.

Polishing Your Prose shares much of its advice with other books in this genre, in large part because there is no grand secret to writing well. What I appreciated about this one is its emphasis on process. The Cahns assume everyone has their own voice, and Polishing Your Prose is designed to draw attention to the choices an author in the hopes that that voice can sing.

Before wrapping this up, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the epilogue. I appreciated the rest of the book and can see using a variation of part two in a classroom, but the epilogue, which consisted of an autobiographical piece from each author, stole the show. The one detailed a class in graduate school where the professor demanded that the students resolve a philosophical problem by thinking for themselves rather than referring to a body of literature that as a first year student he knew nothing about––and in so doing this professor forced the students to learn. The other was a comic tale of youthful male hubris that I ate up. Both essays amounted to the authors flexing, mature authors offering ample evidence why one ought to pay attention to their advice.


#PhDSkills is a collaborative project created by Naomi Rendina and Greg Wiker where graduate students and early-career academics volunteer to read and review on Twitter books on teaching and writing. Polishing Your Prose is my third contribution, the final one scheduled to date. I am happy to talk about the book further in the comments or on Twitter.

Form and Content: a note on writing

“Do I have to write in paragraphs?”

I used to receive variations of this question every semester, and I’m sure that I will hear it again from students, often first years, who are deeply concerned about the expectations of an academic essay.

“Yes,” I answer, not because I’m against creative presentation, but because giving the option of using a bullet-point list undermines the hard work of stitching a series of thoughts into a single argument.

Echoes of this frantic question have come back to me in recent weeks, first while reading John Warner’s Why They Can’t Write, and then again when I saw a lament on Twitter about the encroaching tyranny of the listicle as a medium of discourse.

Every format has strengths and weaknesses.

The essay, a medium for which I have a great deal of affection, lays out an argument or tells a story by leading the reader from one point to the next. In the hands of a master the essay is a lyrical medium, but it is not only hard, but also unsuited to all tasks.

A list, for instance, conveys information simply and concisely in the face of tumult and complexity. There is comfort in lists, but they belie fluidity. An example: I have kept one of my favorite novels for years, but between the fogginess of memory and whims of a given day the novel that belongs in the ninth spot of the list changes.

An outline gives the structure of an argument, even if the actual order, at least in my experience, is liable to change in the execution.

The listicle, by contrast, is a cross between the list and the essay. It takes the argument and points of an essay and meshes it with the order and structure of a list. Meatier than a list and more easily digested than an essay, it is perfect for consumption on a mobile device, matched for a fast-paced world.

Good writing is good writing, and the same holds here, but the very efficiency of the listicle also contributes to its forgettability. Where I can rattle off a dozen or more essays that I recommend to people, there is not a single listicle I can say the same about unless I thought to do so while reading it. But I’m also busy, and therefore generally happy to skim through a listicle on any number of topics where I might decide that reading and processing an essay is too much of a commitment.

In the classroom there are any number of ways to cut corners and grade more quickly, but my objective is not speed. Outlines are a nice tool, whether to help students organize their thoughts, prepare a long written piece, or (my preference) part of the revision process, but it is not the same thing as learning how to pull together a complete piece of writing.

Hewing to John Warner’s mantra that writing is thinking, the ability to lead your reader from one point to another is a learned skill that requires repetition, feedback, and revision. In this sense, the very trepidation that my students exhibit about writing is validation for having them write fully-formed essays.