Running a successful discussion section

Note: this was adapted from the advice I give to first-time TAs when they work with me in lecture classes. So it is probably most useful to those who haven’t taught a discussion section before. The advice isn’t revolutionary, but I hope it’s clear and usable.

Below is my advice for running an effective discussion session. There is no one teaching style that is ideal or even works for everyone, so adapt this as you see fit. These approaches have worked well for me, and at the very least can be a low-stress way to get through some of the first sections you teach. First is a section on teaching philosophy, which is my perspective on how to think about teaching. Then I have some specific methods I use in class. Finally, there’s an assorted list of short advice. If you find this useful or have any suggestions (or criticisms), I’d be excited to hear from you at jspecht[AT] or on twitter.

Teaching Philosophy

  1. Teaching is about creating a community.

An effective classroom relies on creating a community out of the various people that show up for class. In a way, that community emerges organically, but you can do a lot to set the overall tone and shape how it evolves. Think about how to foster the kind of community that works for your students and you. That means, try to understand the type of students you have in class but also understand your own needs and perspective (see point #2).

  1. Everyone has a teaching identity/persona. Cultivate and understand yours.

Think about the kind of person you are (or want to be) in the classroom, how you come across, how you present yourself, how you engage with students. You can’t invent a persona but you can cultivate one within the limits of who you are as a person outside the classroom. Once you have a sense of that persona, the important thing is to consider the strengths/limits of your approach. For instance, the chill/fun professor might have engaged students but that can run at cross purposes with academic rigor (it also might be hard to become serious when the need arises). In contrast, the very serious professor might be initially intimidating (even if loved later). All teaching styles can and do work, but they all have their own strengths and weaknesses.

The final point on this is that some of one’s teaching persona depends on how students react to who you are. For example, this is striking in relation to gendered approaches to teaching, seeing how men can more often get away with the “cool professor” vibe. At the individual level, I’m not sure how to manage or solve that (and I’m not the right person to ask), but all of us should be sensitive to that dynamic and raise issues like students’ own assumptions/perceptions when asking students to complete evaluations (if you’re the kind of person with the ability to do so) and obviously remind colleagues who might not appreciate this point. If you have any thoughts about this, or think I’m addressing it clumsily, please let me know!

  1. Though you should strive to hone your teaching skills, successes or failures in the classroom are not a referendum on you as a person and are not even really exclusively about your teaching.

I once had a job where I taught four identical sections in a row. With only ten-minute breaks, it was a struggle to stay hydrated and fed during the course of that day. It did make the rest of my week much easier, but that’s a different conversation. The point is that I would teach the same section four times in a row and sometimes I’d leave a room and feel like the best teacher in the world. Then I’d do the same thing and it would fall totally flat. That was due to the particularities of the class, my energy levels, or the position of the planets or something. Other times a section would be amazing one week and the same class would be pretty “meh” the next.

Don’t let it get you down. Just focus on becoming a better teacher over time.

A related point: my first job had me teaching a ~100+ person class in my first semester at the institution. I had never had a classroom to myself before. The first week was…rough. But then it got better. I learned a lot about myself and about teaching. And by the end of the semester, I was much more effective. Teaching is a skill like any other and you can always get better.

General approaches

This is what has worked for me. You might find approaches that work better for you. What I like about the ideas below is that they allow both structure and flexibility, which makes your life a lot easier. That said, this is pretty traditional: it’s about a structured discussion of readings. It can be good to mix in activities (debates, roleplays, etc), and you’ll have to find ideas for those elsewhere!

  1. Consistency has benefits.

Students should develop a sense of how the section/discussion flows and how you’ll approach things. You should change it up occasionally to keep things fresh, but I find that giving students a sense of how things will generally work in class makes them comfortable and more willing to participate. For a more specific sense of what I mean by consistency, see points two and three.

  1. Over the course of a section, I like to move the discussion from big abstract themes to specific content discussion, back to big themes (broad -> narrow -> broad).

The idea is to first get them excited about the material, then force them to engage with it concretely (rather than rambling) and finally to think about the broader relevance/importance of what they’ve just read. This approach can also appeal to a variety of students, both the big picture thinkers and those that like to get in the weeds. If you notice, this structure also allows students to (1) reflect broadly, (2) present/find evidence for their views, and (3) think about the implications of these insights.

  1. Prime discussion by having small group discussion then whole class discussion.

Allow students to break into groups of four or so. I let them sit with friends and have the same groups each week if they want (I very occasionally randomize). They can be comfortable with friends and if you circulate, they will stay on task. Most importantly: give them specific things to do.

I usually give them three tasks:  (1) A specific thing to find or discuss, (2) abstract idea to discuss, and (3) something like brainstorming themes of the text. Once they’ve discussed for ~7-10 minutes (and you should go around talking to them), you can bring them together for a collective discussion. The pump will be primed and you can cold-call students who had made good points while you were circulating. You can do this small group->big discussion process twice during section if you’d like, but more than that gets annoying for everyone involved.

General short tips

  • Get advice from experienced teachers and if possible, watch other people teach or lead discussion sections.
  • Have emergency content as a backup to fill time: a very short primary source and an image (they love rambling about images) can be a life-saver.
  • Use people’s names. This can be awkward at first, especially if you make a mistake, but you’ll learn the names quick.
  • Circulate when students are in groups, you will get better at it.
  • Have a plan for how you want section to go. It can be short or long, vague or detailed, but have one.
  • Use the board. When you use it to get student feedback or ideas, whenever a student says something, write it on the board (or a translation of what they’re saying). If you’re too selective with what you put on the board, some students can get demoralized.
  • Guide the students but don’t talk too much. At the end of section always do a gut check: did I talk too much? should I tone it down for the next one?
  • If the students are quiet, you can sometimes just sit there and eventually they will crack. There is always someone who will crack. You don’t want it to always be you.
  • Occasionally change things up in section. I either have a debate about the reading if its argumentative, some sort of mini-roleplay, or an unexpected primary source (visual, piece of music, etc.).
  • Be sympathetic to your students, it’s hard out there.

Red Meat Republic Roundup

Note: I haven’t posted in a bit…it has been a busy summer! I’ve been in South Bend, Indiana, this year and soon start a VAP at Notre Dame. If you’re in the Midwest and looking for someone for your seminar or to talk to your class, holler at me.

Red Meat Republic is out! Buy it, read it, tell me what you think, tell your friends what you think, buy more copies and leave them in bus stations, train stations, airports, cover

Below is a roundup of everything related to RMR that has happened in the past few months. Please indulge me, I needed to collect everything in one place. I promise I’ll be back to general teaching, research, job/grad school advice soon. Also if you have any requests/ideas for posts or general comments, let me know.

First, Red Meat Republic has a fantastic trailer. It’s in this really cool animated style and while it simplifies things, it covers some of the key points of the book.

A few pieces (by me) related to the book

Note: it is still a bit too early for reviews in academic journals, but hopefully those will start to roll in soon…

In The New Republic, Yale Historian and Law Professor Samuel Moyn wrote a very generous review. My favorite bit: “Explaining how Americans came to eat so much beef and to pay so little for it turns out to be an especially gargantuan enterprise, which Specht pulls off with aplomb, in accessible and sprightly prose.” Nice!

The Financial Times ran a nice review, although one (fair) criticism stuck out. You’ll know it when you see it. As an aside, I was honored that my book was reviewed alongside Darren Dochuk’s Anointed With Oil. Both books explore industries that fundamentally shaped American politics and culture.

A thoughtful (and expansive) review ran in The Baffler. This one was very cool since I grew up reading The Baffler!

A fantastic piece in Longreads reviewed my book as well as discussed (with great insight) current day issues with beef production.

The Sydney Morning Herald described Red Meat Republic as a “vivid account.” My book was paired with a review of Matthew Evans’ On Eating Meat, which now I very much want to read.


I was interviewed on two national NPR shows, both of which were really great conversations. Live radio is intense…oh and a few friends randomly heard me while in their car. Nice!  See 1A, “The Legacy of Red Meat in America,” and Think, “Why Beef Is What’s For Dinner.”

I appeared on WTTW’s Chicago Tonight. This is the only time I’ve done live in-studio television. It’s pretty crazy/disorienting, but I had a great time and the host was a real pro.

I also recently provided some historical context for a BBC World Service show on the global meat industry. The whole episode is pretty great.

I appeared on a few different podcasts. Some of my favorite conversations:

Other Coverage

Okay so that’s more Red Meat Republic than anyone other than me (and maybe my mother) can handle. But I wanted to assemble a roundup of all the relevant coverage and also provide some explanation (justification?) of why my blog has been a bit dead. I’ll be back soon with more of the blog’s usual content.

And if you’ve read Red Meat Republic, let me know what you think either via email or on twitter at @joshspecht. More soon!

Dissertation to Book

I’m not sure how I got here, but my first book is basically finished. Along the way I learned a few things about revising a dissertation. Here’s the one-sentence take: keep it simple, focus on the writing, and follow deadlines. For the longer version, read on.

I start with three overarching suggestions, then suggest a potential revision process, before ending with assorted tips. Perhaps the most useful suggestion is the use of a revision sheet as you review your dissertation. You don’t have to use my exact sheet, but the general approach is extremely helpful.

First, the overarching principles:

1. Don’t make life too hard on yourself.

I’ve never done it, but writing a book from scratch seems really tough. Fortunately, you have a dissertation to draw from. The people I know who got bogged down with revisions had a lot of additional research they wanted to do for the book. Keep additional research to a minimum; your dissertation has enough material. If you feel like you just have to add chapters, my advice is don’t. Or at least stick to adding only one. Anything more will take forever.

A practical tip: people often stall on book revision when faced with a particularly difficult-to-revise chapter. Give yourself some easy wins to get the process started. Revise the easiest chapter first. That way your giant checklist with remaining work to do (more below) gets a check mark pretty quick. Then do one of the hard-to-revise chapters. Then do the next easiest one. Save the hardest one for last. By the time you’re down to one chapter left, you’ll have the necessary motivation to finish.

2. The writing matters most.

When it comes to revising your dissertation, the writing is all that matters. Have faith in the arguments developed in your dissertation. Beyond any minor changes, you’ve already figured out the argument of your dissertation/book. Even if its hard to find, it’s in there. The key with the book is framing the argument in terms of larger debates or questions. This isn’t easy; I rewrote my book introduction from scratch multiple times. But this is ultimately packaging the hard-work you did for the dissertation.

Similarly, you want to make things readable and interesting. People do cite and assign books that are important but poorly written. But I wouldn’t count on your work being important enough to fall into that category. Focus on the writing as a way to get people excited about your argument. This means working on the prose, editing everything carefully, and since you don’t generally show as much evidence in-text in a book as in a dissertation, work to separate your truly great examples from the merely good ones. And if you’re curious about writing better, here’s some advice.

3. Break the revision process into specific steps with concrete deadlines.

Think in terms of revising individual chapters by specific dates, rather than in terms of the abstract book revision process. Similarly, break each chapter into individual pieces. This makes things feel achievable.

Following self-imposed deadlines might be the hardest part of book revision, particularly for people who had very hands-on dissertation advisors. I don’t have a perfect solution, since I’m pretty good at following self-imposed deadlines. A few approaches I’ve used: telling peers about the deadline, agreeing to a chapter swap with someone (maybe the best option), or using an impending workshop.

A sample dissertation-to-book process:

(This is a model process for revising your dissertation. I find breaking it into a step-by-step process combats procrastination)

A. Review external comments on the dissertation (from your defense or wherever).

B. Read your entire dissertation and jot down your thoughts about the whole thing as well as individual chapters.

C. Rank the individual chapters by the estimated amount of revision needed.

Then, chapter by chapter:

D. Read the chapter with a revision sheet to help identify the necessary edits

E. Create an editing plan, ideally with a physical checklist that you can follow

F. Make edits in terms of structure, flow, etc.

G. Sit on the chapter for a week and then do a stylistic edit for readability

H. Repeat steps D-G for each chapter.

I. Edit the conclusion along these lines.

J. Rewrite the introduction with an eye on framing. You can try the same process as chapter revision, but focus a lot more energy on framing the project and readability.

(Once my book is actually out, I’ll write a post about my experiences with the remaining process through publication).

Minor/assorted points:

1. Get other people’s opinions.

The best writers can think like their readers. I’m pretty terrible at that, so getting actual readers is a good alternative. Non-specialist readers are best.

2. Write the introduction from scratch, maybe even a couple times.

With the introduction, make life hard on yourself. It’s really important.

3. For flow, try retyping an entire chapter.

This is a bit crazy, but it worked well for me (and thanks to my colleague, Clare Corbould, for suggesting it). By the time a book manuscript is nearing completion, each chapter has been edited a bunch of times over a period of years. Often it makes things quite disjointed. If you want everything to flow nicely, try this: pull up your chapter and a blank document side by side. Retype the chapter into the new window. As you go, you’ll naturally make minor edits for clarity and flow that will reproduce your chapter in a much more coherent voice. It’s work-intensive and mind-numbing, but I’ve found it works. Just try it once and see what you think.

4. Log your progress.

There’s nothing more demoralizing than thinking about your project at the end of the week and feeling like you got nothing done. I like to write down what I do, even if its relatively small, so I have a sense of my progress. It’s also why I assembled a giant checklist of my manuscript progress and was able to mark it as I progressed. I’m not organized enough to keep a research/writing log, but that’s probably even better.

5. Look for recent books/articles to keep your citations up to date.

I started writing my dissertation in ~2010 and the book is coming out in 2019. That’s a long period of time. Citations that seemed quite recent when I started are now pretty old. There’s also lots of new (and important!) stuff that has come out. Do some searching and figure out the ~5 most important books or articles for each chapter that have come out recently and ask yourself whether you should be engaging with them.

6. Keep it simple.

Focus on strong topic sentences, concluding sentences, and transitions. One point per paragraph. You don’t write well enough to break these rules!

“Christ among the cattle,” or, the line between absurd and radical

Frederic R. Marvin’s sermon, “Christ Among the Cattle,” is seemingly unremarkable. Beyond the evocative title, an odd digression about bird feathers, and an early discussion of baby Jesus in the manger, it is a standard nineteenth-century animal protection piece. Marvin talks a bit about animal cruelty encouraging broader wickedness, addresses the horrors of vivisection, and name-checks Christians who, like Marvin, loved animals. But just as I approached the end of the sermon, and I can only imagine as most of his audience was falling asleep, Marvin said something radical. He started talking about whether animals have souls. And in fact, he concludes they do.

Within Marvin’s context, taking the idea of an animal soul seriously would be quite radical. It might mean restructuring the emerging industrial food system around animal welfare and perhaps require a more intimate relationship between people and the animals they eat. Yet throughout his sermon, Marvin’s asides reflect concern that his claims might seem absurd or improperly sentimental. This got me thinking about what makes some ideas absurd and others radical. It has a lot to do with the power behind them.

The sermon opens with some discussion of biblical injunctions about stewardship of nature. This is all pretty standard stuff. Next, he addresses the cruelty of cattle transportation and then moves to the importance of teaching children to be kind to animals. The emperor Nero tortured birds as a youth and look how he ended up; “a childhood of cruel sports prepared Nero for a career of inexpressible infamy,” particularly towards christians. After addressing vivisection, Marvin makes a pivot by way of an orientalist analysis of the “Arab’s love for his horse,” to the idea that there is some kind of animal soul.

Marvin’s cautions throughout are telling. Before asserting that “Divine Providence” placed Christ in a manger to encourage love for all animals, he stresses that the view is “not absurd.” Later, he asserts that supporters of animal welfare “have not been weak, sentimental, and silly.” In celebrating the aforementioned relationship between “Arab” and horse, he notes that it might appear “absurd to western men.” Marvin knows his argument is not potentially scandalous or outrageous, but ridiculous.

But what made Marvin’s ideas potentially absurd? One factor is gender. Nineteenth-century men attacked animal welfare politics as feminine and therefore, not legitimate or serious. Marvin fights this logic with stories of “enlightened and thoughtful” male animal protectionists. It also explains a lengthy digression in which he mocks women’s fashion and its emphasis on feathers. Implicit is the idea that caring enough about one’s clothes that you’d kill an animal is a consequence of a feminine lack of reason. Marvin clearly shared the sexism of his critics, but disagreed with their characterization of the animal protection movement.

But there’s another factor behind the idea that animal protection is absurd: there’s nothing really at stake in many of Marvin’s contentions, at least for now. He has little power, so there’s no question of restructuring society in a way that inconveniences anyone. Marvin is just a guy with some unusual views.

What makes an idea radical is the possibility that it will actually threaten something in which people are invested. If Marvin’s ideas had more power, then they might be branded dangerous or revolutionary. An analogue today: animal rights skeptics might brand vegetarians and vegans ridiculous at the dinner table, but their tone might change if there was a political movement to forcibly restructure the meat industry. Further, the popularity of “Ag-gag” laws and the prosecution of revolutionary animal rights activists (the kind that break into facilities and release animals) under anti-terrorism laws indicate the difference between what makes a set of ideas absurd and what makes them dangerous. It’s also why people and institutions in power generally want solutions to anything important to focus on individual choice. This emphasis allows the powerful to choose not to care. Marvin does not actually discuss the implications of his ultimate contention, but one could imagine a very different reception depending on his views.

This ultimately makes me think differently about a decision I made in my book, Red Meat Republic. Other than a few isolated spots, I didn’t take nineteenth-century animal rights politics particularly seriously. I was less interested in animal protection ideas and arguments than the origins and power of industrial animal husbandry. Because Marvin was marginal, I didn’t think he was particularly important. But if many powerful ideas start out absurd, and my book is concerned with understanding the dynamics that empower (and perhaps undermine) today’s food system, perhaps I should’ve taken Marvin’s absurd ideas a bit more seriously.

A guide to academic writing and an annotated bibliography of books on writing

Note: below is a short guide to writing better. Skip to the end for the annotated bibliography.

No part of my graduate coursework emphasized writing. It was assumed that we could all construct a sentence, a paragraph, and (hopefully?) a dissertation chapter. As someone who struggled with his writing in the early parts of graduate school, this was frustrating. Since then, I’ve realized people with PhDs don’t talk about improving academic writing very much either. But they should. Everyone should. Below are some strategies I’ve used to improve my writing.

Improving your writing in the short term

Think about writing as three different stages: planning, writing, and revision. In reality, the lines between these stages are blurred and its okay to revise each paragraph as you go or to change the outline as the chapter unfolds, but when you’re trying to improve, thinking deliberately about each piece is critical. The three small suggestions below address each of these stages. If you feel the first two are too obvious, you can ignore them, but you should try the third one if you don’t do it already.

1. Work from an outline. You want to have a clear sense of how your chapter or article should unfold. Once I have my plan, I go back to my evidence (or material) and often sort it based on the outline. An outline is also the best cure for writer’s block. If you can’t start writing, just make the outline more detailed. This refines your argument and you end up writing a lot of the topic sentences for the chapter. An outline is also handy when it’s time for revision. In fact, if you’re struggling with the structure of an already written draft, make a reverse outline, which is an outline constructed with the actual topic sentences (in order) of the written chapter. You can then compare your actual structure—and the clarity of your topic sentences—with the original plan.

2. Topic sentences. Again, this feels too basic. It’s not. As I was finalizing my manuscript, I realized that bad topic sentences were responsible for almost all the problematic or confusing parts. Topic sentences guide the reader as well as keep you honest: you can’t write them clearly unless you really understand the point you want to make. If you revise nothing else, make sure your topic sentences are clear.

3. Print your work and edit in pen. You probably edit on the screen. That’s totally fine. But if you want to improve your writing, I strongly suggest actually printing your work. First, it forces you to treat revision with the respect it deserves. Secondly, I think it alienates you from the text, which is actually a good thing. It makes it easier to see how the piece is constructed since you’re coming into contact with it in a new way. It also means you revise in two stages; when you first make the edits in pen and again when you enter them into the manuscript on the computer. Even if you aren’t persuaded, just try it. I’ve convinced a few people to do it and they all found it useful. There’s not much to lose, though be sure you like the technique before buying a new laserjet printer.

Improving your writing in the long term

The cliche is that you should read a lot (and widely). It’s good advice, but I’m guessing you already do that. The key is to train yourself to read like a writer. You should be reading not just for enjoyment and/or information, but to understand how the piece you’re reading is constructed.

1. Go through your favorite books and think about how they are written. Ask yourself why you enjoyed your favorite academic book so much. Can you apply any of the author’s techniques? How did they open your favorite chapter? Similarly, look at a prize-winning article you like. How is it constructed? You’re already familiar with the content of these works, so focus on the writing. Initially this requires deliberate effort, but over time you’ll learn to think about the writing whenever you read anything.

2. Read other people’s drafts. It teaches you to think about writing. When you revise one of your own pieces, you face familiar challenges. When you look at something you never would’ve written about or something written in a completely different style, you train yourself to be attuned to alternate stylistic choices.

3. Write as much as possible. Revision counts. Almost everyone I’ve met who writes beautifully kept a diary growing up. I didn’t, but since it’s a little late for that, I write as much as possible. It’s okay to write things that never go anywhere. Experimentation is a good thing.

Annotated bibliography of academic writing resources

William Zinsser, On Writing Well.

My favorite. Zinsser emphasizes simplicity and clarity. While this is all relative (particularly in academic writing), his philosophy of writing and concrete suggestions are great. The book is beautifully written, so it makes for a good read if you need inspiration.

Strunk and White, The Elements of Style.

Basic, but if you haven’t read it, do so ASAP. Lots of specific examples.

Helen Sword, Stylish Academic Writing.

This one is useful because it’s written specifically for academics. It’s also practical, dealing with questions like titles, chapter openers, etc.

Helen Sword, Air & Light & Time & Space.

Bad title, great book. Based on Sword’s conversations with academics about their writing.

Paul Silvia, How to Write a Lot.

I like this one because it deals with the mental aspects of writing. Silvia is a psychologist and he gives motivational suggestions as well as practical advice on writing and submitting articles.

Susan Rabiner and Alfred Fortunato, Thinking Like Your Editor.

Save this one for when you’re moving to the revision for publication stage (particularly for a book). I found it really useful when I was revising my book manuscript.

Wendy Belcher, Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks.

The title says it all. If you want a step by step guide to writing, revising, and submitting a journal article, this is it. I’ve never tried to follow the plan exactly, but I found it an interesting read.

If you have book recommendations, send me the title and a sentence on why it’s useful (I’ll give you credit). You can find me on twitter or via email.

A short guide to preparing for general exams

General exams are scary. At least until you pass them, and then you remember them fondly and condescendingly explain to early graduate students how much you enjoyed your generals prep year and that maybe they should too. I remember finding that dynamic infuriating in my second year of grad school and then contributing to it in my third. In the spirit of helping people who are panicked about general exams (aka orals/quals/prelims), here is a guide I wrote for a friend shortly after passing them myself back in the day. Since my exams are a fading memory, I haven’t really changed the advice, which served me extremely well. The suggestions are based on the generals format I had in graduate school, where you prepare four exam “fields” (long lists of books) and must demonstrate mastery of them in an oral exam. However, these techniques work well for any exam in which you need to familiarize yourself with a huge academic literature.

1. Triage your books: Take your list for each field and divide it into three parts. The first category comprises the most important books. You might feel like they’re all in that category, but they’re not. This is probably the most important 15-20% of all the books/articles on the list. You’ll need to read these carefully, so be sure to allow time for that each week. Then there’s the books that are pretty important, but you won’t have time to read at normal speed. Allow time for either a slower skim or read introduction/conclusion and 1-2 chapters carefully. Finally there’s the books that matter least. You’ll be skimming these. Give yourself an hour (or so) with each. At first it’ll seem too difficult to understand a text in an hour, but you’ll get better with time. For all of the books, read reviews to supplement. Pro-tip: if you’re an Americanist, Reviews in American History is one of the best publications around/ever/of all time.

2. Take useful notes, NEVER longer than a page: When you finish reading (reviewing?) a book, write a one paragraph (sometimes two) summary of the text, providing an overview of the argument and any other key information. This is absolutely critical as it develops your ability to quickly identify an argument and it makes reviewing much easier.

3. Develop historiographic narratives: Come up with your own way to link books conceptually. If you can put the books into dialog you’ll be better able to think synthetically about the field and you’ll actually remember the specific arguments as well. For example, if you had to explain the linkages between books A, B, and C, you could say something like, “Book A established the earliest perspective on this subject, while B followed years later as a corrective. While B’s account was useful, C observed that a more nuanced account would adapt B to account for the critical parts of A.” You get the idea. Generals is all about historiographic narratives.

4. Review with a friend: Once you have useful summaries or notes, anybody can quiz you. In the month (or two) before the exam, get friends to quiz you incessantly. Have them flip through your notes asking you what the arguments of the various texts are. Write a list of sample generals questions and have a friend quiz you. They don’t need to know the answers. You’ll know if you’re getting them right. As the exam approaches, you can even do mock fields or mock exams. Get a list of ten questions and have a partner ask you questions for thirty minutes. Then you can switch and do the same for him or her. This is perhaps the most important principle. Generals is about understanding how to explain history and historiography out loud and you’ll only get good with practice.

Oh, and stay calm. I really enjoyed my generals prep and maybe you should too.

Questions/comments? Find me on twitter or send me an email.

Three ideas for developing a dissertation topic and scattershot suggestions for if you haven’t a clue.

By the mid-point of my second year of grad school I really needed to settle on a dissertation topic. I had a project idea—the history of the Confederate dollar—that I thought was good, but I was also interested in meat consumption in America, the history of dog-fighting, and even conspiracy theories. I told people I was writing about Confederate money, but really I had no idea. Most of the advice on choosing a dissertation topic that I found on the internet or received from friends and colleagues wasn’t very practical. I eventually settled on a project on beef in America, because it was the one I was most excited about, even if it didn’t seem like the most strategic choice at the time. It turned out to be a good decision and I ultimately learned a few things about developing a dissertation idea. Below are three suggestions for people trying to choose from a few different ideas as well as some scattershot (but effective!) suggestions for those of you with no idea.

1. Be strategic…after you have a topic.

Eventually, you are going to be sick of your dissertation topic. So you need to choose something you start out passionate about. At the same time, your dissertation also needs to fit into a wider scholarly conversation. But here’s the trick: any dissertation can fit into an exciting scholarly conversation. It’s all in how you frame it. So the key with a dissertation is to find the topic you’re excited about and then spend all your energy framing it in a way that’s strategic. To do that, you should…

2. Use draft project titles to refine your topic.

Take out a piece of paper. Draft ten different project titles for your hypothetical dissertation. You want titles that reflect both the topic and your approach, so use a “[TITLE]: [LONGER SUBTITLE]” format. Limit yourself to at most 10-12 words. You can take either a broad approach, brainstorming radically different titles, or start with a basic title and gradually refine it (the former is harder but more effective for a first pass). If you write ten different titles, you’ll get a sense of what you most want to argue, as well as how to convey it in the most succinct way possible. Its how I got from “Everything but the Moo: the Rise of the Cattle-Beef Complex” to “Red Meat Republic.”

3. Practice explaining your project.

People often view the “elevator pitch” as the key to promoting a project once its done, but its actually a great brainstorming strategy for the early stage as well. Explaining your project in conversation is a good first step to being able to write about it. Talk to fellow academics as well as nonspecialists. You not only get a sense of what people find interesting, but you can figure out what you really care about. When I was deciding between Confederate finances and the history of beef, it wasn’t until I started explaining the new idea to people that I realized how excited it made me.

If you really don’t have any ideas….

If there was an easy answer, you wouldn’t be in this situation. So all I’ve got are some scattershot suggestions. I have one core belief when it comes to good topic ideas: creativity is mechanical. A great idea doesn’t just spontaneously generate. It might hit you in the shower, but only after a few hours of reading or tearing your hair out in front of a blank piece of paper. That’s why I like the draft title idea: if you write ten titles, you get one interesting one. If you write ten more,  you might get a great one. Try the strategies below and you’ll eventually get something.

* Make a list of the ten academic books you like most (half inside your field, half general books) and write a sentence about why you like each.

* Do the draft titles exercise but for completely different projects. Write five sample dissertation titles, then pick your three favorite and try developing two alternate titles for each of them. You end with three potential topics and three framings.

* Brainstorm topics that interest you outside of an academic context. The best thing about history is you can write about anything (as long as its in the past). Think about your interests and explore the historical context. You can figure out the strategic framing later.

* Talk to people about their work. It somehow helps get the creative juices flowing.

* Chill about it for a minute. You’ll think of something eventually. Any topic has potential. It’s all about how you frame it.

Read other people’s drafts

I started my academic career as a lousy writer. More specifically, as a lousy academic writer. But I was motivated to improve. I consulted people whose writing I admired and generally received the same suggestion: if you want to write better, you should (a) write a lot and (b) read good writing. Unfortunately, this advice always seemed a bit self-evident and frankly, unsatisfying. I had already tried both. Eventually, however, I realized that the key was less about what one read than how one read. The important thing was to think about how an academic argument is constructed. What nobody had told me is that the best way to do that is to read other people’s drafts.

My biggest improvement as an academic writer came from co-organizing a graduate workshop. In the workshop, students from a variety of fields pre-circulated drafts that we discussed in a group of roughly six to twelve. While it was almost always successful, the main reason I learned so much is that as an organizer, I was so worried about the contributor receiving poor feedback that I always thought hard about their paper and how it could be improved.

Reading drafts from people in your field is good, but reading drafts from unrelated fields is even better. When you’re reading about a topic with which you’re unfamiliar, you’re more attuned to the writing. You don’t worry so much about the specific contribution or intervention, but focus on how to improve or clarify it. I know little about medieval history, so when I read a paper on twelfth-century guilds, I can think carefully about the use of archival material, the overall structure, or the clarity of the scholarly intervention. It’s even better when you find the topic boring. Thinking about how to put the best spin on a topic you find uninteresting will hone skills that apply to your own work. Ultimately, other people’s drafts pose you with writing challenges you may never have faced or never known existed, and that leads to good things.

Talk to the person about their piece after you read it. Explaining suggestions not only improves the draft, but it helps you think consciously about what is and isn’t working. When I read an article I don’t like, I tend to move on without thinking about why. Actually having to explain why something isn’t working requires a better appreciation of the author’s challenges as well as the nature of the problem. The conversation also provides insight into the author’s perspective, which can change how you think about writing more broadly.

Finally, it’s always easier to spot bad habits in other people’s writing. This will lead to realizations about your own. For a period of about two years, I used the word “however’ in nearly every sentence I wrote. However, I wasn’t aware of that fact until I was reading a draft in which someone had the exact same habit. Problem solved. Of course this is only productive if you approach your own writing with humility. Drafts are rarely good and never perfect. Be charitable to the author and you’ll be more aware of your own limitations.

I spend more time offering to read drafts than actually reading them, because many people assume it’s not a genuine offer. It is, and hopefully this post has clarified why. If you want to be a better scholar, read other people’s drafts. Oh yeah, and if you read someone else’s drafts, they’ll read yours.

Three hard lessons from my early career

By the end of grad school, I’d (pretty much) figured out how to be a historian. Though some of my peer reviewers probably disagreed, I felt like I knew what was going on with researching, writing, giving presentations, etc. But in terms of thinking about a long-term research trajectory, I was pretty much disaster. While this remains a work in progress, below are three lessons I learned the hard way.

1. Find your niche (at least in the short-term).

Intellectually I’ve always been a bit all over the place. I get excited about work in anthropology, sociology, and law, and I’ve always got three or four radically different project ideas. This curiosity (or lack of an attention span) is one of my strengths. However, it is also a problem. For instance, most of my work focuses on the environmental/economic history of meat. Four years ago, I wrote an almost completely unrelated spin-off piece. It’s been rejected four or five times from various journals. I just didn’t have the right sense of the relevant literature or more importantly, the key scholarly debates. Further, because it is a spin-off article, I just don’t have the research time to give it the archival attention it might deserve.  I’ve spent a huge amount of time revising the piece and while I remain very enthusiastic about it, I’m not sure where it will end up.

The point: reading and writing about radically different subjects is intellectually healthy, but it’s a good idea to recognize where your core expertise lies and to focus on that. I am an environmental historian of meat production. I know the relevant literature and archives. I know how to write and think about food production and consumption. You are probably in the same situation with your dissertation and first book topic. Especially early on when building a profile is important, focus on your expertise. We can all reinvent ourselves after our first book comes out.

2. Find your people.

I’ve always known that its important both professionally and intellectually to connect with colleagues wherever I find myself. I was much less good about identifying my wider scholarly community, whether that’s environmental history, western history, or business history (I still might not be sure). Because I did a poor job of talking with those people, I found myself a bit out of the loop a couple years into my career. 

Academic life is fundamentally social. The best ideas start as bad ones that you discuss with other people. The key then, is finding your scholarly community and being active. This leads to new insights, but also has mundane benefits like providing leads on important new books, presentation panels, and even archival nuggets. Attend the relevant conference in your subfield; often small ones such as the BHC and ASEH conferences I’ve attended are best. Further, simply emailing people whose work you enjoy and respect can work wonders.

3. When it comes to publications, exhibit patience and pushiness in equal measure.

One common piece of advice is to learn to deal with rejection. It turns out I’m pretty good at it. But what I wasn’t ready for was dealing with how long everything takes. For instance, I did a great job of quickly revising my dissertation for submission to a press. I sent the full manuscript to an (enthusiastic, or so I thought) editor and it sat in their inbox for nearly eight months with no response, including to a couple follow ups. Eventually I had to move on. I probably should’ve done so after three months. Similarly, I sent a piece to a journal, after a year received a “revise and resubmit,” turned it around relatively quickly, only to wait another four months for what was ultimately a rejection. Fair enough, but each wait was brutal.

Learn to be patient. Publications take a long time. Keep that in mind as you plan your research schedule. Meet deadlines to the extent you can, and get started on things sooner rather than later.  Finally, regarding pushiness, don’t be afraid to follow up with people (obviously only after a reasonable amount of time). They have a million things on their plate and they might’ve forgotten or never even have been interested in the first place. Better to know now than in six months. 

Note: optimism is a required baseline for this one. I’m now pretty happy about my situation regarding both my manuscript and the article mentioned above.