Tuesday, October 25, 2005


More on grading

S. L. Kim has an A-worthy post at Printculture on how grading affects classroom dynamics:
Last week, I returned the first batch of essays to my students, giving them their first grade in my class (and since they’re all freshmen, possibly their first grade in college). I dread that moment in the semester when the honeymoon period comes to an end. Before that first grade, everything is potential and possibility. We have animated discussions in class; everyone’s on board with arguable thesis statements and the importance of analyzing evidence; everyone’s eager to impress me and each other. The stories with which we begin are enigmatic, ripe for interpretation. Even when they write their descriptive drafts with messy structures and undigested examples, they get ample feedback from me and we meet for a one-on-one conference, so it’s kind of like a do-over. The time between the draft and the final version seems to stretch out into the bright future of promised happy endings.

When the grades—mostly B’s and C’s—are handed out, when the coaching ends and the judging happens, there’s a distinct change in our relationship. Precisely because of the extensive coaching that precedes the judging, the shift is painfully palpable. There’s no teaching assistant to blame, no big lecture hall of 200 students to serve as a buffer; if the students can’t hide, neither can I. On the day I hand them the papers, I have to brace myself for that inevitable loss of innocence. It can be a difficult process of adjusting to new expectations, especially for students who have been so praised and rewarded for their efforts. But as much as I wish the honeymoon could last, I know the grades mark a necessary transition. The real learning can’t begin until the grade concretizes the stakes and gives them a measure of the distance they must travel. Still, I hate it when it happens right in front of me—I want students to leave as soon as I give them their essays, but some of them always linger and do the flip then and there, scanning the stapled sheet at the back for that letter, and then struggling to keep their poker faces and avoid eye contact. The suspense is too much, the knowledge can be crushing.
Read the whole thing.

Sunday, October 23, 2005


Mechanics of trust

The British sociologist Anthony Giddens has argued that one of the consequences of modernity has been a change in how human beings assess the trustworthiness of strangers.

Modernity, Giddens argues, disembeds social relationships from local contexts. We are brought into contact with "strangers" on a more regular basis than inhabitants of premodern societies were. That means that premodern means of determining whether a person is "trustworthy" are generally less helpful to modern people. In premodern societies, you could manage personal risks by placing trust in people whom you knew personally, through kinship networks (real or fictive) or the ties of local communities. But as moderns we are regularly forced to entrust our personal and financial security to people with whom we have fleeting, if any, face-to-face contact.

For example, you see the pilot of the plane once, and probably when you get off the plane. You hear his or her disembodied voice drily announcing information about the weather and ETA. You have probably never met the pilot and probably never will again. But you manage the risks of flying by placing your trust in this essentially faceless pilot, and you are right to do so. That doesn't mean you necessarily banish anxiety, but you are able to operate practically in spite of that anxiety in a way that premoderns may not have been able to, at least not with the same degree of ease. The reason why is because you have a peculiarly modern trust in abstract systems of professionalization and expertise, which you trust have trained the pilot well. You begin to gain this facility for trusting abstract systems through a variety of means of socialization, including the "hidden curriculum" of formal education. In school you not only receive packets of information, but you learn how to pay deference to education itself, as a process that divides "experts" in particular fields from non-experts and entitles the experts to your trust--even when your face-to-face contact with the expert is temporary, irregular, or perhaps absent altogether.

Think what you will of Giddens' theory: I'm always slightly uncomfortable with sweeping yet specific generalizations about the divide between "premodernity" and "modernity." But Giddens' argument that modernity has displaced trust from relationships requiring "facework" to "faceless" systems of credentiality seems to me to have prima facie plausibility whenever I go to the car mechanic, as I did last Friday. When I go to a garage I am acutely aware of my status as a Lay person, capital-L. That's not to say I know nothing about cars, but I know close enough to nothing that I become acutely aware of the fact that I am at the mercy of a stranger, known to me only in his social role as trained car expert.

Clearly I'm not alone in feeling this sense of risk when I approach a car mechanic. On Thursday, I was browsing user ratings of mechanics in my area at the Car Talk website, and found that the Number One concern of users who had made comments on the site was with the mechanic's honesty, even more so than competence. Our trust in the abstract systems of expertise is so finely honed that we take the competence of mechanics for granted: it's their personal integrity that still stands under the shadow of our skepticism, since we don't know them in most cases as personal friends. But it's a quintessentially modern thing to do, Giddens would say, what I was doing on the Car Talk site: First, I've been socialized to trust two faceless voices I hear on the radio every Saturday, conditioned to trust their expertise by their association with a particular abstract institution. So much so that I consult a website visited by other listeners like myself, who are also faceless and known only by a numerical handle, but whom I trust to direct me to particular trustworthy mechanics. What I'm doing here, of course, is still trying to mitigate faceless trust with some indirect "face-to-face" trust. I'm trying to hear from people who have had contact with the experts who are still strangers to me. Giddens's point is not that moderns do away with facework altogether, but we have learned practical ways of combining the two mechanisms of trust.

All of which is just a pedantic preface to this quotidian story: My muffler seemed broken, so I took it to the shop. I received a free estimate of $550. I called another shop down the street and spoke to someone over the phone to get a second quote: $420. I called the first shop back to tell him that I had found a significantly lower price, and to ask if he could come down off his estimate. He told me he could shave the price to $490. I told him I would have to hang up and talk it over with my wife, which made him quickly adjust to $470. He said the price was higher because his shop uses better, guaranteed parts. (Who am I to know if that's true? He's the expert!) In the end, I decided to leave the car at the first shop, which did the job for $470. Now the muffler seems to be in working order, with my pocket less empty than it could have been, and I am able to slide, like a good modern, back into my socialized routines. All's well that ends well. (Or perhaps, in the case of this post, all's well that ends!)

Saturday, October 22, 2005


Blogger backlinks

Thanks to Technorati, I recently discovered that my Common-Place article on blogging was noticed earlier this month by the official Blogger Buzz blog. That was cool, but even cooler was that this led me to discover another post on the Blogger blog on "backlinks," the newest nifty tool to help us loyal Blogspot users catch up with our Movable Type and Wordpress peers. By enabling "backlinks," you can have something similar to "trackbacks" in the comments sections of your posts. See an example at the bottom of my recent post on skimming books.

Backlinks are similar to trackbacks but not identical. With trackbacks, users themselves can ping your blog to let you know that it has been noticed elsewhere. Backlinks just runs a search for the post on Google's BlogSearch engine and returns the results. That means you have to wait until the BlogSearch robot indexes your post before "backlinks" will appear. Still, having the backlinks is an improvement over just posting a link to Technorati search results for a particular post, because "backlinks" (like "trackbacks") actually show readers--on the post page itself--that there are references to a particular post out there in the blogosphere. As Julie points out in a recent post at No Fancy Name, with Technorati you actually have to click through a link to discover, in many cases, that a given post has no links referring back to it.

At any rate, I've enabled "backlinks" to give them a whirl. Comments on this new feature from Blogger welcome.

Friday, October 21, 2005


Cliopatria symposium

Cliopatria is holding a symposium on Sean Wilentz's recent article, "Bush's Ancestors."

Tuesday, October 18, 2005


Baltimore perk

One of the many nice things about being a historian in Baltimore is getting to spend an afternoon working in this library:

Click the picture to enlarge it.

Sunday, October 16, 2005



New editions of the Teaching Carnival and the History Carnival are up, at Scribbling Woman and Acephalous, respectively. Check them out!

Friday, October 14, 2005


Grading papers

The approach of the second Teaching Carnival has called forth a spate of interesting posts on grading essays from GZombie, New Kid on the Hallway, and ADM at Blogenspiel.

I find these kinds of posts very helpful since I'm still learning my way around the classroom and experimenting with different means of student assessment. And I'm glad the academic blogosphere provides these kinds of exchanges between teachers at different institutions. My sense is that academics are much more open to discussing their research with other scholars than they are to discussing their teaching with other teachers. Academic life is organized around intellectual exchanges in public--whether in seminars at individual departments or in reports in professional journals and at conferences. We routinely let each other into our archives, studies, and conference rooms. But letting other teachers into our classrooms, literally and figuratively, is still something that I think doesn't happen often enough.

So, about grading. During the 2004-2005 academic year, I taught two courses--a freshman seminar and an upper-level seminar--in which the writing assignments were very different. In the freshman seminar, students worked throughout the semester on an original, biographical research paper about an African American abolitionist of their choice. I devoted two class periods to talking about the paper: in one of them, I invited a librarian to talk to students about the library's resources, and in another, I talked about the research and writing process, using as an exmple some research I had recently done for an entry in the African American National Biography. The upper-level seminar, on the other hand, was an intensive reading seminar, meeting only once a week, and students wrote three short papers over the course of the semester. I distributed prompts at the very beginning of the course, and on one of the papers, I gave students a choice of three prompts.

My experiences in running the two courses confirmed what I already suspected: I prefer assigning a series of short papers, and that's what I'm doing this semester. With the short papers, I made marginal notations on the paper itself and then typed out detailed comments (no more than a page) that spoke to the paper's strengths and weaknesses as a whole. These extensive comments on Paper #1 (hopefully) help students write Paper #2 and also make clear what I'm looking for as I'm reading the papers. By Paper #3, that should be even clearer to students. Since, however, I basically used my comments on Paper #1 as the major means of writing instruction for the course, I also weighted the grades for the papers so that they become progressively more valuable over the course of the semester.

In the freshman seminar, though, since the research paper was a cumulative writing assignment for the course, I distributed a rubric in advance. (PDF.) The rubric assigns numerical values to particular aspects of the paper, but it also uses a series of qualitative questions for each aspect. These questions let students know what I'm asking myself as I'm evaluating the paper. And the numbers also correspond to qualitative terms like "excellent" and "fair." To be sure, assigning numbers to essays may not be the ideal way to assess writing. (See this post from June at Scrivenings for a good discussion on this point.) But I think rubrics can be devised that combine qualitative measures with some fairly specific and non-arbitrary numbers. And as with the papers in the other class, I was still able to give students a typed-out page of comments in conjunction with the rubric.

Because the rubric was distributed beforehand, I had no complaints about grades from students after the paper. In the upper-level seminar, however, in which I just assigned letter grades to the papers along with my comments, I did have some complaints. Nonetheless, I feel like the "series of short papers" better served students, and communicated to them that I was a reader of their papers who happened to be the grader, whereas the idea that I am approaching papers with rubric in hand makes students think of me first and foremost as the grader. I realize there's no way around that: students know I'm handing out grades, and that's always going to be on their minds. But if I want my students to learn to write by thinking more generally about the audiences for their writing, then I want, as much as possible, to model for them what an engaged reader of their papers has to say about them. If they internalize that model, then they are more likely to become good readers of their own work. It doesn't help them, in the long run, to be good "graders" of their own work by stamping a rubric over their writing.

Nonetheless, both systems have their advantages. I think the rubric worked especially well for a freshman seminar; many of the students were taking their first history class and writing their first paper, and for them, perhaps, prose comments on their paper might not have been as useful as a holistic rubric. In upper-level classes, though, I think the rubric may have less usefulness, since advanced undergraduates ought to be moving as quickly as possible towards writing practices in which they imagine themselves as communicators with an engaged reader, rather than as trainees working for a grade.


Monday, October 10, 2005



More of our fellow citizens of the world are again suffering, this time in South Asia. To echo AKMA, Sepoy, and others, it is our duty now to give what we can and mourn with the grieving.

With hurricanes on the Gulf Coast, mudslides in Guatemala, earthquakes and tsunamis in South Asia, and ongoing humanitarian crises in Africa, aid organizations this year are likely to be stretched to their limit. All the more reason for us to stretch ourselves a little more in our giving. Along with many other aid organizations, Oxfam is rushing blankets and tents to Pakistan and accepting donations to its Global Emergencies Fund.

Friday, October 07, 2005


Friday jazz shuffle

1. "My Funny Valentine," by Miles Davis, from Cookin' with the Miles Davis Quintet
2. "The Spinx," by Ornette Coleman, from Something Else!!!!
3. "Something Sweet, Something Tender," by Eric Dolphy, from Out to Lunch
4. "Funky Mama," by Lou Donaldson, from The Natural Soul
5. "All Blues," by Miles Davis, from Kind of Blue
6. "Ghetto Lights," by Bobby Hutcherson, from Dialogue
7. "Some Other Spring," by Roy Haynes, from Out of the Afternoon
8. "Spiral," by John Coltrane, from Giant Steps
9. "Here Come de Honey Man," by Miles Davis/Gil Evans, from Porgy and Bess
10. "The Eternal Triangle," by Dizzy Gillespie, from Sonny Side Up

Not a bad shuffle at all. After it ended I listened to the rest of Sonny Side Up, which is a fantastic album featuring, alongside Dizzy, Sonny Rollins and Sonny Stitt. (Hence the album's title.) It features a gently swinging version of "On the Sunny Side of the Street" on which Dizzy supplies some improvised vocals. I dare you not to smile while listening to that track. And I double-dog dare you to sit still while listening to the blistering second track, "The Eternal Triangle."

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Geeky interludes

First, an antiquarian geeky interlude. Yesterday, I received through inter-library loan an 1886 biography of Richard Allen, one of the characters in my dissertation. Allen was an obscure Dublin Quaker and textile merchant who was active in movements for temperance, peace, and the abolition of slavery. Allen and his circle of other radical Dublin abolitionists were dubbed in the Irish press as "anti-everythingarians." Those "anti-everythingarians" were close friends with the coterie of American abolitionists who were followers of William Lloyd Garrison, which is why Allen's in my dissertation.

Now the geeky antiquarian part. (What, you thought that was it?) While reading the biography I discovered for the first time that during Allen's 1883 tour of the United States, which took him to Chicago, Memphis, and a performance by the Jubilee Singers from Fisk University, he also visited Baltimore, where I currently reside, and toured the campus of The Johns Hopkins University, where I currently study. The antiquarian in me thinks it's cool that years ago, one of the most obscure characters in my dissertation just so happened to traverse the same space that I know occupy all the time. What are the odds?

Now for some general geekiness: Today's the day.

I shall now resume my posture of scholarly detachment and seriousness.

Thursday, October 06, 2005


History links

If you haven't already seen it, the new History Carnival is up at The Apocalyptic Historian. It includes a link to Hugo Holbing's post on social constructivism and the history of mental illness, which I found interesting in light of Joshua Wolf Shenk's recently published arguments about Abraham Lincoln's depression.

When I read Shenk's article in The Atlantic, I was a bit unnerved by his citations of modern diagnostic manuals to explain Lincoln's melancholy moods and suicidal moments: "Lincoln did suffer from what we now call depression, as modern clinicians, using the standard diagnostic criteria, uniformly agree." On the one hand, it makes sense that physiological conditions existed then that also exist now, and we should be able, with modern diagnostic tools, to explain things about the bodies of historical actors in the past that they did not know (like the fact that their fevers were caused by microbes, not miasmas, for instance). On the other hand, a large part of me wants to protest that historical investigation offers us nothing like a controlled clinical environment, and applying now "standard diagnostic criteria" to historical evidence can be dangerously anachronistic. That's why a brief spate of psychoanalytic histories in the 1970s and 1980s were quickly discredited in the profession.

In the opening paragraphs of Shenk's article, he points out, "[Lincoln] often wept in public and recited maudlin poetry." It's probably not fair for me to pick on that line, since Shenk has more and better evidence that Lincoln suffered from clinical depression, but that line is a good example of potential danger in this kind of article. (And Shenk does return several times to Lincoln's "favorite poems," which were invariably morbid, to make his case.) If weeping in public and reciting maudlin poetry (and similar examples of Lincoln's melancholy) can be part of a case for arguing that historical actors were clinically depressed, then we're going to end up concluding that there was an extremely high incidence of clinical depression in antebellum America. But that should warn us of the risk of using modern clinical criteria to diagnose historical actors. There's a category mistake here that comes from misunderstanding what my advisor likes to call the "structures of perception" that antebellum Americans worked with: Concluding that a penchant for sentimental poetry argues in favor of Lincoln's depression would be like concluding that because antebellum Americans took pictures of their deceased babies, they can be "diagnosed" as necrophiliacs, or like concluding (as a recent book has) that because Lincoln had intimate homosocial relationships and shared his bed with men on the legal circuit, he was bisexual. Let me put it this way: If someone walked around talking like Edgar Allen Poe today, a good clinician would be right to use that piece of data in support of a diagnosis of depression; but would a good historian be right to use the same piece of data in support of a diagnosis of Poe or his contemporary admirers? Perhaps, but the problems with that leap across time are legion.

To be fair, Shenk does leaven his article with acknowledgements that nineteenth-century conceptions of melancholy were different than our own: "in the nineteenth-century conception of melancholy, genius and gloom were often part of the same overall picture. True, a person with a melancholy temperament had been fated with an awful burden--but also, in Lord Byron's phrase, with a 'fearful gift.' The burden was a sadness and despair that could tip into a state of disease. But the gift was a capacity for depth and wisdom." But in noting how different Romantic conceptions of melancholy were to modern clinical concepts of depression, Shenk doesn't seem to be saying that the differences between those conceptions make transhistorical clinical diagnosis problematic. Instead, the gist of his article is that Byron was right: Lincoln's depression was part of his genius, and we would do well, as modern readers, to learn something from Byron and change our idea that depression is always debilitating. Ironically, Shenk uses modern clinical criteria to champion Romantic views of melancholy, something Byron himself would presumably have a problem with.

The article is interesting, at any rate, and worth reading. Also worth reading is the new issue of Common-Place, which has a great interview with Australian historian Rhys Isaac. It includes this wonderful paragraph:
History is the most particularizing of the social sciences; it must stand tall to remind the others of the power of contingency in human life. For all that historians should study hard to understand the cultural, structural, and economic systems by which societies work, they have a responsibility also to proclaim the deep truth that the world is what it is because of the particular sequences of what has been done. This is not just a stand in a scholars' debate; it is an affirmation of the possibilities of changing the disposition of things. The future is always being made by the present generation. I am proud to be a historian even as I tell myself that the strongest lesson that the discipline teaches is that, however we read the signs of doom and gloom, we cannot predict the future. The shape of the world to come remains to be made by human action in circumstances that can never be foretold.

Monday, October 03, 2005


Comment spam

After getting about ten pieces of comment spam today, I've temporarily disabled the comments until I can figure out how to stop the scourge. Feel free to email me in the meantime!

Update: Comments back on, but I don't yet know how I'm going to prevent spam. My best option might just be to revert to the Blogger commenting system. I adopted the BloggerHacks system before Blogger made their system more intuitive and accessible, so maybe I don't need it now.

Another update:
I had hoped against hope that I would turn the comments back on and the spammers would relent, but that hasn't happened. I guess I'm going to have to go back to the Blogger commenting system, but I'll have to disable comments again until I have time to do that. That means comments probably won't be back up until tomorrow at the earliest. Again, feel free to email me in the meantime.

Final update: I've gone back to the Blogger commenting system to prevent spamming. Unfortunately, all of the old comments will be a bit unsightly, because they will have the byline generated by my old BloggerHack as well as the byline generated by Blogger. Oh well. The spam really came on like a scourge, and there was nothing to do but delete and immunize immediately. It was easy to spot the spam by the way the first line of the comments invariably began: "What a great blog!" or "Love your blog!" So flatter me at your own risk.

Sunday, October 02, 2005


How to skim

Below is something I wrote last fall for students in a course I was teaching. I thought I'd reproduce it here for comments and suggestions.

I got the idea for doing it from Timothy Burke's very helpful essay "How to Read in College." If others of you have suggestions you give your students for dealing with high reading loads, let me know. One thing I'd like to develop is another set of suggestions for reading primary source material, which would help students see that some different rules apply to the skimming of, say, Frederick Douglass's Narrative and a modern biography of Frederick Douglass.

* * *
[Originally written 15 September 2004, and distributed to undergraduate students in an upper-level history seminar.]

To get through the reading in this course (or in any course for that matter), you will need to skim some material. Contrary to popular belief, skimming is not a less engaged kind of reading; arguably, it requires even more concentration and focus. But if you skim effectively, if you direct your full attention to the parts of an assignment that deserve the most attention, you can spend less time reading and comprehend more of what you read. Some of the brief tips below are also discussed here by Timothy Burke, a history professor at Swarthmore College. I encourage you to read (or skim!) his advice as well.

All of these tips are based upon a fundamental idea, adapted from the book Style: Toward Clarity and Grace, by Joseph Williams. Williams argues that clear writing comes from thinking about how readers read. Conversely, clear-headed reading comes from thinking about how writers write. Your goal as a skimmer is to grasp as quickly as possible what a writer is trying to say. This means trying to sit in the writer's chair. Here are some ideas about how to do that ...

1. Always "pre-read" by skimming the titles, both for the whole work and for sections. When authors choose titles, they are attempting to do your work as a skimmer for you. Titles, ideally, boil down crucial concepts into brief phrases, and they can give important clues about a work's argument. You should therefore look for key words in the title. Then, while you are skimming, you can pay special attention to the parts of the work that bear directly on those key words.

For instance, today I have been reading The Cult of the Nation in France: Inventing Nationalism, 1680-1800, by our own Professor David Bell in the history department. The title contains several clues. On the most basic level, it tells us that this is a book about nationalism in France. It repeats forms of the word "nation" twice, so we know that understanding those words is going to be one of our major tasks as readers.

But we can also tell more than that. Look at the dates, "1680-1800." We can infer from these that Professor Bell believes that the invention of French nationalism took place during the eighteenth century. As it turns out, this is a major argument of the book. He disagrees with histories or theories of nationalism that make it an ancient phenomenon; his dates tell us that he thinks nationalism is a relatively modern development. But he also disagrees with people who think that French nationalism burst on the scene only during the French Revolution in 1788 and 1789. The title asserts that nationalism was being invented long before the Revolution, which is again a major argument of the book.

We can learn even more from the title. Notice the words "cult" and "inventing." These are clues that for Professor Bell, nationalism is primarily a "cultural" phenomenon (hence "cult"), not merely a political project. And because the nation is a cultural construction, Professor Bell argues that it had to be "invented." These are also major arguments of the book. We are prepared for them just by looking at the title.

Before skimming, you should look not only at the title of the whole work, but also at the titles of subsections. Scan the table of contents. Find other key words. Make a note of whether some of the title's key words are repeated in the table of contents; if so, that means they will be doubly important. But also notice any new key words not contained in the title; those concepts will also be important in the book, but probably in a secondary way. When we look at Professor Bell's table of contents, this is what we get:
Introduction: Constructing the Nation
1. The National and the Sacred
2. The Politics of Patriotism and National Sentiment
3. English Barbarians, French Martyrs
4. National Memory and the Canon of Great Frenchmen
5. National Character and the Republican Imagination
6. National Language and the Revolutionary Crucible
Conclusion: Toward the Present Day and the End of Nationalism
"Constructing the Nation" reinforces our observations about "cult" and "inventing" from the title, and the repetition of the word "nation" in almost every chapter's title affirms that we will not understand this book unless we understand what Professor Bell wants to tell us about "nations" and "nationalism." The fact that "revolutionary crucible" does not come until the last chapter confirms our suspicion that nationalism was being built long before the 1780s. But there are also new words here--"sacred," "memory," "character," "republican," "language." Now we have some questions we can ask ourselves while reading: How do these words and concepts relate to the primary concepts that we have already identified? You should follow the same procedure when you get into specific chapters. What are the subheadings for sections of the chapter? What key words do they contain?

2. Look for main points "early" or "late." Williams' book on Style encourages writers to place their main points either at the beginning of works or at the end, because this is where readers tend to look for them. He's right, and this is where skimmers should go for quick ideas about the main point of a book or article. The main points of a book can usually be found in the introduction or conclusion. Likewise, the main points of a chapter are usually at the beginning or the end. In fact, the same is true even of smaller sections in a chapter. The same is even true of paragraphs.

Reading is usually thought of as a linear practice. You start on the first page, and read through to the last page. But a good skimmer has a more non-linear approach to reading. We've already seen this by discussing how skimmers jump ahead to the titles of chapters before they have read a single word. In the same way, skimmers try to think more like writers than readers. And since they know that writers tend to place their points "early" and "late," they go straight to those places and look again for key words and lines.

If a book has them, start by reading the "introduction" and the "conclusion." You should read these sections carefully, even if you skim everything else. Don't worry if you don't understand everything yet. You're trying to do the same sort of thing you did with the titles--identify key words, concepts that come up a lot, and major arguments. Notice which key words and arguments in the introduction are repeated in the conclusion. You can bet the house that those words and arguments are essential for you to understand, even if it means paying less attention while reading to other concepts and arguments. Also, keep an eye out for obvious landmarks like "This book is about ..." or "I will argue that ..." Again, these are the sentences in which the writer does the job of skimming for you by boiling down his or her argument into a concise statement.

Take some example sentences from Professor Bell's book:
"This book is about the way in which the French came to think of their nation as a political construction and, furthermore, came to see the process of construction itself as a central task of political life" (p. 6).

"Much of the book will be concerned with this pre-revolutionary change." (p. 7)

"I will also argue that the dynamics that governed this story and made nationalism thinkable were principally cultural and religious in nature." (p. 7)

"By 'nationalism' I mean a program to build a sovereign political community grouping together people who have enough in common--whether language, customs, beliefs, traditions, or some combination of these--to allow them to act as a homogeneous, collective person." (p. 20)
In each of these sentences, the author is waving flags at us, trying to get us to notice key points. Not surprisingly, they all come "early" or "late." All of them are from the introduction to the book. The first three sentences are the first lines of paragraphs. The last sentence is the last line of a paragraph, and comes at the end of the introduction.

So if we followed the "early"-and-"late" principle of skimming, we would have noticed these sentences. And we also would be able to compare them against our mental lists of key words and topics. The first sentence reinforces the idea of "constructing" or "inventing" nationalism. The second sentence reinforces that this happened before the Revolution. The third sentence brings up "religion," which we can connect with the word "sacred" in the title of Chapter 1. This tells us we should be on the look-out for connections between nationalism and religion in Chapter 1. And the last sentence gives us some new key words--like "sovereign political community," "enough in common," and "language," which we can be looking for as the book progresses.

Once you have carefully read the "introduction" and the "conclusion," you are ready to start skimming. But as you skim, you will follow the same practice. Instead of reading a chapter one page after another, read the first and last pages of the chapter first. Then proceed through the chapter. But don't read every paragraph line by line. Read the first lines carefully, scan the middle, and then read the last lines carefully. If an author puts important points in the middle of a paragraph, and the author is smart, he or she will usually give you more obvious landmarks like "My point here is ..." or "This suggests that ..."

3. Do not get hung up on things you do not understand. This is perhaps the most important part of skimming. Mortimer Adler and Charles van Doren call it "superficial reading," a term they mean to be "intentionally provocative." I wouldn't recommend their advice for every kind of reading you do, but it applies perfectly to skimming:
In tackling a difficult book for the first time, read it through without ever stopping to look up or ponder the things that you do not understand right away.

Pay attention to what you can understand and do not be stopped by what you cannot immediately grasp. Go right on reading past the point where you have difficulties in understanding, and you will soon come to things you do understand. Concentrate on these. Keep on in this way. Read the book through, undeterred and undismayed by the paragraphs, footnotes, comments, and references that escape you. If you let yourself get stalled, if you allow yourself to be tripped up by any one of these stumbling blocks, you are lost. In most cases, you will not be able to puzzle the thing out by sticking to it. You will have a much better chance of understanding it on a second reading, but that requires you to have read the book through at least once. [From How to Read a Book, pp. 36-7.]
Why should you plow ahead through difficult passages? Because otherwise you could get mired in arguments that are tangential to the main point of the work. Unless you survive these passages and get a view of the work as a whole, you won't be able to judge the important difficult passages from the relatively unimportant ones.

Fortunately, if you have been following Steps 1 and 2 above, you are already armed with ways to tell whether a difficult passage is important to muddle through or not. Do the difficult words and arguments contain any of the key words or ideas that you have gleaned from the titles? If not, leave them aside for now. Are the troublesome parts in the "middle" of the paragraph, chapter, or book, rather than "early" or "late"? If so, pass over them for now and focus on the beginnings and endings of the work.

Step 3 does not mean you should blissfully skip over any and all difficult passages or words. Far from it. Rather, you need to be able to decide which parts to wrestle with, and which parts to come back to. If a passage contains key words from the titles, then you need to understand it, whether it is difficult or not. If the difficult passages come up in the introduction and conclusion, there's no easy way around them.

But you have to choose your battles when you are skimming. Don't get stuck on difficult parts that are incidental to the larger points of the book or article. Instead, note these passages with a question mark in the margin. If you discover as you read on that these passages were important to the overall work, you can always go back to them. But in many cases you'll see that what seemed difficult at first becomes clearer as you move along. Or you'll discover that it was not essential to understand the difficult passage in order to understand the work as a whole.

In conclusion, skimming does not just mean reading faster. It means pre-reading and collecting key information from titles. It means starting at the beginning and the end of sections, the places of the work that are most likely to contain the major points. And it means making intelligent decisions about when to dig deep into a difficult passage, and when to move on and come back later.

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Feel free to offer suggestions and amendments!

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