Friday, 28 February 2014

Basic history essay-writing advice



Every exam board publishes its mark schemes on-line. The candidate who wants to do well should study those mark schemes, because different exam boards do give slightly different weight to the different things that make up an essay. Some boards have special extra ingredients, such as the SQA requirement at Advanced Higher that there should be explicit references to historiography. Your teachers should have made you aware of these things.

Nevertheless, a good essay is a good essay is a good essay, and some general points can be made with confidence. Incidentally, as well as marking hundreds of essays and attending training days for teachers I have even worked for two exam boards and even at one time set papers and helped write marking criteria, so my advice is based on knowledge and experience.

After years of discussion with my good friend the Head of English we discovered that writing a good English Lit. essay does not necessarily involve quite the same approaches. This advice is about history essays.

Every good history essay should have the following ingredients.

I used to draw this on the board. Pupils seemed to find it helpful

  1. Relevance. It must answer the specific question and nothing else. You will never be asked “Write an essay about the Crusades”. You will be asked something specific like “To what extent were the Crusades the result of religious enthusiasm?” Everything in the essay should be directed to answering that question. Bad essays only tackle the question in the last paragraph. In a good essay every paragraph makes a directly relevant contribution to the argument.

It is not a bad idea to have a sentence in each paragraph that echoes closely the wording of the title. eg “Another reason for thinking that there was a lot more to the Crusades that religious enthusiasm is….”  This should ensure that your essay is kept on message.

  1. Structure. Good essays have a planned structure. A chronological structure can occasionally work with some questions, but usually it is best avoided. One thing that is definitely wrong is telling the story. Summarising the story from memory in your own words is junior school stuff. Examiners know you know the story. They want you to answer a question about it. Most pupils can write about 900 words in 45 minutes, so 3 or 4 paragraphs apart from the introduction and conclusion [see below] usually works. Each paragraph should make one big argumentative point, and the points should be arranged in order so that they lead convincingly to your conclusion.  

  1. Introduction and Conclusion Some examination boards have found essays so damaged by poor quality introductions, and then running out of time at the end, that they advise leaving out the introduction. Nevertheless, good introductions make better essays. A good introduction should NOT introduce the topic (eg The Crusades) but should introduce your argument (the extent to which the Crusades were caused by religious enthusiasm) and should show where your argument is going. A good conclusion should sum up your answer clearly, and the main reasons why you have arrived at that conclusion rather than a different one. Good introductions and conclusions should add value to an essay, not be there merely because you have been told they should be there. Make sure you leave time to write a substantial conclusion that adds value. “Thus we see that the Crusades were partly caused by religious enthusiasm, but there were other causes as well” adds no value at all.

  1. Substance Some examiners would put this at the top of the list. Of course it is important. In a good essay every argumentative point will be supported by some evidence. Distinguish between extra detail that does not actually help answer the question and telling detail that really gives weight to relevant points. The first is better than nothing; at least it shows you know something of the topic. But it is the second sort that really lifts an essay. Quotations, statistics, incidents that help prove your points are the things to aim for. There should be lots of real history in your essays.

  1. Clear English This is not much to do with spelling and punctuation as such, though these should be as good as possible. It is all to do with word-choice, sentence structure and generally making sure that the words you use say clearly what you mean. Just for starters – never say “government” when you mean “parliament”.


Here are a few examples of common faults:
·        Using exclusive superlatives when they are not what you mean, and not true. Words like “only”, “first” and “greatest” allow no compromise and should be used with care.
·        Using words like “thus” and “therefore” when you cannot in fact make a logical inference. If the case is not watertight say: “this suggests that” or something like that.
·        Writing sentences that are far too long, with too many subordinate clauses, and that eventually run out of control.    
·        Leaving out a step in the argument because it is clear in your mind when it will not be clear to the reader unless it is put down on paper.
·        Writing two sentences that contradict each other.


All of these things can be done poorly, quite well, or very well; but if you do them all competently you should get a decent grade. Good luck.



Thursday, 20 February 2014

Anti-Capitalism and the Environmental Crisis

Last night, while washing up, I switched on the radio and found I was listening to "The Moral Maze". I’m not sure of the exact moral issue under discussion, but it was something to do with the contribution of science to policy-making. The witnesses sounded a pretty sensible bunch.

Then at the end of the programme came a summing up from the panel, and I was taken aback to hear Michael Portillo saying that he was inclined to doubt climate change science because so many of the people who warn about the current environmental crisis are anti-capitalist. Michael Portillo has reinvented himself, since the abrupt termination of his career in government, as a friendly TV presenter whose programmes range from nice tourist ones about trains to intelligent and moving ones about Picasso. He also gives good value on Andrew Neil’s political sofa in the middle of the night. But here he was implying – I don’t recall the exact words, so I apologise if I misrepresent him – that climate change scientists are untrustworthy because they are anti-capitalist.

Well, where to begin….

1. Even those who prefer capitalism to socialism (a very reasonable position considering the dreadful history of extreme socialism in action) must surely admit (assuming they are humane people of goodwill) that unrestrained capitalism is brutal and life-destroying. In the mid-nineteenth century roughly a thousand coal miners a year were killed in Britain and roughly a thousand merchant seamen were drowned. Only health and safety laws prevented market forces from carrying on in this murderous way. Those corporations who export their factories to countries where labour is cheap and safety regulations unenforced do not do so out of a desire to further international development, and even if factories collapse or neighbourhoods are poisoned, they only change their ways when obliged to do so.

Exactly the same point applies to global environmental considerations. Under capitalism money-making schemes that wreck the environment will only be prevented by legislation and global treaty, rigorously enforced.

Incidentally, if anyone wants to know my own position, I’m an old-fashioned Butskillite, born when Attlee was Prime Minister. We need market forces and an enterprise economy, but we also need the best possible regulatory system to make sure that the rich, powerful, energetic and lucky don’t exploit to the utmost the weak, tired, poor and unlucky.


2.  It is probably true that some of the people who are concerned about the current environmental crisis are what might be caricatured as rent-a-mob radicals. There may be others who have jumped on the environmental train for sinister private ambitions. There are others, of course, who see a handy chance to make money out of our fears, as we buy solar panels and install carbon-capturing power-stations.

It may also be true that some scientists, who should know better, and some campaigners and journalists – anyone whose job includes sexing up the truth – have damaged the cause by one-sided or distorted arguments of various sorts. 

But none of this means that there is no environmental crisis. None of this means that human activity is not making the environmental crisis worse.


3. Some things are matters of opinion, some things are matters of judgement, some things are matters of fact. The number of absolutely irrefutable facts in this world is comparatively few, but that does not excuse us from basing our judgments on evidence. Scientists in the western liberal tradition are very cautious about claiming that their current state of knowledge is irrefutable fact, but that does not mean that their findings are worthless. The consensus in the scientific community at the moment is that the world is heating up, that the climate is changing, that the oceans are dying and that the rate at which species are becoming extinct is speeding up alarmingly. I am, as I say, astonished, to hear intelligent and well-informed politicians and journalists arguing so vehemently against this consensus. As for throwing out vague allegations that climate change science is merely anti-capitalism, well, that is just fantastical.

This is only a blog-post not an academic paper, so I may have mis-remembered the quotation. But did not J M Keynes once say: “When the facts change, I change my opinion. What do you do, sir?” What indeed!



Saturday, 15 February 2014

Notes from a Wildlife Garden in Edinburgh January 31st 2014



The mild winter (so far) is probably the reason that we have not had the excitement round the bird feeders I have sometimes enjoyed describing. However, yesterday I was pleased to see a siskin on the feeder normally reserved for goldfinches. They are now well established visitors to gardens, so there is nothing rare about this; but they are a most neat and precise yellow and black. The goldfinches are plentiful, with so many of us neighbours feeding them, but they are by no means taken for granted. A pair of collared doves arrived yesterday as well. They have an irritating moaning sort of coo, but are very elegant. When I was a boy we never saw them. Now they are common. Soon the ivy berries will be attracting wood pigeons.


Another remarkable example of how bird populations and habits shift can be seen in Roseburn Park. I was there the other day with my grandson, feeding ducks. The mallards never got a look in, for at least ten goosanders, big, strong bullies with sharp, fish-catching beaks, elbowed them aside and snatched every crumb.

To all but an enthusiast my pond-life tank would be very dull at this time of year; but there are still leeches wriggling up and down like miniature water-snakes, and little water-fleas, the size of pin heads, bustling about. Every so often I top it up with another jar of pond water and one never quite knows what will appear. Asellus Aquaticus, which looks like an under-water woodlouse, is abundant in the pond.

Winter is a time for reading about gardening, not actually doing it. If you enjoy this column you will love “A Plank Bridge by a Pool” by Norman Thelwell. This famous cartoonist was able, in the 1960s, to buy some land in Hampshire and dig not a pond but a lake. He connected it to the river systems, stocked it with trout and rejoiced in the fish and birds and mammals that came onto his property. At least, he rejoiced in most of the wild-life, though the pike and cormorants that ate his fish, and the water-voles that undermined his banks could be an irritant. You can still buy the book fairly cheap second hand. It has beautiful pen-and-ink drawings on every page


Soon the days will get longer and there will be no excuse not to get back outside and hack back dead vegetation. I deliberately leave more stems and seed-heads than a conventional gardener might, in the hope that mini-beasts will find food and shelter. However, they need to go in the end or the wild garden would become a wilderness, which is not what you want in a small urban plot.


And finally, a New Year Resolution for you: Please do not use pesticides.