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Avoiding common mistakes in historical essays

KA's historian Kim Kutz Elliott talks about strategies for improving your historical essays.

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  • blobby green style avatar for user Michele Gaeta
    what are some other phrases we shouldn't use like these three?
    (12 votes)
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    • leafers ultimate style avatar for user thepanda2713
      It's better to avoid "I" statements in general, since they detract focus from your argument, and instead puts the focus on you, the writer. Some alternate phrases to "I think 'blank' " would be, "It's possible that 'blank' ", or "There is evidence that 'blank' ", or "In conclusion, 'blank' ."
      (20 votes)
  • winston default style avatar for user J.R. Foster
    What does U.S.S. stand for?
    (12 votes)
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    • leaf blue style avatar for user Ozyo
      boggle blue style avatar for user Layla Staton
      Layla Staton
      2 years ago
      Posted 2 years ago. Direct link to Layla Staton's post “United States Ship. The U...”
      United States Ship.
      The U.S.S Maine is/was a ship in the United States Navy.
      (0 votes)
  • spunky sam blue style avatar for user Nicholas Ryan
    At Why did it say that the 1900 were called the 19th century? I thought it would be called the 20th century.
    (7 votes)
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  • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user Dr. Scott
    OK teach, how about this one ...throughout the history of written history I've always seen dates and years referred to, when necessary, as either AD or BC and that's always made sense to me. Throughout the US History portion of Khan Academy I've seen BC, AD and BCE and am guessing that the BC and BCE are probably the latest politically correct thing to do and the one time I saw AD was a mistake and not yet updated to be politically correct. Why obfuscate things? There must be a purpose? I have over 8,000 books in my home with a fair number of them pertaining to history and none have CE or BCE. I did appreciate the Khan segment in electrical engineering which stated that even though Franklin's convention of current flow wasn't exactly correct with what we know today it was still left alone owing to the fact it's been in place now for some 270 years. I'm guessing AD and BC have been used even longer.
    (5 votes)
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    • ohnoes default style avatar for user ryan.lay.44
      For the most part people got triggered because it was religious and not "official enough" AD is Annos Domini (or something like that) and BC was Before Christ. The conversion was within the last couple decades (I don't remember when), but it was most certainly recent. AD and BC has been used for a very long time, I don't know much more about it then that.
      (6 votes)
  • duskpin seed style avatar for user CAROL ANN TALSKY HOFFMAN
    Why did Kin Write “Insert Country here” when saying “and that’s why(Insert country here) is so amazing”??
    (1 vote)
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    • aqualine tree style avatar for user bunnylambylynn 🦉
      She could have said "And that's why [America] is so great today," or she could have said any other country. But the country that it is doesn't really matter, because anyone who is writing about history should try to not use that phrase to sum up their paper in the first place. She used that, because you probably won't write on the same country every time.

      I hope this was helpful.
      (9 votes)
  • purple pi purple style avatar for user Jessica Schellenberg
    In video you are talking that the sentce " throughout history" is not good to use, but is it possible to say for example: throughout history of era choson ?
    (2 votes)
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  • eggleston green style avatar for user Kevin W
    As stated in , the baby boom happened thanks to the wealth from industrialization.

    What is the baby boom actually? Why are they called the baby boom?
    (2 votes)
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  • leafers sapling style avatar for user Kathleen
    Would "looking back at history" count as a variation of "throughout history"? I'm writing a historical research paper and I'd like to use the former in my introduction, but I'm not sure if it would be appropriate, based on this video.... it's not really used in the example given at , it's more like "Looking back at history, you can find many people/groups/countries that stood up for something they believed in"... this is probably accurate even down to the earliest points of history, so would this be okay?
    Also, for my paper I have to give background on certain people. A problem I am struggling with is the word count, as I have a limited number of words I can have in my paper. Should I omit general background about these people (i.e. family, birthplace, etc.) and write only about their motives? Please help
    (3 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user Cathleen Brown
    How do we know what happen 1835 in history.
    (1 vote)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user william.wirta
    What happened at the first Bull Run?
    (1 vote)
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    • leafers ultimate style avatar for user noahychung
      If you mean the Civil War battle (also called the First Manassas), it was the first major battle between the Union and the Confederacy. Rich people from the Union side came to watch the battle, thinking it would end quickly in a glorious fight in which the rebels would be crushed and their capital, Richmond, taken. They were probably disappointed in the crushing Confederate victory. The Confederacy's higher quality of troops is attributed to be a cause of this victory. The famous general, 'Stonewall' Jackson, earned his nickname there.
      (4 votes)

Video transcript

- [Voiceover] I want to talk about how to avoid some common mistakes when you're writing a historical paper. This could apply to a term paper, to a blue book essay, even really to your Master's thesis if you wanted to. I want to talk about three phrases that you might be tempted to use in a historical essay that actually muddy what you're trying to say and undercut your point more than it helps. So, these three phrases that I want to talk about are: "Throughout history," "It was inevitable," and "And that's why [insert country here] is so great today." So, why are these phrases so problematic? Let's start with "Throughout history." So, this is something that you frequently see in writing, from historical essays to pieces of journalism and it often has the ring of making something seem really strong and adding the weight of eons of history behind a single sentence. History is a very long thing. I mean, for recorded history we're going back maybe five thousand, seven thousand years. And think about the many different cultures and types of people and ideas that existed throughout that time period. If you're sitting down to write an essay about, let's say, The Cold War, and you start: "Throughout history people have feared nuclear attack," well, the first thing your reader is going to think is: "Wait! The nuclear bomb was only developed in 1945. I mean, that's not throughout history, that's only throughout the last seventy years." Or what about: "Throughout history people have gone to war over religion." Your reader might think: "Well, what about when people didn't live close enough to each other to go to war about different beliefs?" And do we really want to send the message that having different religions mean that you necessarily have to go to war? One thing that "Throughout history" does is it makes an assumption about human nature, right?, that the way that people think now is the way that people have always thought throughout history, or the way that people behave now is the way that people have always behaved throughout history. And if there's anything that is one of the core beliefs of the study of history is that people are different over time. It's fun to study the past because people in the past weren't like us. They had different ideas, different beliefs, different cultural values. And so, if you want to be really strong about how you start a historical essay, always start it in a really specific part of time that you're talking about. So, if you're talking about the period from 1945 to 1965, say "In the post-war era" or "In the late 19th century." And you might also add "In the United States." Right? This shows that you have a strong grasp of both the time and the place that you're writing about. And so, you can make an argument that is specific to that time period. Okay, let's move on to "It was inevitable." I think we like to use the word inevitable because it's long and it sounds pretty cool. But think about what inevitable really means. It means "It was unavoidable," there was no other thing that could have happened. Now think of a version of history where everything is inevitable. Everything was just going to happen no matter whether anyone did anything or not. That shows an interpretation of history that says that people's choices don't matter. And if you want to emphasize anything in history, it's how much choices matter. There are very few things that are inevitable in history. Most of them, I would say, are natural disasters, right? There is going to eventually be an earthquake in California is inevitable because there's a fault line. That's something that humans can't control, But for almost everything else in history, humans can control it. And they do decide how to react to certain situations. For example, take the sinking of the USS Maine in Havana Harbor, right? This is the event that leads to the United States going to war with Spain over Cuba in 1898. And the reason that this happened was because the USS Maine exploded in Havana Harbor. Now, we know and the Spanish suggested at the time that the reason that the USS Maine exploded was due to a spontaneous combustion on-board. There was an equipment malfunction. The United States chose to believe that this ship sinking was the result of a Spanish bomb and declared war. Now, you might have said: "War was inevitable." But it really wasn't. There were many ways that the United States could have chosen differently in that moment, to say: "Maybe we will believe the Spanish and just leave it alone" or "Maybe we'll send some financial aid to Cuba but we don't have to go to war." When you get rid of inevitability in history, you open up new choices, new ways that things could have gone. And that is really the heart of history, it's the possibility for things to be different than they were and different than they are. Okay, let's finish up with "And that's why [insert country here] is so great today." You see this all the time in historical papers. And I think writers are very tempted to finish a historical essay with some expression of patriotism. And maybe in a few rare cases this is true. You could say: "The United States is a better place today than it was in the 1950s thanks to the Civil Rights Act of 1964." But it's something you want to use very sparingly, because usually the scope of a historical paper - and think about our "Throughout history" here - isn't so huge as to merit the reaction to it being "This is the heart of what makes America great today." I've read historical papers about the Spanish Flu in 1919 that end with "And that's why America is great today." Ask yourself: is this relevant? And even if it is, is it the most relevant way that you could end an essay? For a historical essay you want to keep your conclusions very specific, the same way that you want to keep your period of time specific. So, if you're talking about the post-war era, conclude with something that you can actually substantiate, that you have substantiated in your essay, about the post-war era, say, "The wealth generated by industrialization after World War II was the reason that the Baby Boom happened." Don't say "And that's why America is great today." What do you mean by great? Do you mean economically great? Culturally Great? Politically great? It's a little too vague, and vagueness can really undermine your argument as opposed to supporting it. In a way these are all kind of appeals for human nature, appeals for the natural progress of history, and appeals to patriotism that are less rooted in the fact of what you want to say than they are rooted in ways of trying to get your reader sympathy. Instead what you can do is be specific in your time and your place. Emphasize choices and points where things might have gone differently than they did. And end with a conclusion that is very related to the things that you specifically addressed. Remember, you never want to introduce new information in your conclusion, and saying "And that's why America is great today" is new information, because it might not necessarily be related. Instead think about what it was you proved in this paper and key your conclusion directly to that.