Minnesotans For Sustainability©


Home ] Up ] Feedback Please ] Table of Contents ] Search MFS ] MFS News ]

Sustainable Society:  A society that balances the environment, other life forms, and human interactions over an indefinite time period.







Notes for New Students

Professor Gwyn Alf Williams*




Try to develop your critical faculties. One golden rule is to assume that all your books are written by congenital liars. Take nothing on trust.

  1. As you read, look for the footnotes. See what kind of sources they use. If they quote from a memoir, consider the author of the memoir; if from an administrative document, consider the character of the office which would issue the document. At all stages try to see THROUGH the text to the documents on which it is based. Ideally you should try to DEMOLISH the book, break it down into its constituent parts. Obviously, at your stage, you cannot carry this process very far. But try to THINK in this way. The hardest job of all for a normal student at your stage is to break out of the prison of respect for the written word. Behind the most impressive prose lurks an often unimpressive human being. Look at the book as barrier between you and the materials you would use to construct a more truthful picture. Try, at least, to think in this way.

  2. Look at the structure of the author’s prose, at his sentence. Watch for the moment when he stops using pedestrian evidence and starts using metaphor. Can you catch him stumbling in his argument? Look at his more categorical statements – what assumptions lie behind those? Can those assumptions be questioned? It becomes harder and harder the more technical and monographic a book is, of course, but be on the alert always. Sometimes it’s easy. There’s one sentence from Cobban on the Convention which reads – ‘Strange to say, however, the most brilliant triumphs of oratory would not get the army fed’. Smile, take the point, and pass on. Stop and go back. Think again.

    Consider there the smooth, easy, almost furtive implication of parliamentary ineffectiveness, so painfully familiar to us sophisticated students of society and politics (are they not always the same, particularly if the oratory is French?). Consider the further implication that if anything got done, it was by this dictatorial Committee of Public Safety. But look at the facts –reported by Hampson amongst others, if not fully by Cobban himself. Consider how open the Committee itself was to ‘parliamentary’ control; look, in fact, at the whole blinding network of committees, look at the representatives on mission, at the exact nature of the legislation passed by these orators, and the legitimacy of Cobban’s insinuation becomes dubious indeed.

    More important, you may be driven towards the view that if this is really Cobban’s opinion, then he should have stated it openly, with evidence in support. This may lead you to the further inference that Cobban may have used this sly slip-it-between-the-ribs style BECAUSE he had no valid evidence. In short, you may ultimately decide that the sentence tells you more about Cobban than about the Convention. On the other hand, you may not.

This is the kind of eye you should train. Keep an eye on their style as well as their footnotes. The blander they are, the more easy to read they are, the more effective they are, the more suspicious should you be. There’s only one answer. You must become a monster. Don’t give them a chance. Tear them apart. Be thoroughly unBritish. Get them down and when they’re down, kick them.

One practical point : if you take notes from books, don’t take notes as you run through. In nine cases out of ten, you will take your notes in the language of your authors. This language will then re-appear in your own essay. Plagiarism is a legal offence. Besides, the exercise is pointless. You will merely transfer dead bones from one graveyard to another. Your own words, please, at any cost. Read a large coherent section, run through it in your own mind until you have it and then, if you need to, summarise the argument in your own shorthand.


  1. Your prime purpose is to construct an argument. Take the problem, read around it, look closely at the nationality and logic (in the broadest sense) of your authors and come to some decision. You MUST arrive at some decision or your essay will be treacle. There is no call for dogmatism. Your decisions may be multiple, relative or even contradictory. But the essay MUST have a theme or a group of inter-related themes. Come to SOME verdict (the more sophisticated the better) even if it kills you, or more probably, me.
  2. Then build your argument. Construct it as cleverly as you can, as effectively as you can. You can be as complex as you like. But you must try to be clear. Clarity is the most difficult of the virtues. The perennial weakness of most undergraduate essays is their failure to say what the writer intended them to say. Read over what you have written. Read it as a non-historian, preferably as a social scientist. If he can’t understand it then there must be something radically wrong. Make sure you say precisely what you mean to say.
  3. Do not use words loosely. If you use the same word in a different sense, say so ―but preferably use another word. Try to be as EXACT as you can.
  4. Cite evidence to support your contentions. Loud assertion is no substitute for argument. Neither is windy generalisation. On the other hand, don’t overload your text. The balance you must seek.
  5. The paragraph is the normal unit; an essay is usually a mosaic of paragraphs. Make the paragraph the conceptual unit of your essay. Let it handle one idea or a group of related ideas. You can be as clever as you like with your paragraphs, but never lose sight of their basic importance. When your argument changes gear, you should change paragraphs. The state of your paragraphing usually reflects the state of your mind. If one’s messy, so is the other.
  6. As well as being a lawyer, you should try to be a soap salesman. SELL me your line. There’s no need to write like the Mirror or the Express, but the more life and personality you can get into your essay, the better. Remember that we, too, have read Hampson and Cobban and the rest. We don’t want to read them again in your handwriting. The more of yourself you get into the essay, the happier we will be. Always provided you don’t sin against the holy ghost.
  7. Quotation is sometimes necessary, but keep it to the minimum. Unless you need to quote to illustrate a man’s thinking or feeling, avoid quotation altogether. Only quote a secondary work if it says something in a peculiarly memorable way.
  8. List the books you’ve read at the end of the essay. It will help us to judge it. List only the books you really have read. If you want to show off, do it in the text.

No one can tell you how to write an essay. It is impertinence to try. But this may have told you how NOT to.

The most important job is to break down the barrier between the world of books and the world of real life as you know it. Most of us erect some kind of wall between the two. Young people sometimes swallow stuff from books, they would never accept for a moment from a living person. Remember there ARE no books, there are only people speaking. In the last resort, history only exists in the mind of the historian. Until you are proven wrong, assume that your mind is as good as anybody else’s.
Courtesy of Oxford Brookes University, School of Humanities
Oxford, England
See at < http://www.brookes.ac.uk/schools/humanities/gwynalf.html >.


Home ] Up ]

Please send mail to webmaster@mnforsustain.org with questions or comments about this web site. Minnesotans For Sustainability (MFS) is not affiliated with any government body, private, or corporate entity. Copyright © 2002 Minnesotans For Sustainability