Archive | September 2014

Sometimes we have no idea what we’re talking about

When not teaching and serving, I’m trying to get some researching done on the side. The small chunk I’ve been working on of late is examining how contemporaries discussed the surrender of the French garrison at the citadel of Tournai in 1709. Reminder to self: this takes forever if you have 100+ accounts to go through (and that’s only for Tournai).

It’s an interesting surrender for numerous reasons which I won’t get into. But if you do bother to read through enough capitulation texts (beyond Tournai as well), dissect discussion of the capitulation process in various contemporary treatises, and peruse discussion of specific surrenders in the participants’ correspondence, in the contemporary newspapers and prints, and in the histories of the war, you start to see some patterns. So when you’ve immersed yourself in the primary accounts, you just have to cringe when you come across something like this, from Archdeacon William Coxe’s 19C multi-volume biography of Marlborough (v2:427):

The Allies “…forced at length the commandant to surrender at discretion. The two generals, respecting the bravery of the garrison, mitigated the hardship of their lot, by permitting them to march out with the honours of war, retaining their swords and baggage, on the condition of leaving behind them their other arms and colours. They were to return to France, and not to serve till an equal number of prisoners, captured from the allies, were restored in exchange. On the 3d of September the gate of the citadel was delivered to the confederates, and on the 5th the garrison was conducted to Condé.”

The problem, if you happened to read an exchange in the comments on a previous post, is that Coxe has unfortunately butchered contemporary categories almost beyond recognition. As I explained in that exchange, contemporaries c. 1700 viewed a garrison’s ultimate fate as one of two broad possibilities. First was the possibility of a successful garrison defense, retaining the fortress and forcing the besiegers to abandon their attacks. A rare beast for the War of the Spanish Succession. More likely, a fortress would be forced to surrender. In this case, the garrison could receive any one of several outcomes:

  1. The garrison could be given an “honorable” surrender (the standard phrasing used), which meant that a variety of symbolic “marks of honor” would be granted the garrison upon its evacuation – things like drums beating, flags flying, &c. Most importantly, the garrison would be allowed to return to action by rejoining their field army.
  2. Alternately, the garrison could be denied their status as free combatants, and taken prisoner. Within this broad imprisoned fate were several important gradations, however. If a garrison was “taken prisoner”, the capitulation might dictate that the garrison be exchanged immediately, or the capitulation might remain mute on this point, which meant that the garrison might instead linger until a later point. Sometimes prisoners might be allowed some of the marks of honor.
  3. Distinct, however from a garrison taken prisoner, was one taken “at discretion”. Hard-pressed defenders taken at discretion still ended up prisoners, it’s true, but taken “at discretion” was the early modern equivalent of unconditional surrender. This was a far more shameful way to be captured, and more dangerous, for their treatment was technically at the discretion of the commander. There was, in other words, no capitulation document that provided written protection for the garrison (or almost never – like I said, these things are complicated). Nevertheless, contemporaries made clear distinctions between defenders taken prisoners and those taken at discretion (unless of course one side wanted to inflate their own honor by blurring the lines – it gets complicated). So while there’s definitely a fair amount of gray, it’s completely confusing for Coxe to say that the garrison was taken at discretion yet they were given the honors of war. It’s possible there may have been some garrison somewhere that received such mixed terms, but I’ve yet to see one, and this certainly wasn’t the case with Tournai. Keeping (only) their swords and baggage was a significant step down from being allowed the standard marks of honor – I don’t think contemporaries even referred to “swords and baggage” as “marks of honor” (though I’d have to check to be sure).
  4. The worst fate of all was to be put to the sword. Defenders that resisted to the bitter end would likely be slaughtered in the breach or in the streets. This fate became increasingly rare as the 17C progressed.

In case you weren’t yet confused with the above categories, I provide my confusing visualization of how this all played out in the Low Countries during the Spanish Succession war (a diagram for my paper presentation created, I should note, while at the Charlotte airport a mere three hours before my presentation):

Siege End States1

So what Coxe has done is give me whiplash. First, contemporaries were quite explicit that Tournai’s garrison was not taken “at discretion” – they earned a slightly more honorable fate than that, though not particularly honorable all the same. Coxe is partially correct when he says they were allowed to march out with “honours of war”, but he muddies the point with his use of the definitive article. “The honors of war” was an oft-used phrase at the time, but being given “the honors of war” while being denied arms and flags would have made little sense to contemporaries. In short, Tournai’s surrender was largely shameful for the garrison: they had defended far more briefly than might be expected given their fortifications, and their initial demands for a truly “honorable” surrender (free evacuation, all the honors of war) was rejected, only for them to abjectly accept the besieger’s harsh conditions within three days. It gets even more confusing (and interesting) when it comes to the garrison’s actual evacuation, but I need to save something for the inevitable book chapter/article. (For readers who care, it looks like the conference organizers may try to publish something off of the World of the Siege conference.)

Yet this leaves us with a problem. Coxe was born in 1748, and therefore lived as an adult through several of Europe’s wars of the late 18C and early 19C, all of which were covered in the British press. So why didn’t he know the difference between prisoners/discretion, and between the various marks of honor? Had these conventions changed by the end of the century? (Just what I need, the suggestion that I have to look at even later discussions of surrender conventions. Ugh.) Or maybe the Archdeacon was a clueless pointy-headed prelate, armchair quarterbacking without an understanding of the conventions of a previous generation? Or was he just being literary and trampling historical understanding in the process?

So I’m not sure what the lesson is, other than to pay closer attention to the language used by contemporaries. But that’s a good lesson to start with.

The World of the Modern Conference

Last weekend I attended an excellent workshop hosted by Duke University’s History department entitled “The World of the Siege” and organized by Anke Fischer-Kattner. It was one of those rare beasts in academia, a two+ day workshop focused around a very specific theme and period/place. The attendance was limited to a couple dozen scholars who presented papers on various aspects of early modern sieges around the world – in fact, a majority dealt with non-European sieges. I include the program in case anyone is interested in the details, and follow it with some general reflections on workshops vs. conferences. In a future post I’ll give my two cents on that whole trace italienne debate. Read More…

Devonthink Usage Scenario – Notecarding an image PDF

My post ideas are usually extremely long and involved, which means I have a few dozen drafts that aren’t finished. So I’ll take a different tack for DT and just include a series of short-ish post on how I’m using DT now, showing a variety of usage scenarios with screen shots. 1100 words isn’t particularly short for a blog, but it’s my blog.

Unfortunately nobody that I know of has come up with a typology of the types of notes one might take, beyond the barebones. So I’m calling this one the RTF-notecard-from-specific-page-of-image-PDF technique. Not quite ‘flying crane’, but I lack the Buddhist monks’ combination of wisdom and careful observation of the natural world. This post largely explains the process that replaces what I described in an earlier post, with thanks to korm on the DT support forum for the Applescript which I then tweaked.

Say you’ve got a PDF of a primary source without text (OCR doesn’t work) in DT. It could be a scanned volume of archival documents, could be an old book.

1. I open the PDF in a separate window, move and resize the window to fill more than half the screen, and zoom in to a comfortable reading level.

2. Start reading.

3. When I come across something that is worth taking note of, I take note of. Specifically, I select the page: either Cmd-A, with the focus in the page (not the thumbnails), or just drag across the page. You don’t need to actually select any text per se, which helps because there isn’t any text in an image-only PDF.

4. Then I invoke the New RTF from Selected Text with URL to PDF macro (Ctl-Opt-Cmd-P for me), as discussed in the aforementioned post. This prompts you to title the new document.

Name it and you have power over it

Name it and you have power over it

I overwrite the default (the name of the original PDF file), and instead use a substantive title, like an executive summary of the point being made, e.g. Tutchin says the French are morons. This popup window is really helpful because it forces you to make a summary. Remember that efficient note taking requires a brief summary, which relieves you from having to reread the same quote (possibly several sentences or even a paragraph) every time you need to figure out what it says. One of the most useful examples is how naming your files by summary makes it much easier to plow through Search results when you’re performing a needle-in-a-haystack search.

Impact of Naming conventions on Search results

Impact of Naming conventions on Search results (from a previous post)

In needle-in-a-haystack searches most notes aren’t what you’re looking for – you need a quick way to discard false hits. In many other instances you’re looking for a specific variation on a theme – you need a quick way to distinguish similar items. Thus, a summary title allows you to quickly see that a specific note isn’t on the right topic; it similarly allows you to quickly find a certain variation on the general theme of French stupidity, for example. Having columns to sort the search results by would also facilitate this.

5. After I’ve named the RTF note and hit Enter, I’m prompted to send it to a particular group

Select group (not tag)

Select group (not tag)

For the purposes of speed I usually just default to the Inbox by pressing Return and then use the Auto-Classify to help me process them (in the Inbox) in a single session. But you could, if you want, find the proper group (not tag however), and then that will be the default group from then on. Usually, though, the same PS will be addressing different topics, which would require navigating my 1000s of groups in that tiny little window. So I go for speed at this phase.

Then the code does more magic. It adds a link from the original PDF to the new RTF note (in the URL field, which is the blue link at the top of the RTF). This allows you to jump back to the original whenever you want. The code also copies the title of the PDF file to the Spotlight Comments of the new RTF field (Bonus material: I use the Spotlight Comments as another place to put the provenance info – that way if I ever need to cite a specific file, I can just select the record in DT’s list pane, Tab to the Spotlight Comments field, Copy the already-selected text and then paste it elsewhere). The code also opens up the new RTF in its own window (which you may need to relocate/resize), and pastes the file name into the content of the RTF file. I do that last step because the AI only works on alphanumeric characters within the file, not the file name or other metadata.

Original and notes side by side

Original and notes side by side

6. Now the blinking cursor is in the RTF, with the original image visible, just waiting for your input. You can make further notes and comments, or transcribe however much of the PS you desire.

7. Then you add additional tags or groups in the Tag bar of the RTF (Ctl-Tab from the content pane). You can also run Auto-Classify (the magic hat) if you want to move it to a different group, or have other suggested groups that you then manually enter in. (Remember that Auto-Classify moves the record to a different group, so don’t use it if you’ve gone to the trouble of already selecting a group in step 5).

8. When you’re all done with this single notecard, close it. Now you’re back to the original PDF where you left off. Continue your reading and repeat the process to your heart’s content.

9. If you send all your RTF notes to the Inbox, you’ll need, at some point, to go to the Inbox and assign the notecards RTFs to groups, either with Auto-Classify or by assigning your own tags. If you manually add tags to files in the Inbox, their file names will turn red (indicating there are aliases – aliasi? – in several groups). You’ll then need to get them out of the Inbox (reduce clutter) by dragging them to the Untagged group you’ve already created, then run the Remove Tags from Selection macro on the selected Untagged files.



All this may sound complicated at first, but it becomes second nature once you’ve done it a few times, and once you understand how Devonthink works in general. The busy work of opening and tagging and such only takes a few seconds per note – certainly no slower than writing a physical notecard.

So I guess we should give up

Another appeal to stop trying to publish your pointless dissertation, at Chronicle of Higher Ed (currently behind a paywall). I suppose if enough university press editors keep saying this, we’ll have to listen.

My old school upbringing (PhD 2002 thank you very much) still urges me to fight it though, particularly as it’s leading to calls that we lower the expectations for a History PhD to only 1-2 “journal articles” over four years. I wrote a decent journal article (IMHO) based off of my master’s thesis, maybe four years spent before the final draft was accepted. Yet I know there’s no way the skills and knowledge required to write a journal article (or two) come anywhere close to what you learn by crafting a dissertation (even a crappy one, I hope), or reshaping a dissertation into a publishable book. A dissertation necessarily takes time, immersing yourself in another culture so you don’t just write a shallow, simplistic account of the past. How many different types of evidence will you have time to analyze? How many different ways will you test your idea? How broad will your conclusion be? Repeat after me: writing 5 journal articles totaling 250 pages is NOT the same as writing a 250-page book.

What kind of subject can you research and write from scratch in that time frame? Not to mention, we probably aren’t really talking about a newly-minted PhD having published a journal article, which would require a year or more of review and revisions after the first draft. So I guess we just mean that they write an article-length work or two that their advisors consider publishable. Of course manuscript reviewers often seem to have their own opinions on that score, but let’s not get bogged down in details.

What about the knock-on effects of such a change? If an advisor can produce 2 PhD students in 8 years instead of one graduate in the same time frame, how does that help the over-saturation of the PhD market? And unless every program shifts to a 4-year/1-2 article program, who’s going to go first and put their grads at risk on the job market? To be frank, I’d really think twice before hiring a job candidate who hadn’t even attempted to write a 200+ page dissertation.

We complain now about too many useless publications – imagine if we had twice as many PhDs all trying to publish their multiple articles. Wouldn’t academic journals be flooded with new manuscript submissions? I personally put several journal article projects on the backburner because I was revising the dissertation. I also know my book, closely hewn from the dissertation granite, is worth far more to my subfield than what I would have produced in article form. YMMV though.

How does this all relate to tenure? Will a few articles now be enough for tenure, if you’re lucky enough to even get a tenure-track position? The AHA better rethink things. Assuming books are still required for tenure, when will a tenure-tracker (teaching and serving) have the time to learn how to research, craft and revise a long work, much much more detailed than they’ve ever written before? Particularly if publishers insist that your dissertation/article is already “published”, so you need to start a new project altogether? That’s an awful lot of project planning for a grad student. Under whose guidance will they perform this herculean task of writing their first ever book? Those who’ve gone from a master’s thesis to PhD dissertation appreciate how much harder the latter is. I wonder how most historians will ever publish a book at all if they haven’t had personalized attention at the graduate level to write a long research project. It can be done of course (ask me how!), but it seems to further divide History between the elites whose programs will probably continue to require a dissertation (and whose Research I schools’ tenure requirements will continue to expect a book), and everybody else who does nothing but teach and publish the occasional article.

I understand the concern about time-to-degree for Ph.D. graduates without jobs – I took 9.3 years after all. But it seems there are other ways to resolve the problem of the over-abundnace of unemployed PhDs. Reduce the size of the grad student pool? Create a separate degree for alt-ac or public history, keeping the full-length PhD program for a select few? Have historical associations vet e-publications? Instead some seem to be suggesting we reshape the entire discipline and its professional formation in a way that conveniently saves graduate programs from dealing with the elephant in the room.

As usual, this is my thinking (rather than researching) place, and I don’t teach graduate students, so I’m probably way off base. And if the discipline wants to define itself according to what the publishing market will allow, I guess we don’t have much of a choice. Seems like a pathetically impoverished discipline, is all.