A Few Pointers for Carroll's Students
(Inspired by the Mistakes
of Previous Generations)


  • How instructors find out that you rarely read

    • A book-length history of a single research subject is a monograph. Even if largely the work of its author's imagination, it is not properly called a "novel". A novel is a work of fiction. Calling a monograph a "novel" usually indicates a reading rate of far less than one book a year.
    • If one person writes a book, that person is an author, not an editor. If one person takes the trouble to combine short writings by many people into a book or a journal issue, that person is an editor, not an author. Those who confuse the two have no appreciation for how hard it is to write a book. (A book of short writings by many authors, parenthetically, is an anthology. I could go on, but this is enough to set you thinking on your own, and that's a better way for you to learn these things than for me to be telling you all the answers.)
    • Books are usually divided up into "chapters". Journals are usually composed of component pieces called "articles". Confusing the two is tantamount to going to a baseball game and asking your friends to buy you a beer during the seventh period stretch instead of during the seventh inning stretch.

  • How instructors find out that you rarely write

    • The word we regularly encounter accompanying "research" is "development", not "developement". People graduating from a polytechnic institute should know that, don't you think?
    • There's a big difference between "there" and "their". There are students who forget that, to the detriment of their course grades.
    • "Lead" can be pronounced either LEED or LEDD. Pronounced the former way, it means to guide or to inspire. Pronounced the latter, it means a heavy metal, not the past tense of "to lead". I have often been led to conclude that my students are illiterate (or worse, careless) because they forget these distinctions.
    • "It's" means "it is". "Its" means "belonging to it". It's a shame when an otherwise good essay disgraces its author by confusing these two.
    • If you regularly get any of the above wrong, you need to take remedial action. As a first step, carefully read your copy of Strunk and White, The Elements of Style. In case you haven't bought a copy yet, it's available in the bookstore, is only about 85 pages long, and can save you (and me) some unpleasant red ink. I return ungraded any submission containing three or more such rudimentary errors on a single page.

  • How instructors find out that you are not a careful or effective writer

    • The phrase "due to" can be used to indicate causation, but careful writers restrict its use to cases of financial obligation. They do so largely because of (not due to) the premium they place on careful diction.
    • If the only proper names on your submission are your name, the names of authors and titles in the notes, and perhaps the instructor's name, then your text probably contains too many vague generalities and not enough specifics. Never say something like "the government" when you can say something like "Senate majority leader Dole" or at least "the Mugwumps in the House."
    • If you don't get right to the heart of the matter, you're padding. An effective submission that's half the length recommended for the assignment is far superior to an average number of pages filled with tedium. Someday your bosses will want snappy one-page memos. Here's your opportunity to practice without getting fired for your mistakes.

  • How instructors find out that your thinking lacks subtlety

    • If you didn't notice that I gave examples of the proper uses of "there", "their", "led", "it's", "its", and "because of" in the paragraphs above, you're not engaging your mind when you read. I'm apt to notice it when you miss similar rather obvious nuances in class or in your written work.
    • If you praise a historical work for giving "both sides" of an issue, you'd better be sure there are only two sides. There rarely are. Another common manifestation of such naiveté is a preoccupation with whether a historical work is "objective" or "biased". Few works meriting use in an undergraduate course suffer from severe bias, though all offer an interpretation rather than "the whole truth". That's what makes history different from stamp collecting. "Objectivity" is not identical to utter neutrality.
    • If the assignment is for a book review, but you indicate on your submission that it is a book report, you probably still don't know the meaning of the phrase "critical thinking."

  • How instructors know for sure that you don't want an "A" grade

    • If you don't proofread your submissions, making corrections by hand using generally-accepted proofreading conventions (available in any decent college dictionary, or in the Chicago Manual of Style), I am forced to conclude that you lack the ability to do so. As in the Olympics, I am grading a particular performance, not your potential, so if that performance isn't excellent, your grade won't be excellent. If I can find the wherewithal to make sure there are no typos, spelling errors, or obvious grammatical gaffes in this handout, you can do the same with your work.