Teaching Tuesday: How to Read an Article

After some frantic reorganizing, this week, I feel like my classes are settling into a routine. This has given me a little chance to look ahead and to think about the prospect of teaching online in the Fall semester or even converting my History 240: Historians Craft class into an online or hybrid course. 

This is the kind of challenge that I usually find pretty interesting. I enjoy redesigning my classes even if I’m not doing much to add content to the classes. I just redesigned History 240 the fall and this is the first run through of the new organization. You can see what I’m doing here.

Because this semester has been unconventional, it’s a bit difficult to figure out whether the changes that I’ve made to my class have mattered. At the same time, this fluidity has given me a chance to think about what I can do to improve the mechanics of my course design. Over the last few weeks, for example, I’ve created these short 1000 word long modules for introducing sometimes challenging topics central to research methods to my students. If I had all the energy in the world, I could imagine putting these together in a short digital, open access textbook. 

Here’s the module that I circulated today:

How to Read An Article

By now, you should all have starter bibliographies on a topic. As a researcher, this is always the first step. You probably generated your bibliography using Google Scholar, JSTOR, or some other database from the library. This is exactly how must scholars start our research.

Now comes the second phase of research where we back away from the firehose of Google Scholar and start to dig a bit deeper. 

When academics write things, we don’t just write about things that interest us. Instead, we write to contribute to ongoing conversations. Think of academic writing as sitting down at a table with a group of friends. When you sit down, you usually listen a bit to figure out what people are talking about before you chime in. And when you do chime in, you usually chime in on the topic that your friends are discussing.

Academic conversations sometimes happen at tables, but because the participants are scattered all over the world, they usually  occur  in academic articles and monographs. In most cases, you can figure out these conversations by reading the footnotes of books and articles. The secondary sources cited in articles and books will allow you to follow the academic conversation. The primary sources in these articles shows you how the argument is made.

This week, we’re going to look carefully at an academic article. In this case, we’re going to look at Ramsay MacMullen’s “Social Mobility and the Theodosian Code” from the Journal of Roman Studies 54.1/2 (1964), 49-53. It’s a bit dated, but it’s a very well written article.

Download and read it here. It’s only 5 pages: https://www.jstor.org/stable/298650

The first thing you do when you read a scholarly article is identify the topic of the article. It usually appears in the first two or three sentences (if not the title!). In this case, we can say that the article is about social mobility in the late Roman Empire.  

Then we go on to identify the thesis of the article. The thesis, as you know, is one or two sentences that articulate the argument in the article. It’s usually in one of the first two or three paragraphs and often at the end. In this case, MacMullen’s thesis is beautifully simple and direct: “The later Empire presents a picture of unprecedented flux.” It’s at the end of the second paragraph.

The next question we ask is WHY did MacMullen write this article. Scholars write articles for a number of reasons. Sometimes it’s to challenge other scholars’ views on a topic. Sometimes it is expand those views. Sometimes it’s to bring new sources to the conversation. In all cases, however, scholars are writing in response to what other scholars have said before. In this way, academic writing is like a conversation.

In most cases, scholars explain why they’re writing their article by locating their thesis in relation to arguments made by other scholars. This is exactly how most conversations work. When we sit down with friends for a conversation, we usually make sure what we’re saying relates in some ways to what other people in the conversation are saying.

Scholars usually do this in their introduction and in footnotes. This means turning both to what MacMullen tells in his text and the footnotes. First, he notes right away that A.H.M. Jones makes a similar argument about social mobility in the Roman Empire when he says that Jones challenges the idea that Roman Empire was “a rigid hierarchical society.” 

If we go and look at footnote 1, we learn even more. We learn, for example, that Jones’s argument came from his contribution to a volume edited by A. Momigliano titled The Conflict Between Paganism and Christianity published in 1963, and it was “anticipated” by  P. Petit in his Libanius et la vie municipale d Antioche published in 1955. We don’t need to know French to say Petit, Jones, and MacMullen all contend that Late Roman society had more social mobility than traditionally understood.

There’s more, though. MacMullen also notes that Petit cites “the chief upholders of the traditional view”: A. E. R. Boak, Manpower Shortage and the Fall of the Roman Empire (1955) and  by F. M. de Robertis, Il fenomeno associativo nel mondo romano (I955).

This gives us the conversation. MacMullen, Jones, and Petit argue that the later Roman empire experienced more social mobility, and Boak and Robertis, argued the earlier view that the later Roman world was rigidly hierarchical.

Note that all these scholars were writing with 15 years or so of one another. This is also how academic writing works and why I’ve encouraged you to find the most recent books on you topics.

The next question is: what does Ramsay McMullen have to contribute to this conversation? After all, no one wants to go to all the effort to read an article and find that is says: “YEAH! What the other guy said!”

MacMullen unpacks his approach in the third paragraph. The primary source that he’s using is the Theodosian Code (or the Codex Theodosianus in Latin). It’s a law code. 

He suggests that scholars have read the Code as evidence for social rigidity (and in footnote 4 he points out scholars who have made this argument). But, he then goes on to say that there are other ways to read and understand the Code: “There is no excuse, however, for taking the Codes at face value.”

The rest of the article goes on to make this argument.

By the end of the week, make sure you can download at least three of your article. Check back here on Thursday for the next step in the process! 

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