Cite Specific

Analyzing Endnotes to Teach Historical Methods

Roxanne Panchasi | Dec 1, 2016

It all started with a desire to have a different kind of conversation with my students about citation, one that wouldn’t be consumed by the details of formatting or the penalties for plagiarism. These are important things, of course, and I try to address them in every syllabus and assignment outline that I put together. You know the section I mean: the clear statement of expectations, the links to resources and policies online, the striking of that balance between helpful guidance and stern warning. But you’ve probably also experienced that section’s shortcomings—or at least wondered if anyone was paying attention as you explained it—when unattributed information showed up in final papers. To provide an alternative that actually works, I’ve developed an in-class exercise called “Xtreme Endnotes,” which I use at the beginning of every historical methods course that I teach.

Can you guess this famous work of history using only its endnotes? (Honor system—no Googling!) The first person to e-mail the correct answer to perspectives@historians.org will win their choice of available AHA merchandise. AHA staff autographs optional.

Can you guess this famous work of history using only its endnotes? (Honor system—no Googling!) The first person to e-mail the correct answer to perspectives@historians.org will win their choice of available AHA merchandise. AHA staff autographs optional.

Several years ago, during an office hour, I was pulling a photocopy of a book chapter from one of the not-so-neat piles on my desk. As I tugged, the pages snagged on a paper clip and I ended up with only a few sheets in my hand, the endnotes. And I wondered: What would happen if I gave my students nothing but the notes? How much might they be able to glean about a text and its author when deprived of the “body” of a piece of historical writing? Could putting the “margins” at the center of a discussion of what it means to write in a scholarly community and to read for method facilitate a better understanding of the notes? Could students eventually see them as something other than a hassle to read, let alone compose? I had no idea. I had never tried it before.

I had tried other exercises in the past: citation scavenger hunts and low-stakes quizzes on the Chicago Manual of Style, assignments focused on the use of bibliographic software, and discussions about the meanings of academic integrity that invoked the spirit rather than strictly the letter of the law. I had asked my students to track down primary and secondary sources referenced in a given work and had encouraged them to mine citations for material relevant to their own research projects. I had also assigned readings by scholars like Anthony Grafton and Jon Wiener on the history of citation and well-known cases of academic dishonesty. [i]

These approaches all proved productive in different ways. Apart from clarifying norms and forms, they help to show that our notes are more than just a set of requirements or a way of staying out of trouble. They also underline the dialogic value of citation, and the ethics of transparency that make these textual supplements such a fundamental part of the practice of historical writing. And they can make possible discussions about the role of citation in the development of history as a discipline, including the importance of scholarly trust and the implications of its potential betrayals.

“Xtreme Endnotes” is not a replacement for these strategies. It just comes at things a bit differently. It makes the notes the focus of a game that gets my students curious and laughing, two things I don’t see all that often when the subject of citation comes up in the classroom.

So how does it work? Well, to prepare, I scan my bookshelves for historical monographs across a range of fields and time periods. From each book, I select a chapter with a set of notes at the end or located at the back of the book. I use endnotes primarily for practical reasons: they are much easier to isolate from the text than footnotes. It is also true that endnotes tend to be neglected even more by my students than citations and discursive asides at the bottom of pages. What a Herculean task it can seem to flip back and forth between page 15 and page 42—or (the horror!) page 242. In other words, putting books’ back matter front and center reflects the spirit of the exercise in no uncertain terms.

This exercise helps students zoom in on things like the use of sources, the historian’s intervention in a given debate, and the structure of a historical argument.

After making copies of each set of notes, I redact anything that might give away the chapter or book’s title, or the name of its author. Then I grab some intercampus mail envelopes, tuck each book inside, and head to class. I should note that while much of the exercise would work just as well with articles, books just make for better props. (More on this in a moment.)

Once in seminar, I divide my students into small groups, giving each a set of notes, along with the corresponding hidden book. The students then have about 20 to 30 minutes to produce an outline of the text in as much detail as possible. What can they tell me about its subject and scope, including the time period it covers? What about the author’s use of sources? What do the notes suggest about the kind of historical approach at work in this book? Are there any indications that the author is using a particular theoretical model or framework to think through specific research questions or problems? What do students imagine the title of the selection to be? When was it written? What other guesses are they willing to venture about the historian whose notes they’ve been assigned?

When their outlines are done, each group presents a profile of its missing text to the class. And then come the envelopes, drum rolls, and book reveals. This last step is just more fun with actual books. In some classes, I’ve also taken this as an opportunity to talk about the methodological significance of the rest of a book’s full front and back matter: the publication information and Library of Congress catalog number, the table of contents, the acknowledgments and dedications, the bibliography and index. But that’s another set of activities.

My students’ responses to the questions and to the exercise overall have been phenomenal every time. I am regularly amazed by how close they get to the actual title and date of publication, and by the detail and sophistication of their outlines of the content, arc, and arguments of each selection. This is true even for those sets of notes that include many references to sources in languages my students are not fluent in, notes they readily admit to having ignored entirely as a matter of course prior to this exercise.

I’ve also found that the notes alone often seem to lay a better foundation for a conversation about the historian’s methodology and approach than reading the actual text. While I can offer suggestions and strategies for reading historiographically or for method, this exercise cuts to the chase, helping students to zoom in quickly on things like the use and interpretation of sources, the historian’s intervention in a given field or debate, and the overall structure and unfolding of a historical argument.

It is difficult for me to say whether “Xtreme Endnotes” has a concrete or lasting impact on my students’ respect for citation guidelines, or whether it has decreased the instances of plagiarism in my courses over the years. While I do see some positive mentions of the exercise in course evaluations, we are all aware of how wonky a gauge of our pedagogic choices and strategies these can be.

What I do know is that these moments of a different kind of focus on the notes change the nature and quality of further discussions. During this exercise in scholarly play, I have seen and felt a profound shift in my students’ attitudes toward a form of reading and writing that they generally regard as a chore. In this one class session, at least, these textual sites of obligation and regulation become solutions to a creative problem, jumping-off points for the kind of surprise and imagination that are certainly among the “habits of mind” I seek to encourage in my teaching.

Roxanne Panchasi is associate professor of history at Simon Fraser University.


[i] See Grafton, The Footnote: A Curious History (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1999) and Wiener, Historians in Trouble: Plagiarism, Fraud, and Politics in the Ivory Tower (New York: New Press, 2007).

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