Adventures of a historian-in-training, comments about history and how it is done, and anything else related to history. This means essentially everything, for everything is history as soon as it slips into the past.

Friday, December 14, 2012

The Tome of Testimony

I'm a gamer.  Sometimes phrases come to me when I'm writing my papers, phrases couched in terminology used by gamers, or in words that sound like it.  I put such a phrase in my paper on the suspension and removal of Al Cahill as sheriff of Duval County, Florida.  Cahill was suspended 30 January 1958.

The term was "the tome of testimony," by which I referred to the very thick -- something like 1100 pages -- transcript of grand jury testimony generated by the investigation into the charges made against Cahill.  The newspaper reported on the thickness of the transcript.  Governor LeRoy Collins remarked, when he received a copy of the transcript by permission of the judge in whose jurisdiction the inquiry was held, that it was "a foot thick."

The transcript probably contained a wealth of information about the case, information which probably would have answered many of the questions arising out of the event.

It is information we historians will never see.  Nor will anyone else.  Grand jury proceedings, and the transcripts thereof, are secret.  Forever.

This is something historians have to deal with, especially when we deal with history that touches on politics and law enforcement.  The "smoking gun" is not available.  We can only speculate about what information the Tome of Testimony holds, but we'll never get near it.

What I had to do for my paper was look very thoroughly into newspaper reports of the event.  It occupied a lot of space in the Florida Times-Union, Jacksonville's newspaper, because it was a very big story.  There are some other sources.  There is a history of the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office (formed from the old Duval County Sheriff's Office and the Jacksonville Police Department when the city of Jacksonville and Duval County were consolidated in 1968).  That book has some information on Cahill's predecessor, Rex Sweat, who was reputed to be corrupt.  There is very little on Cahill himself, as he's a character they'd probably rather forget.  There is a great deal on Cahill's successor, Dale Carson, a measure of the regard in which he is still held in the Sheriff's Office and the city generally.

There is a popular magazine article on Rex Sweat which also has useful information in it.  There are a few items concerning the case in the LeRoy Collins Papers at the library at the University of South Florida, Tampa.  One repository I have not yet had a chance to check is the state archive, which I will do before I submit the paper for publication.

The largest source in this case was the newspaper reports, which have to be approached carefully.  We have to watch for "loaded" words or words which could be interpreted in more than one way.  We have to account for the various meanings or the emotional charge a word may carry.  We have to be aware of possible reporter bias or the bias of the newspaper, and we have to take into account the possible agendas of the people being reported on.

It is possible to tell the story of an event from such scant sources, and to perform some analysis of the event and the people involved in it.  There will be questions remaining to be addressed by others with different interpretations.  There will be questions which will forever remain unanswered.  That does not mean that we should not ask them, nor does it mean that we should not try to tell the story.

But there it is, intrepid players of the game of history.  Seek thou the Tome of Testimony, only to find that it is concealed forever behind the strongest of magic spells and castle walls.  Then seek thou other sources, and use your powers of analysis to crack their secrets.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Next step . . .

I got a 98 on my paper on the suspension and removal of Al Cahill as sheriff of Duval County, Florida.  The 2 points probably were for technical points.

Now I'm going to polish it up and see about getting it published in a journal.

That's exciting!

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Is plagiarism-detecting software reliable?

I've had an unpleasant experience with my paper about the suspension of Al Cahill.  The professor has required us to submit our papers to a plagiarism-detecting software used by the university.  I am not going to name the particular software.  And I'm not naming it because I think it's useless.

It said it found a 3% match between my paper and the sorts of sources it checks on the web.  Four of the six that it "found" had absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the subject of my paper, and in fact had to do with things that have occurred in the second decade of the twenty-first century, not the 1950s.  Two of them did have something to do with a part of my paper.  One of them was a source I was unaware of; it never showed up in my searches.  The other was tagged as being from a newspaper in a Florida city other than the ones in which the central events of the paper took place, that is to say, Jacksonville and the state capital, Tallahassee.  I got the particular source from another site, that of a well-known historical society. 

If this is the best the software can do -- and the professor told me that this was its function -- it does not seem to me to be very useful in detecting actual plagiarism.  The software keyed in on single words, not phrases or paragraphs.  Using a single word that might have appeared somewhere in another source does not constitute plagiarism.  It's called "vocabulary."

Certainly I can see the thinking behind the use of these programs.  But in the old days, before we became so dependent on computers and the internet for everything, a teacher knew the capabilities of his or her students, and could pretty well tell when a paper was written in a style and manner above those capabilities, and would call the student in for The Talk.  And the student would get an F.  Well, the teacher OUGHT to have known the capabilities of his or her students, but sometimes it did not work that way.

On his senior paper in high school, my brother was accused of plagiarism and given an F with no appeal.  The teacher would not budge, even when our mother talked to the teacher  The teacher did not bother to attempt to verify whether the charge was justified.  She was right, and that was that.  She just "knew" my brother "couldn't" have written such a paper.  It was on the Yellow Fever epidemic in Jacksonville over a hundred years ago now.  What the teacher did not know -- and did not bother to find out -- was that our aunt was at the time Director of Health Information for the State of Florida, and had gotten my brother all sorts of publications.  She read the paper, our mother read the paper, and I read the paper.  We looked at the sources.  He footnoted everything he should have footnoted.  Where he did not use footnoted quotations, he used his own words.  He did not plagiarize.

Should twenty-first-century plagiarism-detecting software protect the student from lazy teachers as well as allow a professor to detect cribbed papers?  Perhaps, but it should do a better job of detecting than focus in on one word -- such as "waiver," which I used in the sense of a waiver of immunity from prosecution -- and return a result of a story from a few days ago (fifty-four years after the events about which I wrote) concerning the President of the United States.  I told my professor I was surprised the software did not return references to a bunch of sports articles!

The other thing that makes me very angry is that I was forced -- by the use of this software being required -- to place my paper out there on someone else's server forever.  This is my work, and I like to control my work completely until it is published.

Before I will think well of these sorts of programs or services again, they need to make some pretty massive improvements.