Teaching Students to Write History

Teaching Students to Write History

I was lucky enough to be on a roundtable panel at the AHA about teaching students how to write history, with some seriously kickass writing folks. Here’s myself, Jennifer Foray (who was an incredible chair!), Kate Antonova, Kevin Gannon, and Carolyn Levy, right before everything began.

Cate Denial, Jennifer Foray, Kate Antonova, Kevin Gannon, Carolyn Levy
Session 284 at AHA20

I plan to write up a more comprehensive review of all the things we talked about (spurred on, in no small part, by the fantastic questions from the audience) – but for now, I wanted to make available the assignment sheet I talked about in the panel. It’s an assignment for a first essay in an introductory-level history course (whether survey or otherwise). My goal was to find a way to teach students the preliminary shape of writing an argument and deploying evidence, but to do so in a way that made space for them to write authentically, to discover their voice, to be creative, and to loosen their grip on a certain way of defining “good writing.” I wanted the assignment to give them confidence in themselves as writers. (In this, I drew heavily from the marvelous Why They Can’t Write: Killing The Five Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities by John Warner.)

The assignment is simple. Students write a letter to someone they choose, explaining why something they’ve learned in the course so far is important.

The assignment gives students free rein to write in whatever voice they want to, using whatever language they want to, in order to persuade someone that their learning is of value. As such, the assignment has a metacognitive bent – it asks students to think about and reflect upon the process of their learning. It also teaches them to think about audience, to make an argument, to consider what pieces of evidence will be compelling, and to anticipate objections to their interpretation.

I don’t tell students the assignment is doing these things up front (although I can see lots of good reasons to do that!) Instead, when students come to see me for their in-person grading conversation about their paper, we talk about these elements, and the fact that they already know a great deal about argumentative writing.* Put in these terms, they realize they can already do the discipline-specific thing I’m asking them to do, even if they can get better at it (and most can). Instead of feeling like they’re constantly getting demerits for screwing something up, and anticipating the worst when they summon up what “history writing” means, they start from a place of positivity. Even if you’re someone who wants to, or must, write comments, try limiting yourself to positive feedback PLUS two big things that a student can do to improve. Do not line edit, or get bogged down in comments in the margins. Go big, and be clear.

Bonus: the letters are always wildly entertaining, very thoughtful, and often moving.


* I got several questions at the AHA about how to scale these sorts of grading conversations. Here’s how I do it:

1) I schedule 15 minutes per student, during the day, at my office
2) I read their paper through without making any comments on it at all
3) Students fill out a self-evaluation sheet before they come to see me (details [here])
4) We use that self-evaluation sheet as the starting point for conversation about what they learned
5) In our conversation, I suggest two big things they can do to immediately strengthen their writing
6) I do not line edit. I do not worry at this stage about grammatical details.

Pros: I spend less time on each paper than I used to when I wrote comments, and I strongly believe that the conversations have much more impact. Students believe me when I tell them what they already do well, and together we can work on places they can improve. It does use a lot of time during my day, but my evenings are free of grading work. And it’s fun!

Cons: it’s not always possible to grade through conversation as I do. If you’re teaching 4-4, or 5-5, and you have hundreds of students without any grading help, it’s a real challenge. If your days are spent on the road between campuses, evenings and weekends are when grading happens.

But even in those situations, you can consider recording a piece of oral feedback for students, rather than writing comments. Again, tone of voice, inflection, emphasis – all these things can communicate so much more than handwriting on a page.

One thought on “Teaching Students to Write History

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