How do we teach undergraduates to write history papers?

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Justin Bengry recently wrote on this topic and I have been thinking about it as well. It has often occurred to me that, especially in the lower division survey classes for which I worked as a teaching assistant, there was a lot of emphasis on teaching the mechanics of historical writing and explaining the difference between primary and secondary sources and only rarely did students engage with examples of argument-driven history based on primary research. Commonly their reading would consist of a text-book supplemented by primary sources that we would analyze in section. This is often because of time constraints, particularly in the ten week quarter system of my university and the desire to expose students to primary sources, but also because of concerns that many articles or monographs would be too difficult or inaccessible to students. However, when I did have the chance to teach such material, I found that students often rose to the challenge. Discussions were often better, largely because once I made sure that students understood the argument and its relevance, I could ask them whether they agreed with it and why, what they considered its strengths and weaknesses. These are all topics likely to provoke debate rather than to have my students uncomfortably searching for the “right” answer that they often assumed I was looking for in our discussions of primary sources, despite my best efforts to assure them otherwise.

Because of this experience when I had the chance to design my own honors section for a Western Civilization class from about 1750 to the present, I supplemented the primary source readings of the main class with articles and sections of monographs on the theme of empire that related to topics of the main class. For example, when we discussed the industrial revolution, they read an excerpt from Sidney Mintz’s Sweetness and Power about the importance of sugar-producing colonies to the industrial revolution. Every week the students had to write a short essay briefly explaining the author’s arguments, whether they agreed and why. Although many of the early essays tended to be summaries of the article, students soon began to delve deeper and engage in more thoughtful discussions of what they had read. Sean Kheraj, over on Canadian History and Environment, has taken this approach even further using digital primary sources to provide students with both an article and many of the sources on which it is based, allowing them to provide an even more informed assessment of the author’s argument as well as a detailed example of how historical arguments are put together. This to me seems, when the sources are available and accessible, to provide a great solution to the problem of whether to expose students to historical scholarship or primary sources. Has anyone else experimented with these kinds of lesson plans or sources? I would love to hear about your experiences.

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3 Responses to “How do we teach undergraduates to write history papers?”

  1. JoVE Says:

    I am a sociologist and have done similar things in my courses. In fact, my former colleagues were not keen on textbooks either so we gave even first year students journal articles as reading, sometimes on difficult subjects like postmodern approaches to the city. We also found that they rose to the challenge.

    I also made it clear to them from the beginning that I considered them novice sociologists. That what we expected in essays was a beginner version of what we do ourselves in journal articles. I think this is important because many students come in thinking that we are looking to see if they understand the “right” answer, have their facts straight etc. They don’t notice the thing about argument unless you point it out and show them how to do it. But once they know what the goal is, they are indeed capable of doing that kind of writing.

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  3. Justin Bengry Says:

    I’m really excited to see this post, Jean, and to see what strategies people use to get students involved and develop their writing skills.

    You bring up a great point though: what balance do we try to achieve between teaching students primary and secondary sources?

    My experience is that they engage with primary sources more easily, and are more comfortable thinking about authors’ positions, values, ideas and arguments. And because we, as historians, value our sources so highly, we try to expose students to primary documents, sometimes to the exclusion of rigorous secondary sources.

    But that’s what students need: to be exposed to the real work of historians, the secondary text. They need to be exposed to examples of thesis development, argument substantiation, and good writing. I think the exercises you identify–secondary readings and short assignments based on them–are a great way to expose students regularly to these sources/issues at an accessible level.

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