Lisa Steffen

A. Reflections on Writing in the Discipline of History

Conversation is an appropriate metaphor for History. It is what historians do: produce written work to converse with others who may or may not agree. The probing questions related to the “whys” of the past are the backbones of all historical conferences and the resulting journal articles or books. To write an historiography is to chronicle the differing academic voices. The students can certainly be given an opportunity to get oriented and “join the conversation” by offering an overview of an historiography. For example, in West. Civ., one might begin by saying: We know World War I began in the summer of 1914. We know who was involved, where and when. Why do you think the war began? Did you know that historians debate this topic?” By laying out the views/conclusions/theses of several equally respected academic historians, the students will see quickly that the professionals themselves are engaged in debate; that they make tentative suggestions to explain major events. Another way students would see this is to have them read for themselves the conclusions of two or three historians and then write up a synopsis of the differences. It’s just this kind of conversation that energizes the discipline of history and keeps it an ever-changing field.

At its best, history is taught as “knowledge as dialogic.” Certainly it is found in the upper-level classes at Dawson, the upper-level classes at university and in graduate programs. I don’t know, however, if a dialogic is sustained or encouraged as much in the Western Civ. classes, or any other introductory class. I tend to prompt students to think critically by posing questions that demand an interpretive argument for an answer. In Western Civilization we work a lot with trying to understand POV. If they first write an answer from the middle-class employers’ perspective, then they must also write another answer from the lower-class factory workers’ perspective. Then they have to consider the statement: The Industrial Revolution brought enormous benefits to English society. I do not expect many students will become professional historians.

I do not expect that all students will attend university. I do expect that all people (not just students) need to think and to write. I also believe that great thinking is produced through the actual practice of writing. It is my task to encourage analytical thinking through writing. Thus the assignments and tests should foster critical thinking as the student offers written expression of his or her ideas.

B. Informal Writing Assignments This portfolio reflects assignments for Western Civilization and a 200-level Twentieth Century course in which the focus was US History Since 1945. In both cases students were asked to write almost every class period. The nature of this writing was usually a brief reflective response to a primary source, a biography or a video excerpt. The students were given five or ten minutes to write. On a few occasions, the task required a lengthier response—maybe 20-25 minutes. While I read and commented on their work, I did not mark them in the sense of giving a grade. I simply told the students that these were part of the participation grade and that the material would also be covered on the tests. Following are four examples of informal, “writing to learn” in-class assignments. To view them in PDF format, use the link below:

Informal Writing

C. Formal Writing Assignments

Formal writing is a required element of both history courses discussed here. The analytical papers must be 750-1000 words and worth 15-20% of the final grade. These can be a review of a secondary source or involve analyzing primary sources.

This semester is the first time I have asked for rewrites–with an emphasis on rewriting in order to THINK about the content rather than rewriting to improve grammar, etc. I did this because I had not been getting the type of analysis of the sources (esp. for Western Civ.) that I would liked. This new strategy involved pairing students to evaluate one-another’s paper s in class. This first draft and editing of the other student’s paper was worth 5%. The final draft was worth 15%.

The intention was good, but I did not get the results I wanted. The students dutifully filled out the assessment sheets I provided, but for the most part they failed to grasp that this exercise was about analyzing the content rather than simply reading for grammar. The better students when paired together gained something from the experience, but the better student paired with a poor student had no benefit. Also, I could not help myself—I still read and commented on each of the rough drafts myself. This, of course, was not to have happened. The pairing and sharing was to have eliminated this. Also, I need to rewrite the requirements/standards for the first draft. I’ll have more to say about the rubrics in the section below.

The one positive that I did see was that by including a first draft students knew that I expected excellence in the final draft. The final drafts were stronger overall than I had seen in the past. That was good. I did, however, find myself constantly reminding students that the rewrites were for improved thinking and analysis, not grammar. This was a foreign idea to most of them.

Here I want to make a comment about the 400-level history class I taught this semester. The whole goal of the class is to produce a history research paper. What does it mean to write a successful research paper? Hmmm. In CEGEP and undergraduate History, we expect students to create a paper that argues a certain position; to produce a paper that analyzes certain primary source documents within the historical context in order to shed light on either the past event itself or the person writing the document; to write a paper that demonstrates clear understanding of the people, motives and outcomes of a major turning point in history. (The goal of producing “something new” is reserved for graduate students in masters or PhD programs.) I’ve found that the most “successful papers” are the ones that aim to do the first or second goal, not the third (which is the most general).

John Bean’s suggestions in Engaging Ideas resonated with me and what I’ve seen students do well here at Dawson. Just thinking about the better papers submitted for my 400-level history course, it is clear that the fantastic papers are ones that used the available secondary and primary sources to defend a position. Bean suggests that research writing needs to be connected to wondering and pondering; needs to activate curiosity; needs to focus on a problem rather than a topic area; and needs to be intellectually demanding and cognitively complex. If the first three are established, then it seems reasonable to conclude that the student will, by default, think critically and thoughtfully. Pages 204-206 lay out excellent options for producing positional/argumentative research papers on specific questions, rather than reviewing a broad topic. All of them push the student to discover information from the library (202-203) and then use that information to support their position.

One of the better papers this semester was Nathalie’s. She wanted to do something on the American Colonies in the Atlantic World. While another student chose to keep a general topic “causes for the American Revolution,” Nathalie chose to write on the effect newspapers had in generating a new sense of “American identity.” What focused her question even more was looking at how advertisements in the early newspapers reflected an intercontinental trade that echoed what historians such as Tim Breen were saying about an American consumer revolution–an economic interpretation of why patriots would want to break away from Britain. Of course, it also addressed the history of ideas in what people were reading, or being read to, at the local pubs. Because she focused on an argument “newspapers were instrumental in creating a new American identity,” and used her sources to defend this thesis, she wrote a successful paper. She also was surprised by how excited she was about newspapers in the end: “who would think it could be so interesting?” Likewise, the student who wrote about the topic “chocolate in the Atlantic world,” was not nearly as successful as the student who wrote about “the cacao bean as Aztec currency and its role in negotiating the contact between Cortez and Montezuma.” Start with the question the student asks. It’s key to a successful paper.

Reading Bean’s chapter “Engagement and Inquiry in Research Papers” with its emphasis on the importance of posing the question made me aware that I really need to spend more time on this with the students. I’m pondering what he says about writing the prospectus, and it seems much more worthwhile than the research proposal that is required now (state your thesis and write an outline of the paper–almost impossible for a student to do in the fourth week of class).

Below is an example of a Possible Formal Writing Assignment that tried to incorporate Bean’s idea that the best papers come from asking students to respond to a specific argument. There follow two examples of the assignments I used this semester, Winter 2010, for Western Civilization and US History.

. Formal Assignment

D. Evaluation Techniques and Rubrics

For the first time this semester at Dawson, I used rubrics to assess the analytical papers in both the Western Civ. And US History classes. I modeled the rubric on those that my colleague Jocelyn Parr uses. Using rubrics was not an unqualified success. I met with Ian Mackenzie to discuss why. We went over how the rubric was constructed and implemented. Both aspects need improvement.

First, the rubric the student used to assess the rough draft was not clearly identifying the goals I wanted the students to reach. Instead of asking the students for a tentative thesis and supporting evidence for it, I simply wanted to see if the students understood the content of the readings. If that is my goal, then I need to add an additional step in the writing process: Step 1—simply show me you understand the material. Step 2—the rough draft: present a thesis and support it with evidence. Step 3—rewrite the rough draft into a polished final paper. The rubrics checked for Step 1, not Step 2.

Second, if I am going to use a rubric effectively, then I should scale back my written comments throughout the paper. Ian noted how much I wrote on each person’s paper in addition to the summary comments on the rubric itself. At both the rough draft and final draft stage I was writing comments on how the student could improve the writing and analysis. The comments at the rough draft stage, in theory, should be addressed by the pairing and sharing in class, and the comments after the final draft is submitted should not be offering advice for improvement. At that stage such advice is moot.

I would like to try using rubrics more effectively next semester. Happily, I teach the US History class again and so will have a chance to make immediate changes. The Western Civilization will have to wait.

  Rubric US History Assignment

E. Ideas for Fostering Good Writing and Critical Thinking

I wonder if reading all or parts of Bean’s book should be required for new (and more experienced!) teachers at Dawson. It offers an excellent introduction to the academic studies concerned with writing producing critical thinking. Practice, practice and practice. If I want the students to produce thoughtful, formal analytical papers, then I need them to be “writing-to-produce-analysis” every class. The constant exercise of writing responses to films, primary sources, or other new information should make them more comfortable with expressing their ideas in sentences on paper. Informal assignments whose main goal is to express their thoughts—without the expectation that the teacher will be marking for a “right” answer—will hopefully build confidence in writing formal essays. Asking the students to write for a particular audience may also help them build confidence in writing and thinking. If they are asked to explain something to their younger brother/sister, then they become the teacher. This position may help them to be aware of clarity of thought and writing. In a similar way, asking students to write good essay questions also hones their thinking. A good question requires mastery of thinking about the material. The student will also not be intimidated by the length of the assignment—as it is only asking her to write one sentence! Here the teacher can demonstrate the process of writing: showing several drafts of an essay question reveals that writing generates thinking and rewrites elevate both the quality of writing and thinking.

Last Modified: October 25, 2011