Monographs in the Survey: Strategies for Writing Across the Curriculum

fountain-penI am fortunate that in graduate school, I had quite a bit of guidance in writing across the curriculum pedagogy. I have since taught approximately a dozen designated writing-intensive courses. Most history courses are writing-intensive by default, and many history faculty do find themselves teaching writing and research techniques. Here, I am focusing primarily on the strategies I use in survey courses, with a short list of monographs that I have found work well for this purpose.

The writing-intensive courses I have taught have all been capped by design, with the number and length of writing assignments increased over a standard survey. Part of my strategy entails teaching students what good writing is, and that means getting them to think critically about writing and the writing process. And that typically starts with some exercises to get them to recognize bad writing. In the past, I have provided students with a short essay called “How To Say Nothing in 500 Words,” along with a grading rubric, and tell them to read and grade it. The essay is from the 1950s, and a bit dated, so you may need to tailor it a bit. I also like to add a few footnotes, because the astute student will flag an essay lacking in citations as potential plagiarism. If you want to keep your more advanced students who show up in surveys later in their degree program from being bored, you can throw in some mis-formatted footnotes and/or typos, to give them practice at spotting what may be less obvious errors. You can use this exercise as a basis for a discussion with good, versus bad writing. Hearing these things from their peers can go a long way towards getting the less enthusiastic writing student to understand that this stuff actually matters.

The Ben Franklin’s World/OIEHC Doing History series has a pair of podcasts that can also be helpful for getting students to think of writing as a process, rather than something to be suffered through for a grade. Making the process more transparent, and also showing them that even scholars have to think about their writing can help those who want to improve, but who are overwhelmed and don’t really know where to start. (Or, are understandably frustrated by varying expectations across disciplines.) Of particularly use here are the John Demos “How Historians Write History;” Michael McDonnell, “The History of Writing,” and Zara Anishanslin, “How Historians Read Historical Sources.” Overall, the use of podcasts like Ben Franklin’s World has been well-received by students, because it offers transparency to what is often a private, individual process.

As part of this strategy, I also want to expose my students to good, well-written, accessible short monographs. The logic is that reading good writers helps students to recognize what good writing looks like. I have found that there is nothing more effective for teaching students the difference between summarizing and analyzing (a common struggle with novice writers) than having students read books by scholars who have mastered good, accessible writing. Depending on topic, here are some books that I found work especially well for this purpose:

I ordinarily try to keep books for surveys at around 200-250 pages, but I will occasionally assign longer books and split them across multiple weeks with some relevant primary sources. Sometimes, they are primary sources that are specifically used by the historian we are reading, as a set-up to teaching the use of primary sources. My goal is to select monographs that model good, clear writing, well-researched, and are not overly complex or technical in their arguments. There are a number of other historians who are beautiful writers, whose monographs are excellent choices for the purpose of modeling good writing and use of historical evidence for students in advanced courses: Annette Gordon-Reed, Woody Holton, Joanne Freeman, Jennifer L. Morgan, Eric Foner, Alan Taylor, John Demos, and Eliga Gould, to name only a few.

My primary writing assignments in survey courses tend toward shorter primary source analyses and slightly longer exegetical pieces. For the primary analyses, they are tasked with finding their own primary source, either from an online source, or one of the university’s online databases. I go over the differences between primary and secondary sources and encourage them to make an appointment with an instructional or reference librarian if they have not had much research experience before. While I have an MLS and have worked in reference, it is important to encourage library use. The students then write a short paper that includes a short historical contextualization of the source, an explanation of the provenance (i.e. the context in which it was created), and an analysis of how they would use the source (including its weaknesses). I want to foster information literacy, as well as practice writing about sources. I encourage them to use course readings to help them formulate their context. In essence, they are learning both how to narrate history (in small chunks), and also how to be analytical.

The exegetical papers are designed to push students to think critically about the book. I typically provide them with a list of prompts they can chose to respond to, or they can come up with their own. In general, these prompts are designed to push students to think about a key historiographical debate in Early American History, as well as the historian’s use of sources. When grading these essays, I provide every student with a rubric (the one we used to evaluate “How to Say Nothing in 500 Words”), and some additional comments that give them 2-3 things to focus on for improvement in their writing. I strive to pick the writing challenges that are likely to give each student their biggest noticeable improvement, if they put in the work. When grading, it is tempting to flag all. the. things, but for students who struggle with writing, it is more likely to overwhelm them. Setting a realistic plan is more likely to result in progress.

And finally, I have also experimented with using Twitter as a tool to teach students precision. As part of their participation, I have students use Twitter’s 140 character limit, to come up with sentences that concisely describe their reactions to course topics. It is not without risk, but can both provide levity to the course, and makes them thing about sentence structure.

6 responses

  1. Wow, there are a lot of good resources that you have provided here. I, too, have enjoyed Foner’s writing and would humbly add Daniel Walker Howe and the late environmental historian, Marc Reisner, author of Cadillac Desert, as authors whose prose and techniques I will have to consciously sit down and emulate. It seems you have quite a lot of assignments involving a lot of grading and feedback for your students. I am curious, how many students do you have? Adding up my three classes at one institution and one online at another, I have…gasp…about 200 students! I dare say I could not pull off a lot of what you have suggested on a mass scale.

    • Oh, yes. Howe and Reisner are great. Bill Cronin’s bibliographical essay in the back of Changes in the Land is also terrific for modeling historiographical writing to upper-level students.

      If you’re an experienced teacher (meaning you generally, not you specifically), you can still pull off a discussion about writing in a survey course. I think working on mindset is important. You may still get some pushback (“hey, this isn’t English!”), but that’s a complaint I can deal with. (If you get someone who really raises a fuss, have them peruse the job ads in their targeted field. I’ll bet that “good written communication skills” is in almost all of them.)

      I have fewer students than you do, but I agree that this plan is overly ambitious if you have 200 students in a semester. For that many students, I would either cut down on the total number of essays, or perhaps the length of the essays. And, in writing your syllabi, definitely compare your schedules side-by-side to make sure that you’re not expecting 200 papers at once. (Though you’ve probably already thought of that!) Shorter paper assignments can be effective too, because it means students are working on communicating their ideas with precision. And that’s a skill that translates well into things like technical writing. My university is STEM-centered, so forcing them to practice writing shorter pieces is also something that ought to pay dividends in their engineering or lab courses as well. I certainly hope they wind up liking history, but as we all know, they’re probably not going to be writing too many history papers beyond college (or even our course). At the end of the day, I want to turn them into better writers in general.

      I also recommend using a rubric when you’re teaching that many students. At least in survey courses, in part because grading fatigue can become a real thing. The rubric helps keep your mind on task. And it doesn’t mean you can’t mark up a few specific examples of things to work on, or write a few lines of feedback. In fact, I find it better not to mark up every example of things they need to work on, because improvement means they need to practice recognizing errors. And you can stagger due dates too. For instance, if I have 4 monographs, and they have to write 3 exegetical papers, they have some control over their own schedule. You’ll still get a higher grading load following monographs 3 & 4, but there will be at least some students who will get their papers out of the way earlier in the semester, so they don’t have to contend with your papers on top of longer assignments.

      For advanced courses with research papers, I scaffold. I will require an abstract & bibliography, an outline, a draft, then a final paper. This holds their feet to the fire and lets me intervene with potential problems before the end of the course. They’re also thinking about the writing and research process, but the abstract and outlines are usually pretty easy to grade, and if they’ve taken their feedback on the draft to heart, the final papers aren’t bad either. The heavy lifting (grading-wise) is focused more on the draft – one assignment, rather than 4.

      • I should also add that for online teaching (which I’ve done in the past), pointing students to pre-made resources is helpful. They get thoughtful tutorials, and you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. You undoubtedly already know about The Purdue OWL, but I also really like UNC Writing Center’s handouts for helping students target specific writing problems:

        • Sounds like we do a lot of the same stuff, broadly speaking. I appreciate your thorough response! The one year I did as TA in the writing program at UCSB was very helpful and that’s when I was exposed to the Purdue OWL. Yes, I have a detailed rubric, example “A” papers, an activity where we look at example introductory paragraphs, some “free writes” to expose the students to writing that counts for participation but will not be overly scrutinized, helpful hints for writing, etc. I tell my students they will LOVE handouts by the end of the quarter/semester and they will be abundantly clear about my grading standards. I’ve gotten fewer grade complaints over the years and I think (or at least hope) that being so up front and transparent about one’s standards can stave off a lot of difficult conversations at the end of the quarter/semester. I’ve compiled my own packet of primary sources that the students use to write their five-page essays (yes, kinda traditional, but I still believe it’s important), but as I teach on the short, ten-week quarter system at Cal Poly and use a textbook, and since the overwhelming majority of my students are not history majors, I don’t do any additional books. Getting students to do the reading can be enough of a challenge and I give them a couple of reading quizzes to keep them honest, which has the added benefit of allowing some of the more shy students the opportunity to earn participation credit.

          • Absolutely. Transparency goes a long way toward reducing the frustrations of all involved, and also addressing student anxieties around writing. (And it is important, I think, to acknowledge that writing makes many students anxious.) I definitely support your inclination to build multiple means of participation into the syllabus. And another option – in larger classes, you can have students write a short paragraph response to the reading to each week. Grade them zero, check minus, check, or check plus. I correlate those marks with “no submission,” “this has nothing to do with the reading,” “solid response,” and “wow, this is really thoughtful.” Use them both as a tool for students to organize their thoughts, and to give students who are shy an opportunity to show you that they’re thoughtful and engaged, without driving yourself crazy with an unmanageable grading load in those larger courses. (Think of this as similar to the participation threads in an online course.) You can make these a smaller-stakes item on your syllabus. One of the other things I’ve found true of teaching writing is that just the act of pushing them to put their thoughts down on paper is still writing practice.

            You might also be interested in this discussion of writing pedagogy by Rhet/Comp faculty over on Chronicle:

  2. Pingback: Books in the Early U.S. Survey « The Junto


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