Roundtable From Basics to Books: Writing, History, and Composition Pedagogy

AHA Session 104
Friday, January 7, 2011: 2:30 PM-4:30 PM
Room 302 (Hynes Convention Center)
Matthew Bokovoy, University of Nebraska Press
Ron Haas, University of Oklahoma , Robert B. Scafe, University of Oklahoma and Phoebe S.K. Young, University of Colorado at Boulder
Catherine Cocks, freelance academic editor

Session Abstract

Historians are self-effacing about the weight of writing pedagogy in our profession, and with some reason. As Stephen Pyne pointed out in the Chronicle of Higher Education (“History Is Scholarship; It's Also Literature,” July 2009), writing is often ignored in graduate seminars, where it is seen as diverting attention from the relentless criticism of historiography. Yet perhaps this plea to adopt literary modes of “finding the means to express what we want to say” too readily casts history as the passive recipient of rhetorical techniques best stewarded elsewhere. Although the panelists agree that writing should be taught more in history education, we also think this effort will be more successful if writing is not constituted as a foreign, “literary” practice, but is understood instead as coextensive with historians’ humanistic practices of annotating, glossing, and contextualizing evidence. Writing is not only style; it is also the means of discovering what we want to say—and historians should have much to say about this generative aspect of composition.

The academic editors, history professors, and composition instructors on this panel will discuss strengthening history’s contribution to debates on scholarly writing from the composition classroom to the publishing process. Dr. Robert Scafe will trace the development of composition theory from the “process” revolution, which favored the generative aspects of the writing process, to the current fashion for rhetorical pedagogies focused on the ideological critique of academic discourse. Dr. Scafe will argue that writing pedagogy has largely abandoned practical instruction in writing as a technique of “invention,” and will show how the historian’s generative praxis of arguing about evidence might better ground critical writing than the expressive genres favored in English programs. Ron Haas, a historian teaching in the University of Oklahoma’s Expository Writing Program, is well placed to comment on this tension between historical writing and the literary bent of the composition classroom. Dr. Haas will explain how his teaching applies Howard Zinn’s argument that creativity in historical writing requires an activist’s spirit of resistance to narratives of historical momentum. University of Colorado history professor Phoebe Kropp will complete our panel by discussing her integration of writing instruction into the graduate history seminar. Whereas history teachers often see writing as extraneous to historical criticism, Dr. Kropp has used techniques like peer review and source exercises to make her students both better writers and better researchers.            Although the panel presentations focus primarily on teaching writing, we would also like to discuss the related question of the place of historical writing in the public sphere. Our chair and our commentator—an acquisitions editor for the University of Nebraska Press and a former director of publications at the School of American Research, respectively—will each bring a publisher’s perspective to our discussion about the nature and purpose of historical writing. Preliminary discussions suggest a fruitful dynamic between the editor’s belief that history is uniquely qualified to appeal to a general audience, and the writing teacher’s conviction that historical investigation is especially appropriate to the instruction of academic writing.

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