Teaching Content and Form Simultaneously: Lessons from History Writing Seminars

Sunday, January 5, 2014: 8:50 AM
Maryland Suite B (Marriott Wardman Park)
Sara Byala, University of Pennsylvania
Most writers are taught “to write about what they know” in order to best showcase their talents.  This advice, while largely sound, is impossible to uphold in writing classes that seek to do more than just teach writing.  This paper explores the challenges that face historians who teach disciplinary-based writing seminars – that is, writing classes centered around historical narratives or debates.  It proceeds from my experiences as an historian teaching in the Critical Writing Program at the University of Pennsylvania over the last five years.  The central problematic this paper addresses is the difficult task of teaching subject matter and writing simultaneously.  Most history courses are largely about content, while most writing courses proceed from the idea that the content is secondary to the act – and art – of writing.  Striking this balance is tricky, but crucial, particularly in courses on topics that entering fresh-people are unlikely to know much about (like, for instance, my courses on African history).  After describing the challenges that history-writing courses pose, I then present a methodology for integrating the two based upon personal experience.   I also explore the particularly strong skill set that historians bring to the task of teaching writing.  The paper ultimately seeks to argue that far from being second (or more) choice as writing teachers (to the more often-chosen scholars of English) historians are, in fact, well-positioned to teach critical writing.