“Like No Other History Course I’ve Taken”: Writing Pedagogy and the Introductory History Survey

Sunday, January 5, 2014: 9:10 AM
Maryland Suite B (Marriott Wardman Park)
Christopher W. Close, Saint Joseph's University
One experience common to history teaching across institutions is the introductory survey course. Western Civ, World History, Global History, Intro to US History; whatever it is called, almost every history department offers at least one such course. For many faculty, the majority of teaching hours focus on a survey course. For most undergraduates, the survey course may be the only history course they take during their studies. Successful, thought-provoking survey courses are therefore essential tools for explaining to the wider public why history is important, and they provide fertile recruiting ground for upper level courses. These dynamics make it necessary to reevaluate the goals of survey courses, as well as the pedagogical techniques used to teach them. Based on my training in writing pedagogy as a faculty member of the Princeton Writing Program, as well as my experience teaching Saint Joseph’s University’s new thematic history survey, “Forging the Modern World,” this paper will explore the challenges and benefits of using writing pedagogy in entry-level survey courses. It will first examine how writing pedagogy can help reorient the goals of a survey course away from a narrow focus on content to a larger emphasis on critical thinking and exposing students to the historian’s craft. It will then analyze the usefulness of two specific types of writing assignments for survey courses: weekly reaction papers that ask students to response to the assigned readings, and a guided primary source research paper that replicates at a basic level the experience of archival research and trains students to ask answerable, insightful analytical questions. The paper will conclude with general reflections on how writing pedagogy can improve the experience of the survey course, turning it into an advocacy tool for the importance of historical thinking.