Teaching Writing the Past to Prepare Students for the Future: Writing Pedagogy, History Courses, and the Role of Undergraduate Writing Assignments

AHA Session 232
Sunday, January 5, 2014: 8:30 AM-10:30 AM
Maryland Suite B (Marriott Wardman Park)
Ariane M. Liazos, Harvard University
Anthony Grafton, Princeton University

Session Abstract

Writing is an essential component of most history courses.  From brief exam questions to senior theses, written assignments are ubiquitous in undergraduate curricula.  The purpose of writing assignments is generally twofold: to demonstrate a mastery of the subject matter of a course and to foster critical-thinking skills.  Whether by analyzing primary sources to enhance their understanding of the past or by assessing the interpretations of academic scholarship, writing assignments help students begin to do the work of historians.  Articulating a coherent argument and supporting that argument with an analysis of evidence are central aspects of writing at all levels in the profession.  Yet despite the fact that writing plays such a central role in most history courses, careful consideration of the process of writing and the expectations of writing assignments is comparatively much rarer.  This panel focuses on ways that more direct attention to writing can help improve the effectiveness of assignments.

Each of the presenters has taught courses in writing programs and history departments, and their presentations proceed from these experiences.  Liazos, based on her work as a liaison between a writing program and a history department, compares their respective approaches to assigning and framing essays and then “explores the ways that writing assignments can enhance learning outcomes in history courses.”  Byala’s presentation is based on her experiences teaching writing seminars on South African History.   After exploring “the difficult task of teaching subject matter and writing simultaneously,” she then presents “a methodology for integrating the two based upon personal experience” and ultimately argues that the discipline of history serves as an excellent model “to teach critical writing.”  Close’s paper focuses on introductory survey courses and his work teaching “Forging the Modern World.”  He argues that “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.” Finally, Allport explores the challenges of teaching extended research papers to seniors majoring in history.  He suggests that students are often not prepared to engage in the level of research and writing required, and he thus proposes a number of ways that instructors “might be able to use examples of ‘best practices’ within the profession to offer their students templates of writing excellence.”   In short, each of the four papers draws on classroom experience in order to suggest ways to enhance the efficacy of writing assignments in achieving course goals.

All of the papers incorporate audience participation.  The panelists not only explain various aspects of writing program pedagogy but also demonstrate them interactively with the aid of members of the audience.  Additionally, we will devote ample time at the end of the panel to discussion, asking for listeners to share their own approaches to incorporating writing in their courses and explaining the purposes of writing assignments to their students.

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