Friday, January 17, 2014

On Teaching Writing

 We are thrilled to have a guest post today from Ariane Liazos, Preceptor and Faculty Associate at the Harvard Writing Program.  Ariane led a roundtable discussion at the AHA on the how we teach writing in undergraduate history courses. In the following post she summarizes the insightful conversation that ensued.  


At the January 2014 session of the American Historical Association (AHA), I participated in a panel on “Writing Pedagogy, History Courses, and the Role of Undergraduate Writing Assignments.”  The large audience in attendance (despite the early morning meeting time on a Sunday) attests to the interest and importance of this topic among historians.  Each of the panelists has taught courses in writing programs and history departments, and we were also fortunate to have Anthony Grafton, past president of the AHA and Henry Putman University Professor at Princeton, comment.

As we all know, 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.  Yet despite the fact that writing plays such a central role in most courses, careful consideration of the process of composition and the purpose of writing assignments is comparatively rarer. 

Our panel focused on ways that more direct attention to writing can help improve the effectiveness of assignments.  We aimed to make two major contributions: to highlight the continuing challenges instructors face and to offer a few practical suggestions to meet some of these challenges.

Various challenges included:

  • Students’ experience writing mainly short, in-class essays in high school. 
  • Students’ difficulty in transferring the skills they learn in their first-year writing courses to future history courses.
  • Students’ unfamiliarity with research skills.
  • Students’ lack of experience in reading serious non-fiction.
  • Students’ poor time-management, leading to rushed research and writing.
  • Graduate students’ lack of experience in teaching or grading writing.
  • Instructors’ lack of familiarity with the writing experiences and expectations of their students.
  • History majors that often require students to take courses with topical breadth but do not require any progressive series of skills-based courses regarding the craft of history.
  • A mismatch between student and faculty understanding of the purpose of historical writing: the former often seeking definitive, clear answers, the latter embracing complexity and ambiguity.


Some potential solutions included:

  • Using a common language to describe writing assignments to aid in the transfer of skills. If your institution requires students to take a writing course, an awareness of how your students have been taught to approach writing can help you to make your own assignments more effective. I discussed websites and other resources designed to familiarize graduate students and other instructors with what their students learn in their freshman writing seminars, focusing especially on sharing the language students have been taught to use to describe writing.
  • Teaching writing through critical reading skillsSara Byala (Senior Writing Fellow at the University of Pennsylvania) discussed how students in her history-based writing seminars first learn to be critical readers of historical writing, focusing on reading to follow the line of argument and examining sources carefully.  I noted that I often ask my students to annotate published journal articles, identifying the same elements we are focusing on in their own writing (i.e. the thesis, analysis of evidence, etc.). 
  • Incorporating brief writing exercises in class: sharing samples of model student essays to clarify expectation for students; discussing your expectations regarding arguments, evidence, analysis, etc.; incorporating short peer review exercises.
  • Using writing to make history courses about problem-solving as well as contentChristopher Close (Assistant Professor of History at St. Joseph’s University) shared how he uses a writing pedagogy to 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.  He focused on two specific types of writing assignments for survey courses: first, weekly reaction papers that ask students to read primary sources critically, thereby increasing their understanding of how historians come to their own interpretations of past events, and second, a longer paper centered on a historiographic debate, providing the opportunity to think about what constitutes a historical debate.
  • Including skills-based course(s) as part of the requirements for majorsAlan Allport (Assistant Professor of History at Syracuse University) discussed changing requirements of history majors.  He suggested that a progression of courses focused on the skills involved in producing historical scholarship would better prepare students to write seniors papers/theses.
  • Rendering explicit our processes and the inner working of our disciplineSara Byala explored how teaching history through writing has made her better able to explain to her students why history is made and understood, what its deepest contributions to knowledge are, and what it as a discipline demands and rewards.  In doing so, she concluded that not only does she help her students to become better writers, but also herself.


In short, the panelists all concurred that despite the many challenges we face, the more that we can do to be explicit about the purpose of writing assignments (for ourselves and for our students), the more we invite them to understand how writing is critical to the work of historians, professional and student alike, the more students can gain.

Dr. Ariane Liazos
Preceptor and Faculty Associate
Harvard College Writing Program



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