I recently wrote about the “SkillBuilder” assignment I use in the survey class – which is a recurring, low-stakes 2-page primary source analysis exercise. Each time one is graded, I return it to the students with all their previous comments plus the new ones, so they can track progress throughout the semester.
I have found that I tend to repeat certain comments a lot, which suggests to me that these are particular bottlenecks or troublesome areas for beginning history students, at least in my classes. I don’t bring these up to ridicule students who make these errors, but in the spirit of sharing what introductory students find tough or unfamiliar, especially when they work with primary sources and try to draw historical interpretations from them.
Here are some of my most frequently-used comments:
Please don’t begin a paper with “Throughout history…” or “Since the dawn of time…” What follows is almost never a true statement. (By the way, once I got this one – “For as long as history dates back…” Wait, it gets worse. “For as long as history dates back, men have been superior to women…” Argh, face/palm).
Use active voice. Passive voice removes the actor(s) from the action, obscuring cause and effect. Passive voice is common or even recommended in other disciplines but in history we strive for precision and to acknowledge the human hand in history – active voice helps with both.
Footnote all quotations, and “frame” your quote with an introductory phrase or sentence to orient your reader to who’s speaking and when/where/in what circumstance. If you just drop a quote into a paragraph without telling me who it belongs to, then it’s an orphan quote. And orphans make me sad.
We don’t get to say what SHOULD have happened. We only get to say what DID happen and explain WHY. While it is tempting to make moral judgments about the past, especially when something happened that offends your sense of justice, this is not the historian’s job. We also can’t really know what should have happened – because it didn’t. So we have no real historical evidence we can use to support such a statement.
No, history does not repeat itself. It is not cyclical or inevitable. It is ALWAYS contingent. It always unfolds in particular ways and in specific historical contexts.
Align your evidence and your claim – what we WANT to say & what we CAN say using a given document/source are often two very different things. Make sure that particular claim is really supported by your evidence.
Use gender-neutral language, unless you really are talking only about men. And ships and nations are not “she” any more, that is outmoded usage.
Be consistent with verb tense. In general, past tense makes more sense in history papers.
You have to introduce something before you can refer to it. If you refer to a document or website or idea, make sure you’ve previously mentioned it.
…Another thing I talk to my students about, usually after a couple of SkillBuilders and the first exam, is what I call “Happy Ending Syndrome.” I think some students feel the end of their paper must bring things up to the present in a kind of forced Whiggism, or they just WANT things to have been different, and so I get statements like these (these are from actual student papers in previous semesters):
Re: Indian Wars
“After this battle, the Indians were allowed to live a more separate life. Although many Indians were killed, and even more were forced to give up their beliefs, cultures, and traditions; eventually, things did work out.”
Re: Women’s Suffrage (with confusing future tense)
“Eventually women will gain the right to vote because it is inevitable, as time moves forward and the world takes the next step.”
“This might have been the worst time period in the United States but we got through it and it worked out for the best.”
Re: Legalization of Segregation
“It is sad to think of how poorly blacks were treated in the South, but looking how it is now, things are much better.”
Just bringing these up in class and talking about a few of them usually nips this disease in the bud. Inoculation is a good thing.
Do your students have similar bottlenecks, or entirely different ones? What comments do you make most often on papers and exam answers? To use a 20th century anachronism, when your needle sticks in a record scratch, what do you find yourself saying?