Thinking (and Writing) Like a Historian

Several months ago, I was online on a social media website when I noticed a colleague’s enthusiastic posting about the successfulness of an in-class activity. In preparing students to turn in their first written assignment in a freshmen English course, he elected to have them participate in a peer-review process that would also teach the fundamentals of composing a memorandum.

It was brilliant! Interested in determining how and if I could adopt J. Brendan Shaw‘s Writers Workshop method for my survey U.S. History course, I requested his assistance. Last week was my first run with this method. Rather than have the students submit their comments through memo form, I decided to have them use the same rubric as the one I would use when grading their papers. This particular rubric is a constant in all of my survey history courses since its clear expectations and easy checklist function has made it quite popular.

As we geared up to start our Writers Workshop, I made it clear we were not reading these papers as way of determining and assigning hypothetical grades. Rather, students were, to the best of their abilities, to point out glaring issues surrounding organization, conceptualization, and citation–––areas of the assignment that amounted to a little more than three-fourths of the available points. For instance, when looking at the paper’s references, students were to actually assess whether citations was indicative of wide reading and that the number that appeared was balanced rather than excessive or minimal. They would also determine if paraphrased material and direct quotes were properly introduced and utilized. In these reviews, they were to be less concerned with proofreading, though in one to two sentences they were welcome to note areas of opportunities concerning grammar.

In order to ease student anxiety as it relates both to writing and the peer-review process in general, I also chose an approach that was anonymous.  The set-up, which I completed on an earlier class day, was a fun activity that enabled students to showcase bits of their personalities through code names of their own choosing. Of course,  the class was made complete with Curly Diddly Doo, Bettle Juice, Socrates, and Mindy Kaling! I likewise selected to use code names since our class is a small one and several know each other from extracurricular activities or have formed relationships in talking before and after class or through in-class activities. Anonymity, I hoped, would lead to beneficial feedback that was both sincere and direct.

The exercise took only about 25-30 minutes. Prior to beginning, the entire class discussed difficulties to date and we all chimed in with support and suggestions. Also on a previous class day, we talked through the rubric to make sure expectations were clear, but spent some time here again addressing any questions. Next, I randomly disseminated the papers to members of the class–––at least this is the way it appeared. In many ways, it was still a largely unsystematic process, my main concern being the avoidance of assigning papers to reviewers with obvious bias towards the writers. As papers were being read, I made my way around the room, engaging several about what they were finding. At the end of the class, I pointed out these common issues, encouraging students to pay attention to these in their own work.

They revised their papers and submitted them at our next class meeting. Along with their final versions, I have also taken up this initial  draft and the rubric with the reviewer comments. Very shortly, I will begin grading the assignment and I am hoping to note progression as a result of the writing workshop and student initiative. In employing the Writers Workshop exercise in the future, I think I would like to re-insert an activity from times past, wherein the whole class discusses sample writings that are placed on a large screen. In doing so, I find that we are able to concretely discuss what interpretation of material may actually look like in text, how a poor/good conclusion may read, and so on. I especially like doing this because I have found the key to helping undergraduates to produce better history papers is not only teaching them how to understand and to interpret evidence from the past, but also instructing them on how to write this new information in a manner that is clear and defined.

At least at this stage of the process, I can say that I am pleased with the results of the in-class, peer-review writing workshop. When we discussed this method in class and later as they turned in their papers, a few of my struggling students said they found the exercise helpful. Of course, some students, including a few of my most-engaged ones, claimed no real benefit, which is entirely possible given the different strengths that peer-reviewers bring to the table.

What I was really most happy about then is that a fair number reported that reading these papers made them aware of missing elements in their own. Additionally, when I held my normal office hours on the same day as the Writers Workshop, several visited to talk about the comments they received and to gain assistance in idea development. I especially count this as a victory since far too many times I talk to students about improvement of papers after the grades are in. Finally, during my office hours, I was able to get into a really good dialogue with two incoming students. As we talked about the importance of weighing evidence and the discussions that actually make it into final works, it became easier for them to begin to understand the disciplinary nature of history.

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