Although it is hardly profound to suggest that graduate education should emphasize strong, clear, and concise writing, it sometimes appears that composition assumes a secondary position behind historiographical analysis and command of existing literature. The most difficult and most fruitful readings course that I took in graduate school had little topical relevance to my own field of study. Yet while grasping the scholarship at hand, the course also truly taught me how to shape my writing to fit the historian’s craft. The professor’s insistence that we all write with precision, punch, and pointed analysis forced me to recognize the glaring deficiencies in my own written presentations. Since then, I have modeled my own graduate colloquia with a substantial emphasis on writing. To that end, the American Civil War Era colloquium that I am offering this semester instructs on both the state of the field and on professional writing strategies. Graduate school, I inform my students, is not the place to learn how to write, but rather to hone one’s ability to offer written, professional insight.
I encourage my graduate students to read their assigned material with an eye toward a particular author’s style. While most weekly meetings are dedicated to the argumentative substance and historiographical implications of readings, we also unpack how an author constructs a work, focusing on individual words, sentences, paragraphs, and chapters, analyzing the methods by which thoughts are constructed and conveyed. Arguing that every word matters, and that there is little room in an academic text for ancillary, distracted reflections (an assumption that may come as a surprise to some), I encourage my students to reflect on how authors “write for the reader.” I use this phrase often, hoping that the students will craft their writings as structured, organized, and comprehensive—but not bloated—explications on a book’s argument and importance, recognizing the necessity of resisting departures into confusing, unfocused thoughts. “Always keep the reader in mind,” I instruct, urging students to craft narratives that assume their reader is wholly unfamiliar with the topic at hand. This is a difficult task because students, in a three-page book review, must explain a book’s argument, purpose, and implications while remaining focused but efficient, and comprehensive but not wordy.
Last week the class conducted the first of several writing exercises that compelled each student to engage in the mechanics, structure, and flow of their weekly book reviews. The week’s readings focused on civil-military relations and the problem of loyalty during the Civil War, and each student read a different book on these broad topics. Grouping students in pairs, each critiqued their partner’s work, an exercise that forced the writer to prepare a book review that could be understood comprehensively by someone else who had not read that particular book. Each critique was supposed to explain three positive aspects of the review and describe three areas for improvement. Most graduate instructors, I am sure, engage in this type of assignment, mainly because it allows graduate students to see that their individual writing struggles are almost universally shared by the entire cohort. For example, all of the students commended their colleagues’ abilities to explain a book and describe its importance. Yet, wordiness, lack of clarity, and lack of focus emerged as leading critiques among most of the class. We then discussed how to address these issues, reverting to that week’s various assigned texts to see how historians avoided, or at least countered, similar problems. Reminding my graduate students not to get too frustrated because their book reviews were first drafts, compared to professional monographs that had undergone lengthy revision, the class nonetheless appeared ready to address their writing challenges in the upcoming week. And indeed, the most recent batch of reviews has shown considerable improvement in writing. Our next meeting features one graduate student who volunteered to have the entire class critique his book review word-by-word, line-by-line. I look forward to reporting on the successes and drawbacks of this exercise in next month’s post.