Last month I described how portions of individual class meetings in my American Civil War Era graduate colloquium are dedicated to the art of professional writing. Students are required each week to prepare a three-page critical review of the latest readings, an exercise in relative uniform consistency that teaches graduates how to think about structuring short, concise writings. My students have come to recognize that professional reviews require a focused ability to convey thoughts and arguments in a comprehensive yet condensed fashion. As we who have gone through graduate school can attest, such exercises are not as easy as they may appear. And I have been pleased with the improvement and progress that my graduates display in their weekly writings. Part of their success stems from a weekly peer-review process, which I recommend to any instructor teaching a graduate readings course.
I dedicate three-quarters of each class meeting to engaging in the readings’ arguments and the evolution of professional historiographical thought. Within this approach, though, I take time to focus on how authors construct their phrases, assemble their prose, and build their claims. Paying attention to an author’s use of language, I argue, is crucially important to understanding a book and argument. Taking seriously that each word has meaning, that each sentence is assembled in a certain way, that each paragraph serves a distinct purpose, and that each chapter conveys a particular premise, I strive to get my graduates to think about and critique how ideas are formed, distributed, and interpreted.
We then apply these same concepts to critiquing a piece of writing from a member of the class. Thus, the final quarter of a class meeting is dedicated to a volunteer presenting her/his weekly review in an open setting in which the class converses about their peer’s use of language, their ability to summarize a reading briefly and effectively, and their depth of analysis. Just as we do with certain passages from a book or essay, the class reads each sentence of the book review, evaluating words, prose, and argument. We have found that the same challenges and successes apparent in a piece of writing seem to arise each week, suggesting that most in the class approach and execute their writings in a relatively similar manner. This recognition offers a nice teaching opportunity to have conversations about wordiness, awkward phrases, and muddied style, but also to see that everyone is engaging ideas and conveying arguments in systematic, thoughtful ways. The in-class peer review further inspires students to make a concerted effort to prepare a piece of which they are proud because their work is now made public and seen not merely by the instructor. And, in a practical sense, conversing openly about the challenges and successes of weekly writing creates a sense of shared rather than solitary experience, which is crucial to maintaining morale through the rigors of graduate school. Perhaps most important, these exercises have yielded stronger writing and higher grades—nearly by a full letter—among most students as confidence and clarity have replaced shakiness and uncertainty.
While mastery of historiographical arguments and comprehension of professional literature are absolutely essential elements of graduate readings courses, I also highly recommend dedicating time to the style of historical writing. The semester is not yet over and multiple students have already thanked me for approaching the course in this manner. Actually, I thank them for taking seriously that writing matters.