Fun with Footnotes

As I mentioned last month, I’m teaching a methods seminar this semester on reformers and radicals in US history and will be spending my posts this term talking about how to bring methods discussions into the classroom. Today, let’s talk about footnotes!

So, I may have oversold myself on making footnotes fun in my methods class this fall, but I do think I came close.

One of the texts we use for this class is the Ronald Walters’ wonderful American Reformers. I love this book for the classroom. It’s incredibly approachable and well written, and it covers a lot of material really quickly without being confusing. For our purposes, then, it’s perfect. The chapters I had them read gave them all the information they need to understand the background for antebellum reform movements, freeing me from having to explain millennialism in class. There is one thing, though, that I hate about this book: it has no notes.

Like a few other books designed for the college classroom, the book has a bibliographic essay at the end instead of notes throughout. I’m sure that there are reasons for that, and I am not a publisher, but this always drives me bananas. Sometimes, I want to follow up on a point and I can’t figure out what I should read to do so. More often, though, I am frustrated that the books I want to assign in class are not modeling the kind of academic writing that I want my students to emulate. If one of the best ways to figure out how to write well is to read a lot, then this book frustrates me. For all the wonderful things it does, it doesn’t show students how to cite as they write. It relies on the work of others and beautifully synthesizes the work of many scholars, but unless you already know the material, without the notes, it is unclear what that larger scholarly conversation is.

This bothered me so much, in fact, that I thought about not assigning the book. But then I decided to try something else: to use the book’s lack of notes to talk about the importance of notes. It has become the centerpiece of an in-class exercise on footnotes.

For this activity, I select a short passage from the book (this time, it was 4-5 pages on Brook Farm that the students had not previously read) and asked them to read it to themselves after a very brief discussion in class about why, when, and how to footnote. I talked about footnotes as showing the scholarly conversation that is such an important part of history writing. I compared it to showing their work. And then I had them read.

As they read the note-free text, they had to mark where they thought footnotes ought to go. If they had written this themselves and were going to hand it in for this class, where would they insert their notes? Then, they were to find a partner and compare.

As expected, there was a wide range of numbers when we did the final tally. One student said that he found ten spots where there should be footnotes. Another had over fifty. (I had a little over 30 when I did it along with them.) This prompted a really great discussion about what counts as “common knowledge,” and how you might think about citing different authors within your own paragraphs. It was a good class, and ended up being a very engaging way of thinking about what could easily be a very boring and practical issue that needs to be covered in this sort of class.

I think it might even have made footnotes fun.

Based on the papers I just graded for the class, it also seems like it was effective. The majority of the students did a really nice job with their citations, so mission accomplished! Here’s hoping the lesson lasts through the end of the semester and beyond.

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