FAQ

1. Is this a writing course or a history course?

Both. The goal of Hist 190 is to teach the writing methods that historians value most.

2. Why should I choose to take on this labor-intensive course, for which I may feel I have not been specifically trained?

Teaching history 190 is labor-intensive, but can also provide some fulfilling opportunities that traditional history content courses usually don’t. It will allow you class time to address those frustrating writing problems that you see over and over in other classes. It will allow you to teach a relatively narrow, and fun, historical theme that may not be sufficient for a full semester as a content course. And the techniques you will need to develop for this course (breaking down assignments into pieces, building feedback and structured peer review explicitly into the syllabus) can be usefully applied on a smaller scale in your content courses with great effect. You might think of it as a Hist392W for freshmen: catch them early! Finally, History 190 forces you to think about, and discuss with students, the very nature of our discipline. We don’t often get a chance to step back and think in these terms in the classroom — at least not with eager freshman who are still considering history as a major — and it can be refreshing.

3. So, I understand that students need to be asked to tackle a variety of primary and secondary sources. Does that mean I need to assign at least one each of every genre of historical primary source, plus articles and monographs?

Students should, first, be exposed to the diversity of primary source evidence that historians use, and second, be asked to thoroughly analyze at least one primary source. The degree of “exposure” to different types of sources will vary, but some effort should be put into discussing how the genre of a primary source alters the kinds of questions we ask when we analyze it (i.e., a diary vs a memoir).

Students should be asked to grapple with serious historical secondary sources, but the genre of the texts used is up to you and may depend on your content theme for the course.

When you choose secondary source texts, you might think about two different but equally valuable goals: one, expose students to the kind of writing you want them to do in their assignments; second, expose students to the kind of work professional historians do, not because they will become professional historians, since few will, but so that as informed citizens they can think critically about — and appreciate! — the contribution of academic history to our society. It may be difficult to have the same reading meet both goals, but both goals should be met in the course.

For example, you might build the course around one particularly readable and effective (or just provocative!) monograph, the keystone genre of academic history, then also include some related articles (another professional genre, in conversation with the first), and some examples of successful student writing. A discussion of the similarities and differences between successful student work and professional, published writing, and between a monograph and articles, would be fruitful.

4. Should my syllabus for History 190 have a content theme?

Yes. Students will need some degree of historical readings to fill in their content knowledge so that they know enough to write detailed and insightful essays. History may be particularly dependent on large amounts of content knowledge, so this is one of the challenges of this course. Choosing a theme and carefully selecting readings is essential.

Ideally, students would still have some choice in what they write about, especially for a research assignment, as they will be more motivated to communicate their ideas, but at the same time a relatively narrow course theme will provide each student with sufficient knowledge to analyze a historical question in a meaningful way.

Examples of possible themes:

Food and National Identity
Everyday Life under Fascism
Gender and Violence in War
Whiteness

 

5. How important is it that my assignments match what is described in the guidelines?

The guidelines were written to reflect the most common rhetorical moves historians use, which should also reflect the most common types of assignments history majors will get in other classes. Assignments also reflect the learning goals for our history major as approved by the whole department. There is considerable flexibility in how you frame the nuances of these assignments, the order you give them, and the relative weight of each one, but your graded assignments for History 190 should be primarily aimed at meeting the agreed-upon learning goals for the history major.

Other assignments that you may decide are helpful (such as a reflection essay, blogs or journaling, digital historical tasks of various kinds, writing a job cover letter, oral presentations, or writing constructive feedback) might work best as ungraded assignments, which help students to build up to graded assignments and/or illustrate how skills used in writing history essays apply to other tasks as well.

5. Will most of the students who take Hist 190 be budding History majors?

Ideally, yes—but, for the present, no. The long range plan is to encourage every student at Queens to satisfy Pathways’ College Writing 2 (CW2) requirement with a course in the discipline he or she plans to pursue as a major. (For more information plus a current list of CW2 courses offered across campus, see the College Writing 2 website). As the college expands those offerings, however, we expect that a significant number of students will satisfy the requirement with Hist 190 even if they do not plan to become History majors. And at all times, of course, second-semester freshmen may not yet know what will be their major.

Especially at this early stage, Hist 190 can be a great way to attract new history majors.

6. Is Hist 190 also part of the requirements for the history major, and does it also fulfill any other requirement (like a ‘W’ course)?

Not at this time. It is recommended for history majors, and can count as the three-credit elective in history that every major must take in addition to other requirements. It is not designated as a W course and does not count as one of the two W courses students must take to graduate. (Accommodations have been made for students taking the course mistakenly thinking it was a W in the first year, but this is unlikely to continue.)

7. Students are asking me whether they need to take Hist 190 — how do I find out?

You can’t, but the student can by accessing DegreeWorks. Their profile there should state that they are enrolled under LASAR, PLAS (Perspectives), or Pathways general education requirements. Only Pathways students are required to take a College Writing 2 class, of which Hist 190 is one variant.

8. Should I assign a library visit?

A library visit is a great idea, and can be easily arranged by contacting the history librarian, Rolf Swensen. It is a good idea to provide the librarian with your research assignment in advance, so that person can cater their talk to what the students will be doing.

Remember that “library” work today mostly involves accessing databases, and that students who may only ever have seen electronic records for scholarly sources have difficulty distinguishing between a monograph, edited volume, source collection, reference book, journal, and article (which all look very similar as words on a screen). In addition to the standard library visit, it is recommended to show students (either in the library, or in class with your own examples), a variety of physical sources, help them find relevant information (e.g., place and date of publication), and explore the meaningful distinctions between them.

9. Should I assign a writing/grammar textbook?

There are a number of resources you might find helpful — details on a number of candidate texts are supplied here. The QC History Department web site has resources specific to writing in history that can be used as a reference text, and has the key virtues of being brief, free, and common to the department. Writing at Queens also has a number of interdisciplinary resources, such as Gordon Harvey’s “Elements of the Academic Essay” [pdf], and other texts included in the College Writing handbook available in hardcopy for distribution to students from WaQ. And there is the quite thorough Purdue OWL site for online reference.

9. If it’s not primarily a content course, what exactly are we doing during class time?

You might, for example, give an introductory lecture the first week or mini-lectures here or there, but the vast majority of class time should be spent discussing readings (both for their content and as writing models), presenting, discussing, and doing exercises on specific writing moves necessary to the next graded assignment, workshopping and revising writing assignments (including through peer review), evaluating and reflecting on completed assignments (also through exercises, at least in part), group discussions of material for assignments (such as brainstorming elements of argument, etc), and directly responding to specific student questions and problems.

10. Peer review and group work? Really?

Of course everyone hates group work, and most students prefer “real” feedback from the instructor rather than “bad” feedback from their peers. However, this attitude can encourage a view of writing as “pleasing the professor” rather than finding an internal motivation to communicate an idea effectively for a general audience. One of the things students should learn in a writing class is how to become more self-aware about their writing — how to recognize weaknesses and strengths, and then what to do to address the former and capitalize on the latter. Group work and peer review can be a first step to recognizing concrete moves and strategies that are or aren’t working, preparatory to learning to see it in your own writing. Group work is also helpful in brainstorming, and models the kind of preliminary sharing and discussion that professional scholars do as part of honing their arguments. Group work and peer review is most successful when it is explicitly structured, according to concrete goals. Some sample peer review and group exercises are available here. It is often most effective to model an activity or skill together as a class, then ask students to do it in groups, evaluate the results of group work, and then later ask students to replicate the same skill themselves.

11. The ungraded exercises you’re talking about sound kind of childish…

Exercises work best when they build up toward graded assignments. Since this is a writing class, as a rule of thumb students should write for every class day, ideally something at home, and something in class. Short writing exercises allow you to break down, and give feedback on, smaller portions of formal assignments, so students can identify the different steps involved and practice them more. Doing a preparatory exercise in class, sharing and discussing the results in class, then sending students home to do it on their own will result in higher quality work than just sending them home with an assignment. Brief in-class writing can also be an effective way of eliciting more participation — it is often easier to think through an answer on paper and then read it, than to think on your feet. It does take more time, but that’s why this is a primarily a writing course — to have the luxury of that time.

12. But I learned how to write without all these! Aren’t we talking down to the students, or being asked to teach lower-level material for which we weren’t trained?

The virtues of effective academic prose are not an inborn skill, though some of us were acculturated to it so gradually we didn’t notice. People who end up as professors are not typical of most students. Even for the best students, it’s really not efficient to teach a new skill, such as writing historical argument, by simply announcing a deadline and then judging the result, then repeating this process until the student figures out the skill by a combination of trial and error and osmosis. It is more effective to break down and define the component skills, and practice them with a variety of forms of lower-stakes feedback, before asking for and assessing a final product.

The reality is also that most of our current students are lifelong products of multiple-choice testing, so that as a group they have had far less exposure to critical thinking, reading, and writing than previous generations. What may have worked before will not necessarily work now.

13. How do I assess or give credit for ungraded assignments?

There are several possibilities. In-class exercises don’t necessarily need to be collected. Homework or in-class exercises that you collect may be marked Pass/Fail, or “check,” “check plus,” “check minus,” or given points out of 3 or 5, for example. These may be added up for a final participation/effort grade.

Since ideally these small assignments should be preparatory to graded assignments, it may be desirable for students to keep them so they can build on them for the next assignment. Therefore you might ask students to keep all exercises in a binder, and turn them all in together at the end of the semester, or with a final graded assignment at the end of a unit.

Alternatively, all out-of-class exercises could be done online, through Blackboard or a QWriting WordPress site, allowing students to keep an online portfolio that you can assess throughout the semester.

Drafts may be handled the same way as other preliminary exercises, or you might give the draft a small amount of credit, or you might require the last draft to be turned in with the final paper, and add an “effort/improvement” grade based on the difference between draft and final paper. Still another possibility is to require assignments to be revised one further time after they are graded, which could result in a separate small “effort” grade, or an improvement on the paper grade.

Research shows that the amount of serious revision (re-thinking) is the single greatest factor that improves writing, so your focus as you plan your assessment strategy should be on finding ways for students to revise repeatedly, with specific goals for each revision. How exactly you work this into exercises and drafts, and what kind of incentive you use to make students put effort into informal assignments, is up to you.

14. How do I handle the workload for this course?

It is heavy — it’s a lot of grading. However, there are strategies to make it manageable.

First, ungraded exercises and other preparatory assignments leading into graded assignments mean that when the time comes to do that formal assessment, student work is, or should be, much more thoughtful and polished, and plagiarism is less likely. And because part of the process is making expectations and the component parts of assignments very clear, your assessment goals should be similarly clear-cut.

Lower-stakes assignments can get feedback in a variety of ways. Exercises that are turned in can be discussed in class, or you could write a single “general comment” on the patterns of problems you see from most of the work, marking each individually only as acceptable or unacceptable. Some assignments can be self-assessed by the students, or partners can assess each other. This works best when you provide a detailed rubric, and then discuss the results in class. As research projects progress, you can require presentations and/or one-on-one conferences with you, so that students get oral feedback.

When providing individual written feedback on preliminary assignments (e.g., the draft of a paper that will subsequently be turned in for a grade), focus your comments on the top 3 issues that need to be addressed next. This limits how much you need to scan for every possible problem, is more effective for students (who, research shows, are likely to be overwhelmed by too much feedback), and focuses feedback on the ongoing process of writing more effectively, rather than on meeting a seemingly idiosyncratic standard for one assignment, or comprehensively cataloging a given student’s writing weaknesses.

Similarly, feedback on graded assignments should be limited to approximately the top 3 or so problems, and be couched in terms of what the student can do to improve on future assignments, in this course or future courses (rather than justifying “lost points” on this one assignment).

When identifying patterns of grammatical or other mechanical errors, it is both faster and more effective to identify the problems in one section of text (a paragraph, or a page), explain the problem, show how to correct it in one instance, then ask the student to correct the remaining problems that you identified, then find repeated errors in the rest of the text. So, for example, say a student turns in a 3-page paper with consistent comma splices. Circle all the splices on page 1, correct the first one and label or explain the problem with it, then ask the student to make all the remaining corrections in all 3 pages.

If you see common patterns of errors across a whole set of papers, you might collect a few examples and correct them in class, then put the students in groups or with partners to find and correct the same error(s) in their own paper.

15. How do I incorporate grammar into this course? Especially when I was never formally taught grammar, or did months of diagramming sentences that I can’t do in this class?

It is up to you how much, and how formally, you incorporate grammar instruction into your class, but there are a few considerations to keep in mind:

Students tend to tune out direct grammar instruction, so it may be more effective to address grammar in response to student problems as they occur. You might, for example, schedule time for this into the syllabus, but be flexible about what you cover and precisely when.

Direct grammar instruction usually doesn’t stick unless it’s in service of a more meaningful goal, so try to couch grammar as much as possible in terms of how it can help students to communicate their specific ideas effectively and professionally. Keep the goal of the course aimed at writing historical argument, for which correct grammar is necessary, rather than aiming at correct grammar for its own sake.

Some elements of grammar can be effectively worked into other course themes. Writing history–writing about the past–requires some complex verb forms, in order to compare one period in the past to another, or to discuss when an ongoing event starts or stops in comparison to some other event, both in the past. The difference between the literary present (which we often use when close-reading a primary source text) and the historical present (which is generally avoided in academic prose today) is also highly relevant and has implications beyond rote grammar.

The WaQ handbook on writing contains a list of the “10 sentence patterns of English” (PDF) which can be a helpful refresher/mnemonic on grammar for instructors and students alike.

16. How much should my feedback be about grammar and other writing-specific issues?

Your feedback–and grades–should certainly give attention to all writing issues, including grammar, but at the same time you should engage with the students’ ideas and assess their historical thinking (and factual accuracy) just as you would in a content course. The goal of the course is to help students communicate their ideas effectively in writing–being overly focused on writing issues alone can make the writing feel artificial. Critical reading and writing are processes that help develop as well as communicate ideas, and our feedback and assessment should reflect this.

 17. How much reading should I assign?

On the one hand, critical reading is essential to critical writing, and reading examples of effective academic history will help students see the goal they are trying to reach, while also giving them enough knowledge to say something meaningful in their own essays. So reading is an essential element of this course. On the other hand, because students must do so much writing the total reading load (in pages) will probably not be as much as it would be in a typical content course.

It may be helpful, for example, to read the introductions of several scholarly articles on a class day when you discuss the role of introductions, and discuss those readings as models of the writing skills students are working on. Then, one, some, or all of those same readings might be addressed again on a different day(s), in their entirety, both for their content and to discuss the structure and style of their arguments.

So, as you decide on readings to assign, think not only about their usefulness in providing content knowledge and examples of writing and argument, but also how you might use them to teach specific reading skills, such as identifying key elements (thesis, counter-arguments, qualifications, evidence, etc), skimming effectively, etc — allowing you to re-use the same reading to meet several goals. Focus on getting maximum mileage out of each reading.

18. How closely do I need to stick to the goals, guidelines, and suggestions on this site?

The wording on this website has been chosen carefully. As a general education course that meets CUNY-wide requirements, certain basic goals must be met, and outside assessment of syllabi and student work will occur. Guidelines and suggestions are provided here to help instructors meet those goals. If you have other successful strategies to meet the basic goals of the course, or have developed additional goals that can be met without detriment to the required goals, feel free to act accordingly, and also to contribute your ideas to this site!

19. Who do I talk to if I have questions or comments?

Currently, the department coordinator for Hist 190 and representative to the College-wide writing committee is Kate Antonova (katherine.antonova@qc.cuny.edu).

Other experienced instructors for Hist 190 include Peter Connely-Smith (peter.connelysmith@qc.cuny.edu) and Aaron Freundschuh (aaron.freundschuh@qc.cuny.edu).

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