March 22, 2004

History Papers

Writing is unnatural. As is most of what we do, which unnaturalness is only natural.*

Timothy Burke has a nice entry on some of the problems and challenges commonly encountered in students' history essays. If you've ever graded student papers in any discipline whatsover, you'll surely recognize some of the "smaller but important stylistic errors and misfires" that Burke enumerates here, though you may use slightly different descriptors (e.g., what Burke calls endless unbroken paragraphs, I term the runaway paragraph -- as in, for pity's sake, rein it in and assert some authorial control). I suspect the choice of tenses problem is, if not peculiar to, then particularly significant for history papers.

It reminds me that writing history essays is unnatural: that is, an impressively complex art and craft that takes practice, and that requires guidelines. By extension, the teaching of the writing of history essays must be likewise unnatural (which is to say, etcetera, etcetera).


*Adam Ferguson on the state of nature:

We speak of art as distinguished from nature; but art itself is natural to man. He is in some measure the artificer of his own frame, as well as his fortune, and is destined, from the first age of his being, to invent and contrive...
...If we are asked therefore, Where is the state of nature to be found? we may answer, It is here; and it matters not whether we are understood to speak in the island of Great Britain, at the Cape of Good Hope, or the Straits of Magellan.

-- An Essay on the History of Civil Society (1767), I.i

Take that, Rousseau! (I'm only sort of joking).

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at March 22, 2004 09:07 PM
Comments
1

"Yet nature is made better by no mean
But nature makes that mean; so over that art
Which you say adds to Nature, is an art
That nature makes ...
This is an art
Which does mend nature, change it rather; but
The art itself is nature." (The Winter's Tale, 4.4)

(Sorry, couldn't resist. I love that play.)

The tense-shifting issue comes up all the time in student papers for literature classes: the convention of referring to what happens in a text as occurring in a kind of ongoing present, even though the text itself may have been written four hundred years ago, tends to throw students off. But I'm glad I'm not the only one who cringes at overlong paragraphs and semicolon misuse. I think my students are going to get a little talk about the semicolon this week, as a matter of fact.

Posted by: Amanda at March 23, 2004 01:09 AM
2

I suspect the choice of tenses problem is, if not peculiar to, then particularly significant for history papers.

I can't speak to significance, but I can tell you that the choice of tense problem afflicts student reports in the lab sciences as well. I once graded a lab report in which the student used past, present, and future tenses within the space of four sentences of the same paragraph. I wanted to give him some sort of special prize, but settled for a "C."

Posted by: Chad Orzel at March 23, 2004 09:37 AM
3

Tim, I'm envious if all you're facing are poorly conceived and executed paragraph transitions. ("at its worst, this makes me feel like Iím reading the private confessions of a schizophrenic") Alas, the more common problem I encounter is non-existent transitions from sentence to sentence. Imagine, a series of discontinuous "topic" sentences strung together one after another for two or even three pages. Trust me, it's unreadable. Talk about reading the "private confessions of a schizophrenic"!

It's a very pervasive and common problem, and immensely labor intensive to correct. I've always wished someone could explain the etiology of this trend or phenomenon. I think I'd be a more effective instructor if I understood how this problem takes hold. I often wonder if it can be understood as a cognitive development issue. But if it is, I still have no clear idea of how to address it--aside from harping like a tape loop. Or, alternatively, is it an indication of poor secondary training? Or, as Tim indirectly suggests, is it an index of a kind of systemic cultural schizophrenia?

Posted by: Chris at March 23, 2004 11:50 AM
4

I see that occasionally, Chris, but it's pretty rare. This is where I'm lucky: most Swarthmore students come in as reasonably good writers.

I think the cause of what you're talking about is both simple and profound all at once: it is that for many students, writing is something they're asked to do quite a lot of before they ever get to high school or college but in a way that rarely makes sense to them--it has a make-work character to it. Nothing happens in it that matters, so the student never really gets beyond filling up the allotted space with words.

At a deeper level still, most of the worst and even not-very-bad problems I see in writing are really not about writing: they're about the fact that the writers have never learned to play the game of persuasion in any form, verbal or written--they don't understand that's the purpose of analytic writing or class discussion or anything else. They think persuasion is something that only people who care a great deal about an issue can do or ought to do, and they don't understand the rules of the persuasive art anyway.

Posted by: Timothy Burke at March 23, 2004 12:27 PM
5

I see that occasionally, Chris, but it's pretty rare. This is where I'm lucky: most Swarthmore students come in as reasonably good writers.

I think the cause of what you're talking about is both simple and profound all at once: it is that for many students, writing is something they're asked to do quite a lot of before they ever get to high school or college but in a way that rarely makes sense to them--it has a make-work character to it. Nothing happens in it that matters, so the student never really gets beyond filling up the allotted space with words.

At a deeper level still, most of the worst and even not-very-bad problems I see in writing are really not about writing: they're about the fact that the writers have never learned to play the game of persuasion in any form, verbal or written--they don't understand that's the purpose of analytic writing or class discussion or anything else. They think persuasion is something that only people who care a great deal about an issue can do or ought to do, and they don't understand the rules of the persuasive art anyway.

Posted by: Timothy Burke at March 23, 2004 12:31 PM
6

Tim, interestingly, my Haverford students are not immune to the problem, although as a result of the self-selecting process of admission, it varries from year to year. My Temple students, where I also teach, though, are admittedly far worse off in terms of preparation than the Haverford ones.

Posted by: Chris at March 23, 2004 02:59 PM
7

I'm currently taking a lot of undergrad history courses. I guess I'm a reasonably good writer — well, make that a re-writer — but I struggle mightily with finding an appropriate focus for my work. Either the thesis I develop ends up being too narrow, or too vast, or too theory-driven and ahistorical. In other words, I have trouble finding the argument I want to make.

The root problem is that I haven't seen a lot of models of what a good undergrad paper should look like. I'm roughly familiar with monographs, scholarly articles, and other forms of academic writing. But very rarely has a professor handed out a high-quality paper (or given us an URL for one) and said, "this is an A paper. Notice how the writer focused on this aspect of X...etc, etc." Because of this, I have to do a lot of guesswork on what a good argument looks like at the undergrad level.

I'd also really like to find a book on how to build research papers that was written with history students in mind. Any suggestions?

Posted by: Haystack at March 23, 2004 05:59 PM