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How History is Made: A Student’s Guide to Reading, Writing, and Thinking in the Discipline

reading and writing essays about history tutorial

Stephanie Cole, Arlington, Texas

Kimberly Breuer, Arlington, Texas

Scott W. Palmer, Arlington, Texas

ISBN 13: 9781648160066

Publisher: Mavs Open Press

Language: English

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Reviewed by Ramon Jackson, Assistant Professor of History, Newberry College on 11/4/22

This textbook was developed for HIST 3300, a history research methods course at the University of Texas-Arlington. The course doubles as a substitute for UNIV 1101, the freshman "College Life" seminar. The authors offer useful, comprehensive... read more

Comprehensiveness rating: 4 see less

This textbook was developed for HIST 3300, a history research methods course at the University of Texas-Arlington. The course doubles as a substitute for UNIV 1101, the freshman "College Life" seminar. The authors offer useful, comprehensive chapters on thinking, researching, writing, and performing historically as well as useful supplementary sections that offer tips for student success while in college. There are also excellent appendices that discuss how to develop and utilize databases in historical research. An issue is that the textbook was developed for UTA students which means that certain information will not apply to those outside of that university system.

Content Accuracy rating: 4

How History is Made offers practical advice for undergraduate and graduate History students and continuing scholars alike. It accurately and concisely documents the evolution of the historical profession and outlines how students can utilize the training provided in History courses and programs as future professionals. The authors provide numerous examples of how race and ethnicity have shaped academic and Public History but sometimes fall short of providing readers with an understanding of how specific skills such as oral history may be more difficult to apply in Black and marginalized communities or the obstacles one may face as minorities within the profession.

Relevance/Longevity rating: 4

Substantial sections of the information offered in this textbook are timeless, specifically the sections that instruct students about how to think, research, write, and perform historically. The chapters on "Digital History" and Public History may need to be revised later due to increased participation and innovation in these fields. Instructors outside of the UTA system will need to supplement the use of this book with their own research and writing activities and versions of parts VI-VIII to provide skills, resources, and advice for future graduates that best reflect conditions on their own campuses.

Clarity rating: 4

The authors did a fine job of providing readers with an accessible, concise, and useful textbook that examines the history of the historical profession and provides useful strategies, skills, and resources for success in the field. Minor grammatical errors and occasional formatting issues obstructed the flow of specific chapters but, overall, the authors made a compelling case for the value of historical thought, research, and writing among undergraduate students and future professionals in every discipline.

Consistency rating: 4

The text is consistent and avoids jargon, slang, and other unnecessary mistakes that would distract or confuse readers. How History is Made is accessible for undergraduate and graduate students in History and other disciplines.

Modularity rating: 4

How History is Made is easy to follow and would serve as an excellent course textbook for introductory, special topics, and upper-level History courses that emphasize critical thinking, research, and writing as key learning outcomes or assign research papers or "Un-Essay" projects as final projects. This book is also useful for "College 101" or "College/University Life" courses offered to provide study skills and knowledge to freshmen and sophomores. I definitely plan to use this book to scaffold the research and writing process in my special topics and upper-level History courses. Certain sections may even be useful for providing introductory level History students with an understanding of the origins and evolution of the historical profession and/or knowledge about how professional historians utilize a variety of sources to craft arguments, interpret the past, and offer compelling and profound narratives about the relevance of our shared history to contemporary life.

Organization/Structure/Flow rating: 5

How History Is Made is organized in a logical, clear fashion.

Interface rating: 4

The pdf version of the book contains minor grammatical errors and a few charts and lists that could distract or confuse the reader.

Grammatical Errors rating: 4

See the above comment.

Cultural Relevance rating: 3

One issue with How History is Made is the authors' assertion that the historical discipline is different than "history that everyone owns." This seems to detract from their efforts to offer students from all disciplines the skills and knowledge related to "thinking historically." Additionally, there are moments where greater attention to the experiences of historians from Black and marginalized communities is warranted, specifically the sections on becoming a professional historian and the chapter on oral history. If you decide to use this book, it would be a good idea to pair it with studies and interviews featuring scholars from diverse backgrounds to challenge and complicate some of the assertions made about how history is written and performed. One size does not fit all. Practitioners of digital history may not find this book useful due to the brevity of the information provided.

I enjoyed reading this book and plan to use it as a main or supplementary text to help my students learn to think, research, write, and perform historically. I look forward to seeing if it helps them to improve as researchers and scholars.

Table of Contents

  • About the Publisher
  • About this Project
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • I. Thinking Historically
  • II. Reading Historically
  • III. Researching Historically
  • IV. Writing Historically
  • V. Performing Historically
  • VI. Skills for Success
  • VII. UTA Campus Resources
  • VIII. Degree Planning and Beyond, Advice from the UTA History Department
  • Bibliography
  • Appendix A- Database Rules and Datatypes
  • Appendix B - Working With Multiple Tables
  • Appendix C- Database Troubleshooting and Coding
  • Appendix D- Database Design and Parts of a Database
  • Appendix E- Writing Criteria/ Example Rubric
  • Image Credits
  • Accessibility Rubric
  • Errata and Versioning History

Ancillary Material

About the book.

Learn what it means to think like an historian! Units on “Thinking Historically,” “Reading Historically,” “Researching Historically,” and “Writing Historically” describe the essential skills of the discipline of history. “Performing Historically” offers advice on presenting research findings and describes some careers open to those with an academic training in history.

About the Contributors

Stephanie Cole received her PhD in History from the University of Flordia in 1994 and has taught the introduction to historical methods, as well as courses in women’s history, the history of work, history of sexuality and marriage and related topics at UT Arlington since 1996.  Her most recent publication is the co-edited volume  Texas Women: Their Histories, Their Lives  (University of Georgia Press, 2015).

Kimberly Breuer received her PhD in History from Vanderbilt University in 2004 and has been at UT Arlington since 2004. She regularly teaches the introduction to historical methods, as well as courses in the history of science and technology and Iberian history. Her research centers on the relationship between student (team-based) creation of OER content, experiential learning, and student engagement; student mapped learning pathways and self-regulated learning; interactive and game-based learning.

Scott   W.  Palmer received his PhD in History from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign in 1997. From his arrival at UT Arlington in 2016 until Fall 2022, he served as  Chair of the Department of History. He  regularly teaches courses on Russian/Soviet History, Flight Culture and the Human Experience, and History of Video Games, along with upper level offerings in the History of Technology and Science.” “ He is author  of  Dictatorship of the Air: Aviation Culture and the Fate of Modern Russia  (Cambridge University Press, 2006),  co-editor of  Science, Technology, Environment, and Medicine in Russia’s Great War and Revolution  ( Slavica , 2022), and editor of the forthcoming c ollection  Flight Culture and the Human Experience  (Texas A&M University Press, 2023).

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18 Preparing to Write: Organizing and Outlines

One of the most important—and perhaps the more difficult—parts of writing a good history research paper is deciding what to say and in what order to say it. A good outline can limit a student’s anxiety about writing a big paper as it may help break the writing process down into manageable chunk. A good outline also helps ensure that you’re approaching your argument in a logical way.

How you go about organizing your thoughts and creating an outline, however, depends a good deal on how your brain works best. Effective writers do not all use the same method. But here are few steps to follow to avoid the dreaded blank page (or monitor) and the essay that meanders and never really makes an argument (or repeats elements of the same argument unnecessarily).

Before you begin the outlining process, keep in mind that the basic form of analytical writing usually utilizes the “Rule of Three.”   Simply, there should be at least three key points/pieces of evidence in a piece of writing introduced by a strong clear thesis. As you deliberate about possible thesis statements and debate what points are major elements of your argument and which ones are minor, or supporting, pieces of evidence, keep in mind that your argument will convince your readers when it has at least three supporting points.

STRATEGIES FOR DEVELOPING AN OUTLINE:

Use the terms you found helpful for organizing notes to start your outline:.

The words or tags you used to organize your notes can help in a couple of ways. First, for the “brain dump” process described next, these terms can be the first entries. Second, these terms could form the basis of main elements of your outline. Keywords that appear most frequently in your note-taking process could translate into major elements of your outline.

“Dump” the contents of your brain:

  • Before attempting a formal outline, compile a list of all the interesting facts, ideas, concepts, individuals, and events that you’ve uncovered in your research. Keep an open mind, and don’t limit this list to just what you assumed would be the focus of your paper when you wrote your proposal. For example, what were the arguments of the secondary sources you read? What ideas or phrases came up again and again? Who were the main historical actors and what surprises did you encounter in the primary sources they produced (or were produced about them)? Can you construct a rough timeline without looking at your notes? The unofficial term for this compilation is a “brain dump,” because you are recording all the ideas that have occurred to you without regard to whether they are Big and Important Ideas or smaller, secondary points. Write down as much as you can, without worrying where it fits in the paper or even knowing for sure that it does fit in the paper.

Making sense of the results of the “brain dump”

  • Visual learners often benefit from hand-writing the terms around a physical sheet of paper, and then using a spider-web concept map. In such a concept map, once you have all the terms on the page, you draw lines between related items. The terms that have multiple lines coming to or from them are the nodal points that should serve as main elements in your outline. The items that have just one or two connections are minor explanatory points in your formal outline.
  • Natural list-makers think hierarchically (from most to least important) as a matter of course. If you’re a hierarchical thinker, you might think you already know your outline without drawing lines. But before you jump straight to a formal outline, let yourself think creatively. Try creating multiple lists, with perhaps different items and different orders for the compiled “brain dump” terms and phrases. In this process, some items will appear in multiple lists. Once you have several, think through the pros and cons of each one. Choose the best one and convert it into a formal outline.

Here is a detailed description of how to create a concept map from the University of West Florida and here you can find three examples of different types of concept maps .

Mind Maps are another form of concept mapping that uses a visual hierachy with associated information branching out from that concept.

Just as there’s not one way to organize your thoughts, there’s not a single form of an outline. Some writers do best with heavily detailed outlines, while others need only “bare bones.” Likewise, the necessity of maintaining an accurate outline is also a matter of personal preference. Some writers continually revise their outline as their thinking about their topic evolves with their writing, while others use an outline only to launch their writing and to prevent the intimidation of a blank screen, then abandon it once they’ve begun writing. Still, it’s extraordinarily helpful to make a plan before you begin. Below what you’ll see are some templates that work for a few common types of arguments. You may find one that works for you, perhaps with a bit of adapting.

Option 1: Chronological

Many history essays have a natural chronological focus. Arguments that seek to explain what happened at a place and time, or demonstrate what led up to an event, as well as essays that focus on an individual’s importance, can be organized chronologically.

  • Early phase or antecedents
  • Middle years or main event
  • Later years or impact

Option 2: Revision

If your main argument centers on suggesting a correction to a currently accepted explanation of the past—perhaps you want to establish a new periodization, or make a case for an additional influence or outcome to what historians have argued—then you might consider this sort of organization.

  • Summaries of what several historians have written
  • with three examples/supporting points

Option 3: Topical/thematic approach

When your argument does not fall into one of the above traditional formats, you’ll need to uncover the patterns within evidence, and align them into to (at least) 2-3 explanatory aspects. Research that is not following political or military events often is organizes topically. There are several variations on this format, but at its most basic, consider this format.

How History is Made: A Student’s Guide to Reading, Writing, and Thinking in the Discipline Copyright © 2022 by Stephanie Cole; Kimberly Breuer; Scott W. Palmer; and Brandon Blakeslee is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License , except where otherwise noted.

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The Writing Center • University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

What this handout is about

This handout was written with several goals in mind: to explain what historians do and how they approach the writing process, to encourage you to think about your history instructor’s expectations, and to offer some strategies to help you write effectively in history courses.

Introduction: What is history?

Easy, right? History is everything that happened in the past: dates, facts, timelines, and the names of kings, queens, generals, and villains. For many students, the word “history” conjures up images of thick textbooks, long lectures, and even longer nights spent memorizing morsels of historical knowledge.

For your instructors in the history department, however, history is a fascinating puzzle with both personal and cultural significance. The past informs our lives, ideas, and expectations. Before shrugging off this abstract notion, ask yourself another “easy” question: Why are you here at UNC-CH?

Maybe you’re at UNC because it was the best school that accepted you, or because UNC has great sports teams. In the big picture, however, you are here because of history, i.e., because of past events and developments. You are here (on the planet) because two people’s lives collided—in the past. You may be here (in North Carolina) because you or some ancestor crossed an ocean several weeks, years, decades or centuries ago. You are here (in Chapel Hill) because, two hundred years ago, some people pooled their ideas, energy, and money to dig a well, collect some books, and hire some professors. You are here (at an institution of higher education) because long ago, some German scholars laid the groundwork for what we call the “modern university.”

In other words, your presence on this campus is the result of many, many historical developments. Although we are all unique, we share parts of our identities with past peoples and cultures. The problems we face today may have puzzled—or even been created by—past people and cultures. This same past has eliminated many hurdles for us (think of the polio vaccine) and may even offer possible solutions for contemporary concerns (consider the recent revival of herbal medicines).

Finally, history is ever-changing. Question: what did Christopher Columbus do? Well, if you’re like many people, you’re thinking, “He discovered the New World.” Well, sort of. It took a while before the Spaniards realized he’d landed on an island off the coast of this New World. It took even longer for historians to figure out that the Vikings crossed the Atlantic long before Columbus. And now we know that this world wasn’t really “new”—there were civilizations here that far predated organized cultures in Europe.

So, historians study the past to figure out what happened and how specific events and cultural developments affected individuals and societies. Historians also revise earlier explanations of the past, adding new information. The more we know about the past, the better we can understand how societies have evolved to their present state, why people face certain problems, and how successfully others have addressed those problems.

As you can see, the questions of history include the immediate and personal (how did I get here?), the broad and cultural (why do universities function as they do?) and the purely factual (what exactly did Columbus find?). The answers historians offer are all more or less educated guesses about the past, based on interpretations of whatever information trickles down through the ages.

History instructors’ expectations of you

You can assume two things about your Carolina history instructors. First, they are themselves scholars of history. Second, they expect you to engage in the practice of history. In other words, they frequently want you to use information to make an educated guess about some bygone event, era, or phenomenon.

You probably know how to guess about the past. High school history exams and various nameless standardized tests often encourage students to guess. For example:

1. The hula hoop was invented in

d) none of the above

In academia, however, guessing is not enough. As they evaluate assignments, history instructors look for evidence that students:

  • know about the past, and can
  • think about the past.

Historians know about the past because they look at what relics have trickled down through the ages. These relics of past civilizations are called primary sources. For some periods and cultures (20th century America, for example), there are tons of primary sources—political documents, newspapers, teenagers’ diaries, high school year books, tax returns, tape-recorded phone conversations, etc. For other periods and cultures, however, historians have very few clues to work with; that’s one reason we know so little about the Aztecs.

Gathering these clues, however, is only part of historians’ work. They also consult other historians’ ideas. These ideas are presented in secondary sources, which include textbooks, monographs, and scholarly articles. Once they’ve studied both primary and secondary sources, historians think. Ideally, after thinking for a while, they come up with a story to link together all these bits of information—an interpretation (read: educated guess) which answers a question about some past event or phenomenon.

Sounds pretty straightforward, right? Except when two historians using different sources come up with contradictory answers to the same question. Even worse, what if two historians ask the same question and use the same sources but come up with different answers? This happens pretty regularly and can lead to heated debates, complete with name-calling. Even today, for example, historians still can’t agree on the extent of apocalyptic panic surrounding the year 1000.

To avoid unnecessary disagreements and survive legitimate debates, good historians explain why their question is important, exactly what sources they found, and how they analyzed those sources to reach a particular interpretation. In other words, they prove that both their approach and answers are valid and significant. This is why historical texts have so many footnotes. It’s also why history instructors put so much emphasis on how you write your paper. In order to evaluate the quality of your answer to a historical question, they need to know not only the “facts,” but also:

  • why your question is significant
  • where you got your facts
  • how you engaged and organized those facts to make your point

To sum up: most UNC history instructors will expect you to both know information and interpret it to answer a question about the past. Your hard-won ability to name all the governors of Idaho in chronological order will mean little unless you can show why and how that chronology is significant.

Typical writing assignments

(For general tips, see our handout on understanding assignments .)

A typical Carolina history course includes several kinds of writing assignments:

  • Research papers —As the name suggests, these assignments require you to engage in full-fledged historical research. You will read sources (primary and/or secondary), think about them, and interpret them to answer some question about the past. Note: Contrary to popular fears, research papers are not the most common kind of paper assigned in college-level history courses.
  • Response papers —Much more common in survey courses, these assignments ask you to reflect on a given reading, film, or theme of the course and discuss/evaluate some aspect of it. Don’t be disillusioned, however; these are rarely intended to be free-flowing, last minute scrawls on the back of a napkin. Be prepared to address a question and support why you think that way about it.
  • Exam essays —Essay exam questions are close cousins of response papers. Assuming you’ve kept up with the course, you should have all the “facts” to answer the question, and need only (!?!) to organize them into a thoughtful interpretation of the past. For tips on this, see our handout on essay exams .
  • Book reviews —These will vary depending on the requirements of the course. All book reviews in history should explain the basic argument of the book and assess the argument’s strengths and weaknesses. Your assessment can include an evaluation of the author’s use of evidence, methodology, organization, style, etc. Was the argument convincing? If so, then explain why, and if not, explain why. Some instructors will also expect you to place the book within its historiographical context, examining the relationship between this work and others in the field. For more information, see our handout on book reviews .
  • Historiographical essays —These assignments are common in upper-level and graduate history classes. Historiographical essays focus on how scholars have interpreted certain events, not on the events themselves. Basically, these assignments are “histories of history” and require that students be able to explain the different schools of thought on a subject.

Here’s an example of a thesis statement for a historiographical essay:

The historiography of the American Revolution can be primarily seen as a shift between various Whig and Progressive interpretations. While Whig historians are concerned with political ideology and the actions of powerful people, Progressive interpretations generally examine the social causes of the Revolution.

To begin a historiographical essay, you will first read multiple works on the same topic, such as the American Revolution. As you would for a book review, you will then analyze the authors’ arguments, being sure to avoid simple summaries. You can organize your essay chronologically (in the order that the books on the topic were published) or methodologically (grouping historians with similar interpretations together).

Some questions to consider as you write a historiographical essay are: How has the historiography on this subject evolved over time? What are the different schools of thought on the topic, and how do they impact the interpretations of this subject? Why have different scholars come to different conclusions about this topic? You may find some of the information in our handout on literature reviews helpful.

The specifics of your particular assignment will obviously vary. However, if you’re not sure how to attack a writing assignment in your history course (and why else would you be reading this?), try our 8½ Step Plan.

8½ step plan

1. Recall the link between history and writing In case you missed this, history is basically an educated guess about the past.

When you write, you will most likely have to show that you know something about the past and can craft that knowledge into a thoughtful interpretation answering a specific question.

2. Read with an eye towards writing

You will have to read before you write. If the reading has been assigned, guess why your instructor chose it. Whatever you read, ask yourself:

  • How does this text relate to the themes of the lecture/discussion section/course?
  • What does this text say? What does it not say?
  • How do I react to this text? What are my questions? How could I explain it to someone else (summarize it, diagram the main points, critique the logic)?

For more on this, see also our handout on reading to write .

3. Dissect the question

Since you now (having completed step 1) anticipate having to make—and support—an educated guess, pick the question apart. Identify:

A. Opportunities to show what you know. These are requests for information and are usually pretty easy to find. Look for verbs like these:

B. Opportunities to show what you think. These are requests for interpretation. If you’re lucky, they will be just as obvious. Look for key words like these:

Requests for interpretation may not always be worded as questions.

Each of following statements asks for an educated guess:

  • Compare the effects of the French Revolution and white bread on French society.
  • Analyze what freedom meant to Cleopatra.
  • Discuss the extent to which television changed childhood in America.

Warning: Even something as straightforward as “Did peanut butter kill Elvis?” is usually a plea for both knowledge and interpretation. A simple “yes” or “no” is probably not enough; the best answers will include some information about Elvis and peanut butter, offer supporting evidence for both possible positions, and then interpret this information to justify the response.

3½. Dissect any other guidelines just as carefully

Your assignment prompt and/or any writing guidelines your instructor has provided contain valuable hints about what you must or could include in your essay.

Consider the following questions:

  • In all papers for this course, be sure to make at least one reference to lecture notes.
  • Evaluate two of the four social classes in early modern Timbuktu.

History instructors often begin an assignment with a general “blurb” about the subject, which many students skip in order to get to the “real” question. These introductory statements, however, can offer clues about the expected content and organization of your essay. Example:

The modern world has witnessed a series of changes in the realm of breadmaking. The baker’s code of earlier societies seemed no longer relevant to a culture obsessed with fiber content and caloric values. The meaning of these developments has been hotly contested by social historians such as Al White and A. Loaf. Drawing on lecture notes, class readings, and your interpretation of the film, The Yeast We Can Do , explain which European culture played the greatest role in the post-war breadmaking revolution.

Although it’s possible this instructor is merely revealing his/her own nutritional obsessions, a savvy student could glean important information from the first two sentences of this assignment. A strong answer would not only pick a culture and prove its importance to the development of breadmaking, but also:

  • summarize the relationship between this culture and the series of changes in breadmaking
  • briefly explain the irrelevance of the baker’s code
  • relate the answer to both the arguments of White and Loaf and the modern world’s obsessions

For more on this, see our handout on understanding assignments .

4. Jot down what you know and what you think This is important because it helps you develop an argument about the question.

Make two lists, one of facts and one of thoughts.

FACTS: What do you know about breadmaking, based on your sources? You should be able to trace each item in this list to a specific source (lecture, the textbook, a primary source reading, etc).

THOUGHTS: What’s the relationship between these facts? What’s your reaction to them? What conclusions might a reasonable person draw? If this is more difficult (which it should be), try:

  • Freewriting. Just write about your subject for 5-10 minutes, making no attempt to use complete sentences, prove your ideas, or otherwise sound intelligent.
  • Jotting down your facts in no particular order on a blank piece of paper, then using highlighters or colored pencils to arrange them in sets, connect related themes, link related ideas, or show a chain of developments.
  • Scissors. Write down whatever facts and ideas you can think of. Cut up the list and then play with the scraps. Group related ideas or opposing arguments or main points and supporting details.

5. Make an argument This is where many people panic, but don’t worry, you only need an argument, not necessarily an earth-shattering argument. In our example, there is no need to prove that Western civilization would have died out without bread. If you’ve been given a question, ask yourself, “How can I link elements of my two lists to address the question?” If you get stuck, try:

  • Looking back at steps 3 and 3½
  • More freewriting
  • Talking with someone
  • Letting all the information “gel” in your mind. Give your subconscious mind a chance to work. Get a snack, take a walk, etc.

If no question has been assigned, give yourself plenty of time to work on step 4. Alternately, convince yourself to spend thirty minutes on a 6-sided strategy Donald Daiker calls “cubing.” (If thirty minutes seems like a long time, remember most instructors really, really, really want to see some kind of argument.) Spend no more than five minutes writing on each of the following (just thinking doesn’t count; you have to get it down on paper):

  • Describe your subject. It’s breadmaking. Everyone eats bread. Bread can be different textures and colors and sizes…
  • Compare it. Breadmaking is like making steel because you combine raw ingredients…It’s totally different than…
  • Associate it. My grandfather made bread twice a week. Breadmaking makes me think of butter, cheese, milk, cows, the Alps. Loaf talks about Germans, and some of them live in the Alps.
  • Analyze it. White thinks that French bread is the best; Loaf doesn’t. There are different kinds of bread, different steps in the breadmaking process, different ways to make bread…
  • Apply it. You could teach a course on breadmaking. You could explain Franco-German hostilities based on their bread preferences…
  • Argue for or against it. Breadmaking is important because every culture has some kind of bread. People focus so much on food fads like smoothies, the “other white meat,” and Jell-O, but bread has kept more people alive over time…

Now, do any of these ideas seem significant? Do they tie in to some theme of your reading or course? Do you have enough information in your earlier “facts” and “thoughts” lists to PROVE any of these statements? If you’re still stumped, gather up all your lists and go talk with your instructor. The lists will prove to them you’ve actually tried to come up with an argument on your own and give the two of you something concrete to talk about. For more on this, see our handout on making an argument , handout on constructing thesis statements , and handout on asking for feedback on your writing .

6. Organize

Let’s say you’ve batted around some ideas and come up with the following argument:

Although White’s argument about the role of food fads suggests that French culture drove the modern breadmaking revolution, careful consideration of Loaf’s thesis proves that German emigres irreversibly changed traditional attitudes towards bread.

The next step is to figure out a logical way to explain and prove your argument. Remember that the best thesis statements both take a position and give readers a map to guide them through the paper. Look at the parts of your thesis and devote a section of your essay to each part. Here’s one (but not the only) way to organize an essay based on the above argument:

  • P1: Introduction: Why is breadmaking a relevant subject? Who are White and Loaf? Give thesis statement.
  • P2: What is/was the breadmaking revolution? What traditional attitudes did it change?
  • P3: How does White’s argument about food fads lead one to believe the French have dominated this revolution?
  • P4: Why is White wrong?
  • P5: What is Loaf’s thesis and how do you see it asserting the role of German emigres?
  • P6: Why does Loaf’s thesis make sense?
  • P7: Conclusion: Sum up why Loaf’s argument is stronger, explain how society has been changed the breadmaking revolution as he understands it, and tie these ideas back to your original argument.

7. Fill in the content

Fill in each section—also called a paragraph—using your lists from step 5. In addition to filling in what you know and what you think, remember to explain each section’s role in proving your argument and how each paragraph relates to those before and after it. For more help with this, see our handout on introductions , handout on conclusions , handout on transitions , and handout on paragraph development .

Ideally, this would really be steps 8, 9, and 10 (maybe even 11 and 12 for a big or important paper), but you’d never have gotten this far if you suspected there were that many steps. To maintain the illusion, let’s just call them 8a, 8b, and 8c.

8a. Check the organization This is really double-checking STEP 6. Do the parts of your paper make sense—and prove your point—in this order?

8b. Check content First, read your draft and ask yourself how each section relates to your thesis or overall argument. Have you explained this relationship? If not, would it be easier to rework the body of your paper to fit your argument or to revise your thesis to fit the existing content?

Next, reread your draft, and identify each sentence (based on its actual content): Is it “knowing” or “thinking” or both? Write one or both of those words in the margin. After doing this for each sentence in the whole paper, go back and tally up how many times you scribbled “I know” and “I think.” This next part is important:

THE “KNOWS” and “THINKS” SHOULD BALANCE EACH OTHER OUT (more or less).

This should usually be true both within specific paragraphs and in the paper as a whole. It’s fine to have 4 “knows” and 6 “thinks,” but if things are way out of balance, reread the assignment very carefully to be sure you didn’t miss something. Even if they ask for your opinion, most history instructors expect you to back it up by interpreting historical evidence or examples.

8c. Proofread for style and grammar This is also important. Even though you’re not writing for an English course, style and grammar are very important because they help you communicate ideas. For additional tips, see our handout on style and handout on proofreading .

While every assignment and course will have its unique quirks and requirements, you’re now armed with a set of basic guidelines to help you understand what your instructors expect and work through writing assignments in history. For more information, refer to the following resources or make an appointment to work with a tutor at the Writing Center.

Works consulted

We consulted these works while writing this handout. This is not a comprehensive list of resources on the handout’s topic, and we encourage you to do your own research to find additional publications. Please do not use this list as a model for the format of your own reference list, as it may not match the citation style you are using. For guidance on formatting citations, please see the UNC Libraries citation tutorial . We revise these tips periodically and welcome feedback.

Collingwood, R. G. 1989. The Written World: Reading and Writing in Social Contexts . New York: Harper Collins.

Daiker, Donald, Andrew Kerek, and Max Morenberg. 1994. The Writer’s Options: Combining to Composing , 5th ed. New York: Harper & Row.

Marius, Richard, and Melvin E. Page. 2010. A Short Guide to Writing About History , 7th ed. New York: Longman.

Smith, Hadley M. 2012. Writing in the Disciplines: A Reader for Writers , edited by Mary Lynch Kennedy and William J. Kennedy, 7th ed. New York: Pearson.

You may reproduce it for non-commercial use if you use the entire handout and attribute the source: The Writing Center, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

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The Art of History

Reading, Writing, and the Art of History

David Harlan | Nov 1, 2010

Most of the essays published in the “Art of History” series have been about writing history. But we spend a lot more time reading history than we do writing it. Moreover, the way we read shapes and forms the way we write. We are readers first and writers second.

But ways of reading come and go, like everything else in this temporal and transient world. A way of reading history that’s popular with one generation can fall out of favor with the next one. And indeed, something like that seems to be happening right now: a practiced and developed way of reading seems to be falling out of fashion, tumbling into the past. And when it goes it may take a particular way of writing and thinking about history along with it.

For us historians, reading often takes the form of listening—for the voice of a worried midwife, a runaway slave, an angry mill worker, an unknown diary writer. It was the hope of hearing these dead people speak that drew many of us to history in the first place, and it is that same hope that drives much of our reading today. The literary historian Stephen Greenblatt has put this as eloquently as anyone:

The dream of an intense, directly personal contact [with the dead] is…what drew us in the first place to the books we chose to read, the subjects we chose to study, the work we chose to pursue, the lives we chose to live…. And from this dream, at once unique and shared, flows the energy that courses through our classrooms and our books and our articles. 1

This is a remarkable statement, not least because it’s written in the first person plural. Greenblatt includes all of us (at least all of us in the humanities) when he says that listening to the dead, longing to create a conversation with them, is the great imaginative force that flows through all our classrooms, all our books and articles, everything we value, even the way we live. Indeed, this is the original incitement and primal energy that drives all our scholarly efforts—“And thus invites us,” as Descartes once put it, “to attempt what is beyond our powers and to hope for what is beyond our fate.”

But for all our longing and listening, we historians are wary of invitations like this—certainly more wary than our colleagues in other parts of the humanities. We are, after all, a rather cautious lot; we like to keep our noses close to the ground, like hunting dogs. While the anthropologists, the ethnographers, and the literary historians are busy inserting themselves into their narratives, bleeding themselves into their subjects, blurring the differences between present and past, we insist on drawing a bright line between them. If the dead can be made to speak with the living it is only across a yawning chasm of time. This sense of a fundamental division between past and present is imperative for us, a central and crucial part of what defines us as a discipline. We proceed on the assumption of an absolute distinction between past and present, a kind of primal rupture that turns the dead not into conversational partners so much as ever-elusive objects of desire. What we offer the dead is not a form of reincarnation but a kind of scriptural entombment.

All of which is to say that for us historians, writing history is first and foremost about the past and only secondarily about the present. It isn’t about us; it’s about them. What worries us about the way our colleagues throw themselves into their own narratives isn’t the fear of self-revelation (though there is that), but the fear that we will silence the dead by domesticating them, that we will force them to speak in our voices rather than their own. “I began with the desire to speak with the dead,” Greenblatt writes, with the hope “that I could re-create a conversation with them.” But at the end of the day even he has to admit that for all his careful reading, for all his concentrated listening, “all I could hear was my own voice.” 2

And yet and yet and yet… for all our levelheadedness about this matter, we may be turning our faces away from a form of reading—and a way doing history—that has served us well for a very long time now. Our colleagues in literary history seem to have thought about this issue more deeply than we social and cultural historians have. And historical novelists have thought about it even more deeply. Indeed, recovering the voices of the dead seems to have become the latter’s fixed and constant purpose, their North Star, the brightly burning beacon that guides them through all their labors—and the promise that keeps their readers reading their books. It is the voice of Edgar Watson that keeps us reading Peter Matthiesson’s Shadow Country , the voice of Grace Marks that keeps us reading Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace , the voice of Henry James that keeps us reading Colm Toibin’s The Master . Voice is primary for historical novelists; everything else follows from and is driven by the voices they hear in the sources they read. And notice: this is the only truth to which the best of them ever lays claim. As Russell Banks says of Cloudsplitter , his fictional biography of Owen Brown, son of the abolitionist John Brown, “any reader who went there for anything other than that voice and the story it told would be either disappointed or seriously misled….” 3 And there is Don DeLillo, hunched over his table in the Main Reading Room at the New York Public Library, poring over the Warren Commission Report. He isn’t looking for the facts of Lee Harvey Oswald’s often grubby life; he’s listening for his voice—“and by voice I mean not just the way he spoke to people but… the sound of his thinking.” Once he found the distinctive idiom of Oswald’s voice—his oddball rhythms and curious cadences, the routine rumble of his rambling monologues—he was convinced that he had the prose counterpart of his inner life. It’s quite a claim, but one that is absolutely central to the historical novelists’ project.

“Canst thou draw out Leviathan with an hook? Or his tongue with a cord which thou lettest down?” Maybe not, but hearken back to Stephen Greenblatt for a moment: after all those years spent circling around the textual traces left by the dead, straining to hear their voices but hearing only the noisy clamor of his own voice, Greenblatt—not unlike Bunyan’s Christian locked deep in the dungeon of Doubting Castle—is granted an epiphany, is made to realize that he himself has had the key all along, right there in his own breast: “I had dreamed of speaking with the dead,” Greenblatt writes. “The mistake was to imagine that I would hear a single voice, the voice of the other…. [But] if I wanted to hear the voice of the other, I had to hear my own voice.” He had to hear his own voice because, like Don DeLillo, he had come to realize that “the dead leave textual traces of themselves…and…those traces make themselves heard in the voices of the living.” 4

We are all readers; we all know this experience. Over the years you simply find that a voice from the past with which you have spent a great deal of time, a voice you have come to know—a particular way of speaking, thinking, grabbing hold of life that has intrigued you, a sensibility you have come to admire—has not only stayed with you but has worked its way into your own internal patterns of perception and reflection. As we read Frederick Douglass’s account of his self-wrought transformation from bondsman to freeman, as we listen to the voice that speaks to us through his formal speeches and everyday talk, through his essays and autobiographies, we gradually discover that strains of that voice, and the modes of attention and inquiry, perception and understanding that underlay, informed and shaped it, have bled into our own interior world, have become part of our own mental and emotional repertoire. If Greenblatt and DeLillo are right about this—and I think they are—it is in just this way that the dead are not only loosed from their scriptural crypts but are invited and enabled to take up new lives among the living—indeed, to literally inhabit the living.

And it was in just this way of reading and listening that we historians used to go about what was once, for many of us, the central point of it all: the long slow work of gathering our own circle of sages about us, of creating our own company of predecessors. Trying to figure out what all these assiduously acquired ancestors may or may not have in common, trying to perceive affinities and attractions between them, trying to arrange them in chronological order so we could think of ourselves as simply the latest in a long line of such figures—and trying to recognize and live up to the obligations and responsibilities such a self-chosen inheritance imposes upon us—this is what we used to talk about when we talked about “acquiring a sense of the past” and “placing ourselves in time.” This is what “doing history” used to mean for many of us.

We don’t do history that way anymore, of course; and we certainly don’t teach our students to read history that way. The rise of social history in the 1970s, and now the rise of the new cultural history, have made it seem hopelessly old-fashioned, out-of-date—“so yesterday,” as Carly Fiorina might say. It remains to be seen whether its passing will enrich or diminish the art of history, whether it will augment or deplete our meager store of disciplinary wisdom and grace. And it remains to be seen whether teaching history will continue to mean what it used to mean: encouraging and enabling each one of our students to create her or his own sense of the past, a past that is personally sustaining, socially engaging, and politically relevant.

David Harlan teaches in the history department at California State University, San Luis Obispo.

1. Stephen Greenblatt, “Presidential Address 2002: ‘Stay, Illusion’—On Receiving Messages from the Dead,” PMLA 118:3 (2003), 419, 424.

2. Stephen Greenblatt, Shakespearean Negotiations: The Circulation of Social Energy in Renaissance England (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1988), 1

3. Russell Banks “In Response to James McPherson’s reading of Cloudsplitter” in Mark C. Carnes (ed.), Novel History: Historians and Novelists Confront America’s Past (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001), 75.

4. Greenblatt, Shakespearean Negotiations , 1.

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Writing is history, the strange career of the history essay, must students write essays, the writing/thinking study, what does this mean.

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Must History Students Write History Essays?

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Lendol Calder, Robert Williams, Must History Students Write History Essays?, Journal of American History , Volume 107, Issue 4, March 2021, Pages 926–941, https://doi.org/10.1093/jahist/jaaa464

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“Since childhood, I wrote a lot of fiction, a lot of stories, but I most loved writing essays.” —Jill Lepore quoted in Maia R. Silber, “Jill Lepore: A Historian's History,” Harvard Crimson , March 6, 2014
“Undergraduate students are not interested in becoming professional historians and one should not teach undergraduates as if they were trying to learn the techniques of professional historical inquiry.” —Hayden White quoted in Ewa Domanska, “A Conversation with Hayden White,” Rethinking History , 12 (March 2008), 12–13
“For in Calormen, story-telling (whether the stories are true or made up) is a thing you're taught, just as English boys and girls are taught essay-writing. The difference is that people want to hear the stories, whereas I never heard of anyone who wanted to read the essays.” —C. S. Lewis, The Horse and His Boy , vol. V: The Chronicles of Narnia (New York, 1975), 32

The authors of this essay went to college thirty-four years apart. One of us attended a large state university in the late 1970s; the other graduated recently from a small, private liberal arts college. Despite the differences in our ages and the type of schools we attended, both of us can testify that in the college history courses we took, the gold standard for advancing and assessing our achievement was the same: the history essay. For us and our peers, studying history meant writing history essays—loads and loads of them, fall and spring. Some were hurriedly scribbled responses to blue book prompts that typically began: “Write an essay explaining/ analyzing/critiquing/defending/etc.” Others were longer, more carefully prepared compositions, or “papers” as we called them, in which we analyzed primary documents; reviewed books, articles, or films; and took positions on historical questions, supporting our views (sometimes) with evidence and “the moves that matter in academic writing,” as the subtitle of a popular composition textbook puts it. Essays were not the only game in history town, of course. We also wrote minute papers and short-answer paragraphs, annotated bibliographies, and lengthy term papers. In certain instances, large classes impelled our instructors to curtail the number and length of essay assignments. But it remains true that in both our experiences, whether in the 1970s or 2010s, whether at a state university or a liberal arts college, when the situation allowed, all of our professors, as if by a common homing instinct evolved over eons of undergraduate teaching, equated seriousness and rigor in history education with the writing of formal essays. 1

We now pose an admittedly transgressive question we want to take up in this article: Must undergraduate students actually write essays to learn historical thinking?

Essays are pieces of writing that offer the author's argument on a subject. History essays oblige students to express their point of view on a historical question or topic, setting forth in a linear manner an evidence-based argument supporting their position, making use of conventional rhetorical moves of persuasion in prose characterized by “serious purpose, dignity, logical organization, length.” As course work, history essays occupy a middle ground between the unenterprising five-paragraph theme and the lengthier and more exhaustive term-length research paper. Essay assignments vary from instructor to instructor as to length, form, and audience. But little variance exists in the status of the essay: as we discovered as undergraduates, professors consider it to be the history assessment par excellence. The reverence accorded to the essay is remarkable given the loss of faith in other elements of traditional history instruction. Lecturing is now suspect. Textbooks are widely disparaged. “Coverage” of historical material is out of favor. All for good reasons. Alone among the oldfangled rites of the history classroom the essay escapes criticism, which returns us to the foundational question: Do undergraduates really need to labor at writing essays to learn to think historically? 2

History professors seem to think so. In November 2017 the chair of a high school history department sparked a lively conversation on the American Historical Association's online member forum when he reported his surprise at learning he was the only “dinosaur” in his department still assigning essays. When the chair asked his colleagues why they had done away with essay assignments, the reply he got was that essay writing had “limited utility” for students who overwhelmingly would not be going on to college to major in history. “The history essay is dead,” one teacher informed him. Addressing fellow American Historical Association members, the chair wondered if college professors agreed. Unanimously and unequivocally, they did not. Among the thirty-five historians who responded to the department chair's query, the vote was 35:0 in favor of the proposition that long-form essay writing is crucial to learning how to think historically. “History essays are most definitely not dead,” one professor wrote. “Rather, they are the coin of the realm at the collegiate level.” Many historians echoed the plea of a professor at a Colorado university who wrote: “Please, for the love of all that is holy, require your history students to write essays, and encourage your colleagues to do the same. Nothing forces students to use historical thinking skills like … writing.” In a final post to the member forum, the high school department chair thanked the professors for their comments and registered his agreement. “The reason I have any skill at critical thinking, analysis, or argumentation,” he avowed, “is strictly [from being made to write] essays.” Then, in three words, he summarized what appears to be the party line among historians concerning the value of essay writing for developing historical thinking: “Writing is history,” the chair concluded. 3

With respect to the claim that “writing is history,” the senior author of this article confesses to be an ultraorthodox “old believer.” I earned my first stripes as a teacher while tutoring in the University of Chicago's academic writing program, the Little Red Schoolhouse—an experience that taught me, like the high school history department chair, how to think, analyze, and argue persuasively. Grateful for those lessons, when I became an assistant professor no one had to convince me that essay writing is an essential component of quality history courses. Agreeing with C. V. Wedgewood that “if history is educational … it must be an education in thinking and not merely in remembering,” the pedagogy that emerged in my early praxis was a simple application of the transitive property: if writing is thinking, and if thinking is history, then writing is history. It was a reasonable, if lightly considered, belief conforming to logic and my personal experience. 4

Students perceived another logic. Upon receiving a syllabus, they often reminded me that they had registered for a course in history, not English composition. To such complaints, I replied that essay writing is to history students what soil and sunlight are to growing plants. Bada bing! When the power of metaphor failed to impress, I clinched my case quoting the recommendation of Yale University's William Graham Sumner that every student during their time in college should be made to write up “one bit of history from the ultimate sources, in order to convince himself what history is not.” Not certain. Not objective. Not simply “what happened.” Not easy; in fact, very difficult. Yet not impossible. Over time, my belief in the importance of writing for learning history morphed, or perhaps I should say ossified, into a principle I deemed incontrovertible, into a moral commitment that only callous or foolish persons would refuse to accept. The term for that kind of belief is … dogma . 5

Two kinds of people inhabit the world, thought G. K. Chesterton; “those who accept dogma and know it, and those who accept dogma and don't know it.” I was the latter kind. If doubters and nonbelievers in essay writing existed, I never met any. “Writing is history” was an understanding shared by everyone I knew. Its plausibility was reinforced by influential pedagogical currents in the 1990s and 2000s, such as writing across the curriculum, the National Writing Project, and writing in the discipline. Today, I teach in a department where essay writing is a preferred tool for learning and assessment. My colleagues and I talk often about pedagogy. But I do not recall us ever discussing why we place so much value on the history essay. The value is simply assumed—“writing is history.” Striving to outdo them all, I have required students in the introductory course to write as much as an essay per week. 6

My belief in the dogma of essay writing was shaken only once, briefly. In the early 2000s I was collecting data on student learning in my U.S. history survey course. In a study eventually published in this journal, I measured what happened to student learning when I cut back on “coverage” of historical information to make room for “uncovering” habits of thinking used by historians when making sense of the past. To determine how the course affected students' historical sensemaking across six competencies of historical thinking, I conducted think-aloud protocols with a sample of students before and after the course, comparing the results. One discovery brought me up short: a student's terrific performance in the study did not always correlate with a high grade earned in the course. In some cases, students who were star performers in the think-aloud verbalizations, who showed high levels of competency when making sense of historical documents using problem-solving heuristics such as questioning, sourcing, and corroborating, who were impressive historical sensemakers, earned much lower grades in the course ( C 's, and in one case, an F ) than A students who showed less historical competency in the post-course think-aloud verbalizations. “What's up with that?” I wondered. 7

A student researcher helping with the project suggested an explanation. Elena (not her real name) pointed out that while my research study measured gains in historical thinking through verbalized think-aloud sessions, in the course itself I assessed historical thinking primarily by means of essay writing. “Essay writing can trip you up,” Elena observed, and the wry tone of her voice indicated she knew of what she spoke. Elena was one of the best students I have ever taught. Smart, inquisitive, and impressively well read, this brilliant student nevertheless struggled mightily to express her thoughts in writing. Elena was like many students for whom the task of writing essays feels about as easy and straightforward as being asked to remove your own appendix with a ballpoint pen. Elena earned good grades in my courses, but only because she was willing to revise, revise, revise, and because I was willing (maybe too willing) to edit her drafts for clarity and coherence.

Elena's knowing explanation for the difference between a student's performance when thinking out loud and the grade they earned in my course set me wondering. If a primary goal of my introductory history course is to learn some essential concepts and competencies of historical thinking, was it reasonable of me to measure student performance of this outcome with essays, an assessment tool that requires its own complex and distinct set of competencies—which I was not formally teaching?

No, I concluded, it was not reasonable.

But being a firm old believer, I was not about to give up on history essays. So deeply ingrained in my thinking was the “writing is history” dogma that it did not occur to me to question my faith and consider other forms of assessment. Instead, I resolved to stop outsourcing the teaching of writing to first-year composition courses and the reading/writing center of the university. Henceforward, my introductory course would demystify not only historical thinking but also the nuts and bolts of essay writing.

My intentions may have been admirable, but my historical mindfulness needed work. “Everything has a history,” we say. Yet somehow it never occurred to this historian that the undergraduate essay has a past and that my ignorance of its history mattered for decisions I faced as a teacher. Under the influence of dogma I had sleepwalked into the error of naturalizing the history essay, regarding it as something outside of time, almost thinking of it as the genuine expression of the thinking mind itself, as if intellectual activity must produce essays the way rose bushes produce flowers.

Of course, none of this is true. It may be that writing is necessary for the learning of history. But essays are merely one kind of writing. Consider a list of writing assignments suggested for English schoolboys by an eighteenth-century pedagogic text, The Scholar's Instructor . In addition to the main coursework of paraphrasing, imitating, and memorizing, pupils were also recommended to write “Colloquies, Essays, Fables, Characters, Themes, Epistles, Orations, Declarations, &c.” Somehow, out of the dozen or so rhetorical genres assigned to students three centuries ago, the essay alone survives as the benchmark for furthering and measuring student achievement in history. How did that happen? 8

Reading the work of two scholars who have tried to answer this question—Peter Womack, a professor of literature at the University of East Anglia, and the historian Adrian Jones of La Trobe University in Australia—provides effective immunization against naturalizing the essay. Everyone knows that the essay (from a common French word, essais , meaning “attempts” or “tests”) was invented by Michel de Montaigne when the wealthy magistrate retired in 1571 to the tower library of his family castle to take the measure of his own mind and try to sketch with words the self he discovered. What happened after that in terms of the literary history of the essay is well documented, but less attention has been given to the essay's pedagogical history, including how this form of literature colonized humanities classrooms across the English-speaking world. Womack's and Jones's explorations are brief, provocative, and the only accounts we have of the college essay's past, making them required reading for all who assign essays. But be warned, ye old believers. The politics surrounding the elevation of the academic essay meant that it was not intended to give voice to the voiceless, lift the humble, smash the patriarchy, or speak truth to power. Little in the story of how the essay gained its authority inspires confidence in this assignment's usefulness for advancing learning, equity, and inclusiveness among today's diverse undergraduates. 9

To begin, there is the problem of the essay's undemocratic credentials. It will not surprise historians to learn that the student essay developed as a culturally specific form of communication with an original warrant in a particular institutional context. That context, Womack finds, was the nineteenth-century social matrix promoting the amateurism of the English gentleman. Gentlemen in the late Georgian and Victorian eras were not educated to do anything in particular except be droll and astute spectators of life and the human condition. That is why Joseph Addison and Samuel Johnson, two founders and exemplars of the modern essay, named their publications the Spectator and the Rambler , respectively. The essay form promoted in these daily papers flaunted the independence of the gentleman—a man who, on the one hand, did not have to work for money or, on the other hand, did not care to submit to the disciplining protocols and heuristics of professional writers. Abjuring both a specific practical function and the accustomed conventions of literature, the essay was the perfect form to express the detached impartiality of the educated man, as opposed to the self-interested efficacy of the trained worker or professional writer. Useless in business, the professions, and academic scholarship, the essay was eminently suited for the production of genteel members of an idealized bourgeois public sphere, where social harmony was the product of a shared discourse that was elegant yet plainspoken, informal yet respectful of design, morally serious but with a twinkle in the eye, informed but not pedantic. The purpose of the essay, Womack maintains, was “to express the cultivated response of a man of taste.” 10

The essay became the “default genre” for student writing in English colleges and universities thanks to what Jones calls “the nineteenth-century shotgun wedding of the essay to the public external examination.” The essay's nonspecific general form made it ideal for college entrance examinations, which, beginning in the 1850s, were administered to applicants from a variety of schools, educational backgrounds, and qualifications for writing. As generations of British university-bound students crammed for the General Certificate of Education ( Gce ) Ordinary Level exams, thus did the writing of essays become normalized by the falsehood that essays are a kind of writing every person can do. The importance of getting ready for the Gce exams meant that British public schools widely adopted the essay, while tutors at Oxford University and Cambridge University found the weekly essay assignment useful for impressing on young scholars “the moves that matter” for conversing like gentlemen. With university backing, the essay became a factory for producing gentlemen at ease with a wide variety of subjects and capable of treating topics of the day with casual grace. The only problem, as indicated in the epigraph from C. S. Lewis that begins this article, was that once undergraduates had to write essays, their tutors had to read them. 11

Womack and Jones establish that the modern student essay is a legacy of the prestige once given to the genteel model of the educated man. Today, though, when “exhibit the good taste of an English gentleman” is not a learning outcome found on many course syllabi, the gendered class origins of the essay sit uncomfortably with a half-hearted push to universal higher education, and we wonder whether the essay is an assignment that has passed its use-by date. Womack and Jones, mindful of the genetic fallacy, hope it may be possible to democratize the essay, a possibility we will consider later. Meanwhile, their trailblazing histories expose other problems with the academic essay going well beyond its elitist origins.

Thinking about the close alignment between the college essay's original purpose and its Victorian social context, one cannot help noticing how different things are today, when a nearly complete disconnect exists between the essay and the social worlds of students and college graduates. People today grow up in a world devoid of essays, giving students no exposure to their forms and protocols. New forms of communication dominate the popular culture of the young, such as online social media, sound-bite political culture, gaming, and niche forms of mass media, further walling students off from models of the kind of elevated prose writing college teachers expect. Jones notes: “Even poetry has its pubs and slams and its section in a bookshop. Oddly, the extended essay is still the preferred sign of proficiency in an advanced-level history education, but it is the literary form least lauded, least noticed, least imitated in the media and in worlds of work beyond academe.” The essay's nullity for most people's nine-to-five lives is especially concerning. Ask a history professor “why study history?” and you will hear many answers, but one of them will likely be because the skills acquired in studying history are highly relevant to a wide variety of careers. Yet Womack and Jones point out that essay writing is a metalanguage unknown and unusable in the professions for which students go to college to prepare. This is not a recent development but followed on the heels of the essay being dragooned into service for the exam system. The young men (and, eventually, women) who sought credentials as technicians, magistrates, and teachers had to play a role—that of the genteel essayist—not even remotely connected to the careers they would take up. It was (and still is), says Womack, a concealed game of pretend. Reflecting on this mythology, Womack acknowledges that the history of the undergraduate essay reveals it to be “compromised, fraudulent, a bit ridiculous, artificial, readerless, elitist, and designed to address a public sphere which no longer exists.” In his droll telling, the bourgeois public sphere of mannered, reasoning individuals has given way to a hodgepodge of domestic and professional private spheres, such that “getting students to ‘write’ (to construct themselves as articulate subjects within an imaginary public sphere) is a futile and constraining exercise in nostalgia, as if one should teach young people the art of classical parliamentary oratory, or the table manners of Edwardian Belgravia.” 12

For Adrian Jones, the most troubling aspect of the essay assignment lies elsewhere. Jones notices a recurrent friction in every period of the essay's development, a scrimmage between those who see the essay as a heuristic for self-discovery and knowledge creation and others who want to put the essay to work as a technology for the display of knowledge and the mastery of academic forms. In the academic face-off between the essay as a means of discovery and the essay as a diagnostic tool of assessment, the mastery or assessment agenda has generally prevailed. It did so in the beginning when Montaigne's “wild” essays that broke all the rules and bore similarities to the kinds of writing people post on social media today were domesticated, methodized, and weaponized for assessment in European universities. The mastery agenda prevailed again in the mid-nineteenth century when the Addisonian essay was naturalized for British students by the exam system. And it won out again in the 1990s when writing-to-learn movements in Great Britain, Australia, and the United States foundered upon an entrenched pedagogy in higher education in place since the medieval ages: the lecturer-centric and coverage-oriented models for education. 13

But it is not always the case that the time-honored mastery agenda of higher education utterly prevails. Sometimes, Jones implies, the resolution of the conflict occurs in a dialectical fashion that, contra Georg Hegel, makes everything worse. Today, with an eye toward Montaigne, teachers frown on “wildness” in student essays. Yet instructors still take from Montaigne the hope that students will make use of their freedom to use the essay to explore the self, to express roughhewn ideas, and to create deep personal understandings. Then again, with an eye toward scholasticism, college teachers disdain the methodical stuffiness of the five-paragraph essay. Even so, they insist on reading essays that adhere to standard conventions of academic writing. In short, the centuries-old clash of conceptualizations between freedom and form in the essay often results in the expectation that student writing will display both. As Jones puts it, essay writers “must be eloquent and terse, earnest and cut-and-dried.” They are expected to be interesting but also disinterested, to express their unique selves but in the coded signs of academic practice. The key tension, he says, is between “the content and classification (mastery) agendas of higher education” and students' “capacities to respond in speech and in writing in ways that have to reconcile that disinterestedness with also having to try to be, and to become, more expressive and more interesting.” 14

It is a tough assignment. To write and think like a medieval scholastic while at the same time channeling one's inner Montaigne—how many old believers can pull it off ourselves?

Jones's clash-of-conceptualizations thesis clarifies the contradictions posed by essay assignments, oddities that go largely unnoticed by instructors even as students must, miserably, deal with them. Students think teachers' expectations for the essay are “picky,” Jones reports; also, “too reflective” with a payoff that is years beyond their reach. Jones observes that students perceive the charge to write an essay as “reckless” and “a conceit” because they are painfully aware that they do not know very much and simply are not up to the job—not only that, it will not help them obtain or hold a job. So how do they deal with the contradictions of the essay? The immediate result of the nineteenth-century elevation of the college essay was a wave of plagiarism, Womack points out. It makes sense. Since the essay asks students to pretend to be something they are not (genteel, detached, disinterested), while teachers pretend the essay is something it most certainly is not (natural, universal, nondiscriminatory), many students find the line between writing an essay and plagiarizing an essay easy to ignore. 15

Despite all the reasons they give to doubt the essay's suitability for our time, Womack and Jones cannot bring themselves to quit on the college essay assignment. Nothing better demonstrates the hold that the essay has on the imagination of academics in the humanities today than the fact that neither of these brilliant dissidents can bring themselves to admit the force of their own arguments against essays and raise the white flag. Womack concludes his article by declaring that the essay—which asserts the reality of a public sphere where disinterested parties meet to work toward truths many can agree on—is one of the few weapons humanists have in the fight against neoliberal, anti-intellectual conservatives intent on trashing everything the essay stands for. This is noble, but not persuasive. It strikes us as rather like urging passengers on the sinking Titanic to hold fast to their ornate deck chairs, when what the situation really calls for is an alternative means of preservation, such as lifeboats. 16

Jones goes a step farther. Echoing Womack's call to make the essay more democratic, and worried that giving up on the essay will only further disempower marginalized students, he pins the preservation of the essay to the abandonment of “coverage.” Anticipating the argument made elsewhere in this Textbooks and Teaching forum by Kelly King-O'Brien, Gordon Mantler, Nan Mullenneaux, and Kristen Neuschel, Jones recommends that history instructors “re-focus academic attention on the student essay as the key driver of a history education in particular, and of a humanities education in general.” The way to do this, he argues, is to adopt an “uncoverage” approach to history teaching, which is to say that instructors must abandon the impossible goal of covering all important information about the past and instead demystify historical thinking for students. In terms of historical study, “the methods behind the expertise [of the historian], not just the results of the expertise, become the explicit focus of the class.” But teachers should also “uncover” how to write essays, thus giving students access to the metalanguage academics love so much. This recommendation returns us to the question we raise in this article: If students are taught how to write essays, will essay writing help them learn to think like historians? 17

The history of the history essay raises unsettling thoughts. Does the history essay actually signify rigor, intellectual advancement, and quality history instruction? Or are history essays outdated hazing rituals that unfairly discriminate against students who come to college from less advantaged backgrounds with little prior training in this undeniably odd form of writing? David Pace had such students in mind when, addressing fellow historians in Perspectives on History , he warned that in a time of widening social inequality, “[history instructors] need to rethink some of the most basic strategies that underlie our teaching. It is no longer adequate to perpetuate a practice simply because that was the way we were taught.” Most history professors will say they learned history by writing history. Does it, though, necessarily follow that students—particularly those in introductory courses—must do the same? 18

Questioning the value of essay writing will seem absurd to old believers who think that “writing is history.” But on what basis do we think so? It is worth noting that the posts in the American Historical Association member forum discussion on writing and history were characterized by solid convictions and a lack of any evidence to support those convictions beyond personal experience. Perhaps an online discussion list is not the place to expect careful arguments in support of a position. Yet the absence of a single reference to scholarly inquiry on the question, the general tone of “everybody knows this is so,” and the dogmatic character of the professors' responses raise doubts that deserve to be turned into questions. 19

Do students who write history essays really become better historical thinkers than students who do not? Might it be possible for students to learn historical thinking without having to write traditional college essays? Or is formal essay writing as indispensable as historians seem to think it is?

Between 2017 and 2019 the stars at our college aligned so that we could put these questions to a test.

As happens so often, necessity was the mother of scholarly invention. Faculty members of the Augustana College history department were working out course offerings for the academic years 2017–2018 and 2018–2019 when it became clear that someone was going to have to teach an unusually high number of sections of the introductory U.S. history course. The senior author of this article drew the short straw. Sulking about it, I pondered what it would be like to read and give feedback on essays not to thirty students at a time, the typical class size for a section of the course, but to ninety students in a term. Reluctantly, I concluded it was an impossibility. Being an old believer in the “writing is history” creed, this was not an easy decision. But the situation compelled me to design a course that, for the first time in my career, assigned no essays. As I deleted a section of the old syllabus labeled “Why So Many Essays?” I felt guilty about letting students down. But then an idea occurred to me that held out the possibility for redemption. What if the students in some sections of the course continued to learn history from within the iron cage of essay writing, while I allowed students in other sections a more free-range exploration of the past and never asked them to write a single history essay at all? This would lighten my workload even as it created the possibility for a randomized control trial in the wild, so to speak, revealing the difference that essay writing makes for learning historical sensemaking. Thus, my problem became an opportunity.

Our research design was simple. Over a two-year period, I taught eight sections of the same course, “Rethinking U.S. History: 1877 to Present.” Students in three of the eight sections wrote the usual essays I had always required. These are “sensemaking” essays in which I provide students eight to fifteen primary historical documents of varying types relating to a topic and direct them to write an essay that makes sense of the evidence. I teach students to construct their own historical questions, look for corroborating and contextualizing connections, source documents, make evidence-based arguments, and recognize limits to what can be known. They also learn some of the ins and outs of essay writing: how to write an introduction, where to put the main point, how to write “naysayers” and alternate points of view into the text, and other rhetorical moves. In this iteration of the course, students in the three sections with essay assignments wrote five 1,500-word essays in a fourteen-week semester. Meanwhile, in the alternate world that was the other five sections of “Rethinking U.S. History: 1877 to Present,” students wrote no essays at all. They received the same instruction in questioning, connecting, sourcing, arguing, and recognizing limits to knowledge as the students in the writing sections. They completed the same in-class exercises, did the same prewriting preparations, and participated in the same small-group discussions. They listened to the same lectures, read the same texts, took the same quizzes, and worked to make sense of the same historical documents using the media of oral think-aloud sessions, Socratic questioning, arguments, formal debates, and conversation. Other than the presence or absence of essay writing, all eight sections of the course examined the same content and experienced the same methods of instruction. The only difference between the two versions of the course was that in three of the sections, students did the course work done by students in the other sections and they wrote formal essays. 20

The question we sought to answer was this: In terms of historical thinking, would the students in the writing-intensive sections outperform the students who wrote no essays?

To answer that question, we needed a valid and reliable way to measure levels of competency for historical thinking. The History Assessments of Thinking ( Hats ) developed by the Stanford History Education Group ( Sheg ) met our need well. Lendol Calder had been using Hats in class for formative assessment for several years and was familiar with how they work. The junior author of this essay, Robert Williams, had been using Sheg lessons and assessments in his clinical experiences and student teaching at the high school level, so he too was familiar with Hats . Hats are tasks that ask students to answer questions about historical sources and to explain the reasoning behind their answers in a few sentences. Each Hat assesses student ability at one or more core heuristics of historical thinking, such as the relationship between claim and evidence, or how time and place influence events, or the need to assess the reliability and the relevance of testimony. Scoring of Hats uses a three-point rubric indicating degrees of ability on the competency being measured. “Basic” means the student's answer is unsound and bears no relation to the competency. Basic answers receive zero points. “Emergent” answers earn one point and indicate that the student shows some inklings of the heuristic in question but lacks a deep understanding. “Proficient” answers receive two points to indicate that the student effectively and correctly used the associated thinking skill. Validity studies of Hats show that these assessments measure historical thinking processes better than other forms of assessment. 21

For our study, we selected five Hats that measure key aspects of historical thinking taught in Calder's introductory course: sourcing, corroboration, and contextualization. The administration of one of the Hats occurred at the beginning of each term as a pretest. The students grappled with the remaining four Hats during the exam period following the end of the course.

Our data set consisted of 665 Hats completed by 131 students in the no-writing sections, and 325 Hats completed by sixty-five students in the sections that wrote essays. Analysis of the Hat data involved using the three-level rubric to score student responses to the five Hat tasks. First, we scored student responses by ourselves. Then we came together to share notes on each Hat response, working to achieve consensus about whether a response was proficient, emergent, or basic. Neither of us knew whether the student whose Hat we were evaluating had taken the writing-intensive course or the course that had no essay writing.

This bar chart shows levels of student proficiency, in percentage, at corroboration in sections of “Rethinking U.S. History: 1877 to Present” that required essay writing and sections of the course in which students wrote no essays. To measure the extent to which students would think about what other information they might seek out to help them evaluate the reliability of a document, we used three History Assessments of Thinking (Hats) developed by the Stanford History Education Group: “Migrant Mother” (question 2), “African American Workers” (question 2), and “Japanese Internment” (question 2). We used a three-point rubric to score responses: “Basic” (zero points) indicates the answer to the question reveals no awareness of and/or ability in the competency being measured; “Emergent” (one point) describes an answer that reveals partial understanding; and “Proficient” designates an answer demonstrating full understanding. To our surprise, students in the no-writing sections outperformed those in the writing-intensive courses—32 percent in the proficient category, as compared to 24 percent. Source: “Beyond the Bubble,” n.d., Stanford History Education Group, https://sheg.stanford.edu/history-assessments.

This bar chart shows levels of student proficiency, in percentage, at corroboration in sections of “Rethinking U.S. History: 1877 to Present” that required essay writing and sections of the course in which students wrote no essays. To measure the extent to which students would think about what other information they might seek out to help them evaluate the reliability of a document, we used three History Assessments of Thinking ( Hats ) developed by the Stanford History Education Group: “Migrant Mother” (question 2), “African American Workers” (question 2), and “Japanese Internment” (question 2). We used a three-point rubric to score responses: “Basic” (zero points) indicates the answer to the question reveals no awareness of and/or ability in the competency being measured; “Emergent” (one point) describes an answer that reveals partial understanding; and “Proficient” designates an answer demonstrating full understanding. To our surprise, students in the no-writing sections outperformed those in the writing-intensive courses—32 percent in the proficient category, as compared to 24 percent. Source : “Beyond the Bubble,” n.d., Stanford History Education Group , https://sheg.stanford.edu/history-assessments .

Some of the Hat tasks assessed “corroboration,” a heuristic used by historians to improve the acceptability of knowledge claims about the past. Because primary historical evidence is never an exact, unproblematic reflection of the past, historians look for connections among the evidence, comparing and contrasting claims, perspectives, and arguments across multiple sources, seeking strong confirmation of claims already supported by some initial evidence. The Hats in our study measured to what extent students would think about what other information they might seek out to help them evaluate the reliability of a document. To our surprise, in terms of corroboration, students in the no-writing sections outperformed those in the writing-intensive courses—32 percent in the proficient category, as compared to 24 percent.

Other Hat tasks tested for “contextualization,” measuring to what extent students think to consider how the context surrounding the creation of a source of information affects its reliability as historical evidence. In terms of contextualization, once again students in the no-writing sections outperformed those in the sections that required essay writing, though the differences here were slighter than with corroboration: 41 percent to 39 percent in the proficient category.

This bar chart shows levels of student proficiency, in percentage, at contextualization in sections of “Rethinking U.S. History: 1877 to Present” that required essay writing and sections of the course in which students wrote no essays. To measure students' ability to contextualize information, we used two History Assessments of Thinking (Hats) developed by the Stanford History Education Group: “The Case of the Clock” and “Migrant Mother” (question 3). We used a three-point rubric to score responses: “Basic” (zero points) indicates the answer to the question reveals no awareness of and/or ability in the competency being measured; “Emergent” (one point) describes an answer that reveals partial understanding; and “Proficient” designates an answer demonstrating full understanding. Students in the no-writing sections outperformed those in the sections that required essay writing, though the differences here were slighter than with corroboration: 41 percent to 39 percent in the proficient category. Source: “Beyond the Bubble,” n.d., Stanford History Education Group, https://sheg.stanford.edu/history-assessments.

This bar chart shows levels of student proficiency, in percentage, at contextualization in sections of “Rethinking U.S. History: 1877 to Present” that required essay writing and sections of the course in which students wrote no essays. To measure students' ability to contextualize information, we used two History Assessments of Thinking ( Hats ) developed by the Stanford History Education Group: “The Case of the Clock” and “Migrant Mother” (question 3). We used a three-point rubric to score responses: “Basic” (zero points) indicates the answer to the question reveals no awareness of and/or ability in the competency being measured; “Emergent” (one point) describes an answer that reveals partial understanding; and “Proficient” designates an answer demonstrating full understanding. Students in the no-writing sections outperformed those in the sections that required essay writing, though the differences here were slighter than with corroboration: 41 percent to 39 percent in the proficient category. Source : “Beyond the Bubble,” n.d., Stanford History Education Group , https://sheg.stanford.edu/history-assessments .

Finally, another set of Hats gauged students' ability to source information, measuring the extent to which students think to consider who wrote or made a document, when it was made and for what purpose, and how such information might change how one interprets the source and how one might use it to make a claim about the past. Here we saw the strongest correlation in our study, this time favoring the writing-intensive sections. Thirty-eight percent of the students who wrote essays earned a rating of proficient at sourcing, as compared to 24 percent in the no-writing sections. Looking at this data more closely, we noted that the number of students rated basic was about the same for both types of courses. This suggests to us that there is a subset of students, slightly over one-third, who, for whatever reason, find the sourcing heuristic terribly hard to grasp. But there is another subset of students—we call them the B students—for whom writing essays seems to nudge them to higher levels of performance at sourcing. We noticed this interesting finding on all three of the Hats that assessed sourcing.

Our research found that history students in an introductory course who wrote five “sensemaking” history essays from primary documents proved to be no better at contextualizing information and corroborating documents than students who took the same course and wrote no essays. Indeed, at the end of the course the essay writers performed slightly worse at these competencies as measured on Hat tasks. When it came to sourcing documents, essay writing did seem to help students who already had an inkling about how to source information but had not yet mastered the heuristic. It did not appear to help other students learn how to source. These findings lead us to conclude that essay writing is no magic bullet for teaching historical thinking. The confident conviction expressed in the American Historical Association member forum that writing is indispensable for teaching historical thinking, a conviction we shared at the outset of our work, does not receive support from our study. 22

This bar chart shows levels of student proficiency, in percentage, at sourcing in sections of “Rethinking U.S. History: 1877 to Present” that required essay writing and sections of the course in which students wrote no essays. To measure students' ability to source information, we used three History Assessments of Thinking (Hats) developed by the Stanford History Education Group: “Migrant Mother” (question 1), “African American Workers” (question 1), and “Japanese Internment” (question 1). We used a three-point rubric to score responses: “Basic” (zero points) indicates the answer to the question reveals no awareness of and/or ability with the competency being measured; “Emergent” (one point) describes an answer that reveals partial understanding; and “Proficient” designates an answer demonstrating full understanding. Here we saw the strongest correlation in our study, this time favoring the writing-intensive sections. Thirty-eight percent of the students who wrote essays earned a rating of proficient at sourcing, as compared to 24 percent in the no-writing sections. Source: “Beyond the Bubble,” n.d., Stanford History Education Group, https://sheg.stanford.edu/history-assessments.

This bar chart shows levels of student proficiency, in percentage, at sourcing in sections of “Rethinking U.S. History: 1877 to Present” that required essay writing and sections of the course in which students wrote no essays. To measure students' ability to source information, we used three History Assessments of Thinking ( Hats ) developed by the Stanford History Education Group: “Migrant Mother” (question 1), “African American Workers” (question 1), and “Japanese Internment” (question 1). We used a three-point rubric to score responses: “Basic” (zero points) indicates the answer to the question reveals no awareness of and/or ability with the competency being measured; “Emergent” (one point) describes an answer that reveals partial understanding; and “Proficient” designates an answer demonstrating full understanding. Here we saw the strongest correlation in our study, this time favoring the writing-intensive sections. Thirty-eight percent of the students who wrote essays earned a rating of proficient at sourcing, as compared to 24 percent in the no-writing sections. Source : “Beyond the Bubble,” n.d., Stanford History Education Group , https://sheg.stanford.edu/history-assessments .

Our findings run counter to what most historians believe about the relationship between essay writing and learning history. Naturally, we welcome skepticism about our results. A single study of anything cannot demonstrate much conclusively. Ours, though, is the first study to date that probes the connections between essay writing and historical thinking that grounds its claims not in personal experience and observations but in systematic empirical methods. We appeal for more studies to confirm, complicate, or deny our results, and to expand the scope of inquiry.

Two questions need further reflection. First, how might we explain the surprising results of our study, which shows that essay writing can sometimes depress historical thinking? In his history of the history essay, Adrian Jones observes that throughout higher education, the teaching agenda of professors is mismatched to the learning needs of students. This leaves students stuck in their misconceptions about what essays are for, thinking the essay is a platform to go on about what one knows instead of an engine for the creation of knowledge. Meanwhile, the coverage-mad professors refuse, or do not know how, to relinquish the keys to the kingdom of knowledge. Where this is the case, it should not surprise us that students will struggle to learn historical thinking when asked to do so through the medium of an unfamiliar metalanguage. Historical thinking and the writing of essays are two different skill sets. If they overlap, they are nevertheless different. Essay writing calls for competencies that have nothing to do with historical thinking, such as framing a good introduction, knowing where to locate a thesis, and how to overcome writer's block. It calls for competencies that complement historical thinking, without being the same, such as argumentation. If, in the words of Elena, “essays can trip you up,” surely it is because they impose such a heavy cognitive load that, for many students—including first-generation college students, low-income students, and underrepresented minorities—such work actually impedes their ability to learn to think historically. 23

Essay writing can be saved, Jones proposes, if history instructors who assign essays accept responsibility for teaching students how to write them. Otherwise, the assignments are not really engines for learning but merely sieves for sorting students based on the quality of their previous education. If professors will ditch their obsession with covering content and “uncover” for students what essays really are and how to write them, Jones believes it will be possible to reimagine essays so that they are no longer “a sum for the reiteration of knowledge” but rather “a heuristic and hermeneutic” for creating knowledge. This is similar to the argument made in this forum by King-O'Brien, Mantler, Mullenneaux, and Neuschel. 24

Jones's comforting belief, however, is exactly what our study calls into question. In Calder's introductory courses, essay writing is deliberately demystified, scaffolded, warranted, and re-enchanted. Calder's course preaches, teaches, models, and assesses essays as “a hermeneutic and heuristic.” Indeed, Jones commends Calder's “signature pedagogy” for introductory history courses as a model for how to teach essay writing and historical thinking. And still we found that students who wrote essays were no better at historical thinking than students who did not. How can this be explained? 25

Our study raises the assessment problem of validity that Calder stumbled across in his original think-aloud studies. Because written compositions rely on students' ability to articulate their thoughts in formal language, essay assignments conflate understanding with fluency. But sometimes students harbor deep understandings even though they write poorly. The reverse is true, as well: sometimes students who can write well on paper are boldly saying more than they really understand. Plato, who first observed this problem, wrote Meno to demonstrate the difference between knowledge and glib certainty. “The thorniest problem” of assessment, according to Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, calls for “differentiating between the quality of an insight and the quality of how the insight is expressed.” 26

And now a second question: If essay writing is not necessary for learning historical thinking, what does our study mean for history teaching and learning? Emboldened by what we have learned, we agree with Pace that it is time to think in fresh ways about effective pedagogical methods for history courses, especially introductory ones. At the very least, we should begin a serious reexamination of the view, so evident in the American Historical Association member forum, that “[essay] writing is history.” 27

In the digital age, with new, exciting forms of media and expression exploding all around us, and with new awareness of the need for greater inclusion and fairness in higher education, we should be experimenting with all manner of ways to narrate, interpret, and analyze the past. We agree with the prediction of T. Mills Kelly: “If we find ways to turn our students loose—to give them room to create history the ways they want rather than the ways we insist on—while still maintaining our standards and remaining true to our learning goals, our students will surprise us.” And with his warning: “We should be very worried that we are losing the rising generation of students because our approach to the past seems increasingly out of sync with their heavily intermediated lives.” Our findings open the door to experimentation with new kinds of assignments, in written and other forms, and new kinds of competencies in history instruction, beginning with the “quasi-oralities of texting, posting, and social networking” identified by Jones as congruent with the original “wild essays” of Montaigne. If instructors want to make forays into the digital world when seeking to help students learn historical thinking, our study suggests they can do so with the assurance that they are not harming students' ability to learn valuable heuristics of historical thinking, and may actually be making history instruction more accessible to students for whom essay writing is an unfamiliar—and arguably arbitrary—bar to entry. 28

No one should read us as saying “The history essay is dead! (or should be).” Rather, we are urging a reexamination of the taken-for-granted history essay from top to bottom instead of the continuation of business as usual. Defenders of the essay will need to spell out and demonstrate the precise connections they posit between writing and historical thinking and suggest effective measures for teaching a literary genre that hardly exists outside of highbrow circles. And they will need to substantively engage the question: Why believe that writing an essay produces better proficiency with questioning, sourcing, and other aspects of historical thinking than making a video, writing a blog, designing a Web site, or writing historical narrative?

With history enrollments dropping, the Titanic is sinking. Why hold so tightly to deck chairs, no matter how elegant (and, dare we say, gentlemanly)?

Robert Williams thank Augustana College for support from the Student-Faculty Partnership Grant Program; and the JAH Textbooks and Teaching editors for their gracious and incisive comments, questions, and editing that improved this article.

Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein, They Say/I Say: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing (New York, 2018).

William Holman, A Handbook to Literature (New Jersey, 2003), 193. In the judgement of a team of historians assembled by the American Historical Association to survey the state of history assessment at the secondary and college levels, the essay is the history assessment par excellence: “The Dbq (document-based question) in particular has often been regarded as a gold standard in history assessment because it is an authentic assessment, meaning it assesses students' ability to complete a task that replicates the work historians actually do.” See Lendol Calder and Tracy Steffes, “Measuring College Learning in History,” in Improving Quality in American Higher Education: Learning Outcomes and Assessments for the 21st Century , ed. Richard Arum, Josipa Rokstra, and Amanda Cook (Hoboken, 2016), 72–73. Good entry points into the literature examining traditional methods of history instruction include David Pace, “The Amateur in the Operating Room: History and the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning,” American Historical Review , 109 (Oct. 2004), 1171–92; Joel Sipress and David Voelker, “The End of the History Survey Course: The Rise and Fall of the Coverage Model,” Journal of American History , 97 (March 2011), 1050–66; Bruce A. VanSledright, The Challenge of Rethinking History Education: On Practices, Theories, and Policy (New York, 2011); and Grant Wiggins, “Why Do High School History Teachers Lecture So Much?,” April 27, 2015, Teach for Thought , https://www.teachthought.com/pedagogy/why-do-high-school-teachers-lecture-so-much/ .

Nathaniel Erfurth, “On the High School History Essay,” online posting, Nov. 29, 2017, American Historical Association Member Forum discussion list, available at http://www.historians.org . Kenneth J. Orosz, “On the High School History Essay—Reply,” Nov. 30, 2017, online posting, ibid. Shelby M. Balik, “On the High School History Essay—Reply,” Dec. 1, 2017, online posting, ibid. Emphasis in original.

C. V. Wedgewood, Truth and Opinion: Historical Essays (London, 1960), 15.

William Graham Sumner, Folkways: A Study of the Sociological Importance of Usages, Manners, Customs, Mores, and Morals (Boston, 1906), 636.

G. K. Chesterton, Fancies versus Fads (New York, 1923), 101. Danna B. Kelemen and D. Dwayne Cartmell II, “Teaching Students to Write: A Review of History, Movements and Methods,” n.d., Proceedings from the 2006 Meeting of the Southern Association of Agricultural Scientists , https://agrilife.org/saas2/files/2011/02/Teaching.pdf . National Writing Project , https://www.nwp.org .

Lendol Calder, “Uncoverage: Toward a Signature Pedagogy for the History Survey,” Journal of American History , 92 (March 2006), 1358–70.

On The Scholar's Instructor and the recommended colloquies, essays, fables, characters, themes, epistles, orations, declarations, and other practices, see Ian Michael, The Teaching of English: From the Sixteenth Century to 1870 (Cambridge, Eng., 1987), 304.

On the history of the essay as a literary genre, see Milton J. Rosenberg et al., “Roundtable: The History of the Essay,” Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction , 2 (Fall 2000), 219–41; and John D'Agata, The Lost Origins of the Essay (Minneapolis, 2009).

Peter Womack, “What Are Essays For?,” English in Education , 27 (Summer 1993), 42–44.

Adrian Jones, “A History of the History Essay: Heritages, Habits, and Hindrances,” History Australia , 14 (March 2017), 127. On producing gentlemen at ease with a wide variety of subjects, see Womack, “What Are Essays For?,” 44–46.

Adrian Jones, “A (Theory and Pedagogy) Essay on the (History) Essay,” Arts and Humanities in Higher Education , 17 (April 2018), 224. Womack, “What Are Essays For?,” 47.

Jones, “History of the History Essay,” 119–23.

Ibid. , 123.

Ibid. , 120. Womack, “What Are Essays For?,” 46.

Jones, “History of the History Essay,” 47–48.

Kelly King-O'Brien et al., “Reimagining Writing in History Courses,” Journal of American History , 107 (March 2021), 942; Jones, “(Theory and Pedagogy) Essay on the (History) Essay,” 232.

David Pace, “The History Classroom in an Era of Crisis: A Change of Course Is Needed,” Perspectives on History , 55 (May 2017), 18.

American Historical Association Members Forum discussion list, available at http://www.historians.org .

For a fuller description of the design of Lendol Calder's introductory U.S. history course, see Calder, “Uncoverage,” 1363–67.

Mark Smith, Joel Breakstone, and Sam Wineburg, “History Assessments of Thinking: A Validity Study,” Cognition and Instruction , 37 (no. 1, 2019), 118–44. Over one hundred History Assessments of Thinking ( Hats ) are available at “Beyond the Bubble,” n.d., Stanford History Education Group , https://sheg.stanford.edu/history-assessments .

Jones, “(Theory and Pedagogy) Essay on the (History) Essay,” 229–30. For data on how race and social background of students predicts their grades in introductory history courses, and how a grade of D , F , or W in an introductory history course is frequently a prelude to academic disaster, see Drew Koch, “Many Thousands Failed: A Wakeup Call to History Educators,” Perspectives on History , 55 (May 2017), 19–20; and Bridget Ford et al., “Beyond Big Data: Teaching Introductory U.S. History in the Age of Student Success,” Journal of American History , 106 (March 2020), 989–1011.

Jones, “(Theory and Pedagogy) Essay on the (History) Essay,” 230–32. King-O'Brien et al., “Reimagining Writing in History Courses.”

Jones, “(Theory and Pedagogy) Essay on the (History) Essay,” 232; Jones, “History of the History Essay,” 131.

Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, Understanding by Design (Alexandria, 1998), 98–114. On Plato's Meno as exemplifying “thoughtless mastery,” the problem of failing to distinguish between fluency and understanding, see Grant Wiggins, “Toward Assessment Worthy of the Liberal Arts,” 1990, Aahe Assessment Forum, https://www.maa.org/sites/default/files/pdf/SAUM/articles/wiggins_appendix.pdf .

T. Mills Kelly, Teaching History in the Digital Age (Ann Arbor, 2013), 124, 3. Jones, “History of the History Essay,” 118–19.

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7: Writing about History and Culture from a New Historical Perspective

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Learning Objectives

  • Examine methods that scholars use to write about literature as a historical text.
  • Apply New Historical theory to works of literature.
  • Research and synthesize primary and secondary sources for a historical research paper.
  • Review and evaluate the research and writing process of a peer writer.
  • Draft and revise a historical critique of a literary work.
  • 7.1: Literary Snapshot: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
  • 7.2: New Historical Criticism: An Overview
  • 7.3: Finding a Historical Topic: Paige Caulum’s Melville’s “Benito Cereno”
  • 7.4: Finding Historical Evidence: Melville’s “Benito Cereno”
  • 7.5: Testing and Refining Your Historical Claim
  • 7.6: Student Sample Paper: Paige Caulum’s “Herman Melville’s ‘Benito Cereno’: A Political Commentary on Manifest Destiny”
  • 7.7: Writing about History and Culture: A Process Approach
  • 7.8: Student Sample Paper: Stefanie Jochman’s “’Words of Lead’: Emily Dickinson’s Poetry and the Grief of the Civil War”
  • 7.9: Strategies for Starting Your New Historical Paper
  • 7.10: End-of-Chapter Assessment
  • 7.11: Suggestions for Further Reading

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IMAGES

  1. The Ultimate Guide to Writing a Brilliant History Essay

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  2. Reading and Writing Essays about Historyyy Tutorial.pdf

    reading and writing essays about history tutorial

  3. History Essay Writing

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  4. ⇉My Writing History Essay Example

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  5. History Essay Writing

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  6. AP World History Essay Final

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VIDEO

  1. Expert Academic Writing Help

  2. The Best LEARNING Book in History

  3. Reading Lesson

  4. The History of Reading Instruction in the United States

  5. The writing-reading connection

  6. A Room of Writers

COMMENTS

  1. AP US History: Plato Edition: Reading and Writing Essays ...

    The American industrial revolution grew out of the British industrial revolution. The American industrial revolution had a major impact on Americans socially and economically. The American industrial revolution occurred during the late nineteenth century. The American industrial revolution ultimately led to the production of the first automobile.

  2. How History is Made: A Student's Guide to Reading, Writing, and

    Learn what it means to think like an historian! Units on "Thinking Historically," "Reading Historically," "Researching Historically," and "Writing Historically" describe the essential skills of the discipline of history. "Performing Historically" offers advice on presenting research findings and describes some careers open to those with an academic training in history.

  3. US History A

    US History A - Unit 1 - Reading and Writing Essays about History Tutorial Activities Review

  4. PDF A Guide to Writing in History & Literature

    The capstone assignment in Sophomore Tutorial is the Sophomore Essay. All other writing you do for the tutorial is designed with the Sophomore Essay in mind. For this final essay, you are expected to (1) perform a close reading of primary source materials, (2) generate out of this analysis a compelling argument, and (3) situate this

  5. Reading and Writing Essays about History

    Writing Historical Essays . How to write . historical essay: Historical essays do not just present objective facts; but also present . arguments. Your essay should be an interpretive argument in which you make your . about a historical event or period. Tips to guide your essay writing: • the question.

  6. How History is Made: A Student's Guide to Reading, Writing, and

    Last, beginning with generic ideas is not common to the discipline. Typical essay structures in history do not start broadly and steadily narrow over the course of the essay, like a giant inverted triangle. If thinking in terms of a geometric shape helps you to conceptualize what a good introduction does, think of your introduction as the top ...

  7. How History is Made: A Student's Guide to Reading, Writing, and

    Many history essays have a natural chronological focus. Arguments that seek to explain what happened at a place and time, or demonstrate what led up to an event, as well as essays that focus on an individual's importance, can be organized chronologically. Intro; Early phase or antecedents; Middle years or main event; Later years or impact ...

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  9. Essaying the Past: How to Read, Write, and Think about History, 4th

    15 Writing is Rewriting: The Art of Revision 137. 16 Putting It All Together: The Research Essay (A Case Study) 145. Conclusion: The Love of History 165. Appendices. A Writing an Essay: Ten Easy Steps in Review 169. B Essay Varieties: DBQs, Reviews, and Comparison Assignments 171. C Let's Give a Hand: Bibliographies and Footnotes 177

  10. History

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  11. Reading Like a Historian

    Lili Velo uses historical context to teach students how to analyze historical documents. Teacher: Miroslaba "Lili" Velo. School: Tennyson High School, Hayward, CA. Grade: 11. Discipline: History (U.S. History) Lesson Topic: Native American removal. Lesson Month: January/February. Number of Students: 25. Other: Sheltered class (for English ...

  12. PDF Department of History

    Communication you can sign up for essay workshops as well as one-on-one tutorial sessions on topics such as improving essay structure and solving common writing problems. These resources have been made available to help you succeed: take advantage of them! You may also find some of the resources listed at the end of this section to be helpful.

  13. Reading and Writing in History

    Chauncey Monte-Sano is an associate professor at the School of Education at the University of Michigan, where she teaches teacher education. Her research focuses on the teaching and learning of historical writing, including how adolescents learn to write historical arguments. She also develops history curriculum that supports students' writing.

  14. Reading, Writing, and the Art of History

    Reading, Writing, and the Art of History. Most of the essays published in the "Art of History" series have been about writing history. But we spend a lot more time reading history than we do writing it. Moreover, the way we read shapes and forms the way we write. We are readers first and writers second. But ways of reading come and go, like ...

  15. Must History Students Write History Essays?

    "Since childhood, I wrote a lot of fiction, a lot of stories, but I most loved writing essays." —Jill Lepore quoted in Maia R. Silber, "Jill Lepore: A Historian's History," Harvard Crimson, March 6, 2014 "Undergraduate students are not interested in becoming professional historians and one should not teach undergraduates as if they were trying to learn the techniques of ...

  16. 7: Writing about History and Culture from a New Historical Perspective

    Examine methods that scholars use to write about literature as a historical text. Apply New Historical theory to works of literature. Research and synthesize primary and secondary sources for a historical research paper. Review and evaluate the research and writing process of a peer writer. Draft and revise a historical critique of a literary work.

  17. Reading and Writing Essays about History Tutorial.pdf

    View Reading and Writing Essays about History_ Tutorial.pdf from HISTORY 101,789 at Cactus High School. 1/12/2018 Lesson Activity: Examining Historical Documents Lesson Activity Examining Historical

  18. Reading and Writing Essays about History Tutorial.pdf

    Unformatted text preview: US history exam resources page and select a sample question from the free-response samples that is different from the one you evaluated. Follow the directions to write your essay, and then evaluate yourself using the scoring guidelines rubric and sample responses to the topic you selected.

  19. Reading and Writing Essays about Historyyyy Tutorial.pdf

    View Essay - Reading and Writing Essays about Historyyyy_ Tutorial.pdf from US HISTORY us history at Plato Academy. 9/20/2018 Lesson Activity: On Your Own Lesson Activity On Your Own The Lesson ... Reading and Writing Essays about History_ Tutorial 4.pdf. Solutions Available. Phoenix College. BIO 105. Sophia - US History II - Milestone 3 Final ...

  20. Reading and Writing Essays about Historyy Tutorial.pdf

    Question 1 Reading primary source documents can be a challenge, but it is one of the best ways of constructing—or reconstructing—your understanding of history. Choose a topic for research from these selections and select one of the primary source documents listed for that topic. Make sure you pick a written text like journal entry

  21. Reading and Writing Essays about History Tutorial 2.pdf

    Question 1 Reading primary source documents can be a challenge, but it is one of the best ways of constructing—or reconstructing—your understanding of history. Choose a topic for research from these selections and select one of the primary source documents listed for that topic. Make sure you pick a written text like journal entry