A couple of weeks ago, I tried a simple new activity. The students in this course, all first-year undergraduates, are working on original research projects. One student had asked me for practical advice about how to outline their history paper—an essay that will be longer than anything they’ve ever written before. I came up with this activity for a subsequent class meeting. As I expected, the activity took an entire 75-minute period.
First, I located a scholarly article that seemed appropriate in various ways. I was looking for something with a reasonably accessible subject matter and writing style, clear organization, and some identifiable relevance to our course. I also wanted the article to be of moderate length: not overwhelmingly long, but not too short, either.
I settled on Shannen Dee Williams’s “Forgotten Habits, Lost Vocations,” an important article published in 2016 in the Journal of African American History. Among its many other virtues, this text would be relevant to our university’s ongoing mission-and-heritage-month celebration. (This college isn’t affiliated with the IHM sisters, who are the focus of Williams’s article, but it is affiliated with a different Catholic teaching order.) I was also pretty sure some of my students would find it very interesting on its own terms. And it would let me talk a little about how scholarship develops over time; Williams has a book coming out soon, and that book will incorporate material from this article into a larger story and argument.
I printed and stapled a copy of this article (double-sided, two pages per side) for each student. Then I prepared a set of directions.
In class, I asked students to form groups of three. I advised them to get out things to write on—ideally laptops, if they had them handy. Then I asked them to follow these steps:
- First, working together, identify the article’s thesis and agree on a way to state it in your own words in just one or two sentences. (I advised students to consult both the introduction and the conclusion of the paper before they decided what the thesis was. I also warned them that in an essay of this length, the author may take several sentences to convey their central claim in its full complexity. I also pointed out that a thesis statement may not appear until several paragraphs into the article.)
- Second, once that is done, try to divide the article into a few major sections. (These, I said, would typically include an introduction, a conclusion, and maybe three to five main points in between. What I didn’t say—but what every group quickly discovered—is that “Forgotten Habits” helpfully includes section headings to make it very easy to divide the body of the paper into three parts.)
- Third, agree on a division of labor, giving each student in your group a different section of the body of the article (setting aside the introduction and conclusion) to examine.
- Now, working individually, go through the section you picked and write one short summary for each paragraph or data table, or as many of them as you can get to. (The summary for a paragraph might be a short sentence or even an incomplete sentence or phrase—anything that would capture the gist of that paragraph. I advised students not to linger too long on each paragraph; getting only a very basic grasp of it was the point.)
The first three steps didn’t take long. After Step One and again after Step Two, we spoke together briefly as a class about what the groups had decided. The groups were in broad agreement; everyone had divided the body of the article into three parts corresponding to the three section headings in the text.
Step Four, in contrast, required each student to write down a sentence or phrase to correspond with at least eight different paragraphs or tables. Going through this process would take most of the rest of the class period. Indeed, some students did not have time to finish this process before I moved on to our final general discussion; I assured them I had expected that.
With just ten or fifteen minutes remaining before the period ended, I asked the students what they had discovered about the way the paper was organized. When you stepped back from it, what kind of logic did you see in the way one paragraph—one fully expressed idea—led to the next? (Were the paragraphs in your section organized chronologically; from greatest to least important, or vice versa; geographically; or in some other way?) And how about the way the three major sections in the body of the paper were ordered?
Then I asked related questions: Were there any points at which you couldn’t follow the order of ideas? How did the author help you follow her logic? What kinds of transition statements and “signposts” did she use to help you see where her argument was going? Did the various paragraphs, ordered this way, all support the article’s thesis?
Students had really perceptive answers to all of these questions after spending an hour teasing apart the text.
Summing up this experience, I pointed out that students had identified a form for the article that was similar to the dreaded “five-paragraph essay” they may have encountered in school. But it wasn’t literally five paragraphs long. Instead, this text used five main divisions—an introduction, a conclusion, and three main sets of ideas in between—as a relatively natural way for the author to organize a logical series of ideas for the reader to follow. There could have been a different number of sections; five happens to be pretty common.
When I’m outlining a paper of my own, I said, I usually don’t sit down and try to fit my ideas into the classic “Point I, Subpoint A, Subpoint 1” form that I was taught in high school. That’s too abstract and artificial to be very useful for me, at least at the beginning of the process.
But I do sit down and try to break my ideas into a few major chunks—sometimes I think of them as “buckets” of ideas—and then figure out a linear order for the smaller paragraph-sized units that could fit into each bucket. Then, bearing in mind that my reader has to read one paragraph at a time, I try to find some logical flow from one paragraph to the next. If the order I try first doesn’t make sense, I can always rearrange things.
Different historians, I said, outline their work in different ways. There’s no single correct method for outlining a paper you want to write, and it’s important for any outline to remain flexible.
Sometimes my outlines look like lists; sometimes they look like branching trees; sometimes they have just a couple of points on them; in rare cases, they’re plotted in detail down to the level of individual sentences. Regardless of your approach, if you think of the outlining process as a way of arranging basic ideas into categories and giving them a logical order, so that you don’t get lost as you flesh out those ideas on the page, your outline can save you a lot of grief later.