This week, in a course for new college students, I decided to bring out one of my all-time favorite writing activities. This exercise has proven particularly effective for first-year students, especially if they’re reasonably comfortable writers already. It’s a strangely fun activity designed to teach a critical part of editing: cutting unnecessary words and simplifying complex phrases.
I distributed a worksheet with a single 26-word sentence on it.
This sentence came from a highly regarded historical monograph. It was written by a distinguished historian and released by a major university press. I won’t identify the source here because I have no desire to shame this author in public. As I told my students, it’s a great book. It’s just unnecessarily hard to get through.
I chose the sentence partly because it has some obvious redundant language—unnecessary complexity that many readers can spot quickly when they think about it.
The worksheet I distributed looked sort of like this:
Continue reading “Revising for Clarity and Brevity: A Worksheet Activity” →
Following up the small group activity I described last week (“Reverse-Engineering a Scholarly Article”), I developed a similar classroom exercise this week. The new activity was a “scavenger hunt” designed to help the same students become more comfortable using footnotes.
(I’m asking this class to use footnotes to cite the sources in their final projects, and I was aware that some students had very limited exposure to this form of scholarly architecture.)
I based the activity on Steven Watts’s article “Walt Disney: Art and Politics in the American Century,” which was published in 1995 in the Journal of American History.
I printed enough copies of Watts’s article for each student to have one—but with a catch. Each student would have only part of the article. They would have to pair up to compare their versions. Some students got “Version A,” which included the first half of the main body of the article. Others got “Version B,” which included the second half. Both versions included the introduction and conclusion.
This was my way to make sure the activity would involve plenty of interaction.
Continue reading “How Footnotes Work: A Scavenger Hunt” →
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.
Continue reading “Reverse-Engineering an Article: A Small Group Activity” →
At the U.S. Intellectual History Blog, I have a post today about Wilfred McClay’s 2019 United States history survey textbook Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story, along with the teacher’s guide co-written by John McBride. My essay is a companion to a more thorough review by Thomas D. Mackie last week.
We wrote our responses independently, but Mackie and I came to similar conclusions about what the book does right, what’s missing from its picture of U.S. history, and what we find strange about its understanding of the history teacher’s job.
The question my response poses, though not in these words, is this: Why do McClay and some other historians seem to think we are “condescend[ing] toward the past” when we teach history as if people made choices, they could have made different choices, others disagreed with their choices at the time, and their choices mattered?
Today, Vox published my first-person essay about safe spaces and trigger warnings. There’s a lot more to say—including some things that were actually in the longer draft. But I think what I wrote is a pretty good encapsulation of the reasons that I (and a lot of other American college instructors) find the current public discussion of these topics to be misdirected.
Here’s what I see as the heart of the matter:
None of them asked for a trigger warning. None asked for a safe space. If they had, they would not have been avoiding ideas. All my students have ever requested is a way to keep engaging with the content — all the content — of my courses, in spite of setbacks. In other words, they want to finish the work they started. …
Whether the debate over trigger warnings involves criticism within the academy or attacks from outside, it has contributed to popular clichés and ideological grudges that have little to do with what most students learn. Its stereotypes about students are mostly slander. Worse still, it promotes cynicism and closes minds.
This spring, I’m adding a new course to my repertoire. It’s a single-semester class called Composition. The advanced track of a first-year writing requirement, it focuses not on basic prose but on rhetoric, or “making effective contributions in writing to intellectual discussions, academically and in other cultural settings.”
In other words, this course will initiate new undergraduates into academic rationality.
This is exciting. No, that’s not strong enough. Planning this course is really, really fun.
Continue reading “Building a First-Year Writing Course” →