When Writing Comes across the Curriculum to History

Paula Sutter Fichtner, November 2000

"But this is a history course, not an English course. . . ."
"But I'm a historian, not an English teacher. . . ."

Few academic historians who grade term papers for both content and form have escaped the first complaint from disgruntled undergraduates. Most of us have listened to the second lament from one or more of our colleagues, or have even voiced it ourselves.

Heartfelt though they are, neither statement squares with today's concerns over the muddled, error-laced prose that many students turn out during and after their college years. Employers who resent the costs of in-house remedial programs, trustees protecting the reputation of institutions that they serve, professors distressed by the language that comes back to them on term papers and tests—all agree that writing is in need of serious attention in the undergraduate curriculum.

Many academics think that more rigorous work in introductory composition will bring all but the most crippled student prose up to speed. And in many BA programs, students are even required to take a number of credits in more advanced courses designated as writing-intensive. Though offered by specific departments, these classes are often open to all students who register for them.

But while both types of writing courses—the introductory as well as the advanced—play useful roles in undergraduate programs, they share a pedagogical deficiency. The heterogeneous interests of the students in such classes sharply limit the scope of writing projects. No matter how sophisticated the topic, the most any instructor can normally ask of such an audience is an opinion piece. Such essays, however fluently written, will not train students to do what the larger world usually expects them to do when they write. This is to organize, describe, and reach a synthetic conclusion on paper about material that they have studied, but which is not directly connected to their day-to-day experiences and concerns.

It is here that courses designed specifically for writing in an undergraduate major, such as history, can be crucial. Demanding analysis of concrete data rather than subjective reaction, assignments in such classes compel students to formulate fact-driven questions, develop research strategies for answering these queries, reach objectively defensible conclusions, and write coherently about what they have done. The skills that such work fosters are eminently portable, ready for college graduates to retrieve long after Bismarck's first name, the Balkan Wars, and even Jefferson's bedroom behavior have faded from memory.

Indeed, we historians are exceptionally well positioned to give our majors a first-rate writing experience. Several good handbooks, which are targeted specifically for the undergraduate writer-historian, are now on the market.1 We have never wholly renounced the literary side of our discipline; we still pay great heed to how we write and can be exceedingly unkind to colleagues who do it badly. Though the language and methods of the social sciences heavily influence our craft, most of us present our work in the quasi-story form natural to all people when they look to the past to explain some present event or condition. Our rigorous standards of documentation teach that rhetorical elegance is not an end in itself, but only a means of making factual exposition and argument intelligible.

Nevertheless, the advantages we historians command when called upon for service in writing across the curriculum are not absolute. Our methods, even our basic professional ethics, can create real problems for students who are trying to improve their writing. Unless we know what the problems are—keeping a list of them helps—the writing courses in history we offer can be unhappy experiences both for undergraduates and ourselves. Here are three major problems, along with some remedies that I have tried out in the classroom.

1. Many of us do our research and writing almost instinctively, either because of natural endowment or long experience with the material of our fields. With much less control of historical subjects and the rhetorical conventions used when analyzing them, undergraduates are often genuinely dismayed by the prospect of serious term papers. We must be prepared to deconstruct our procedures down to the simplest tasks we do as historians and to develop initial writing assignments from those fundamental building blocks.

Teasing a narrative out of primary sources is one of them, and it is a task in which one can begin small. Establish a central topic for the class. Choose one or two primary documents important for the theme and require the class to read them. Then ask students to compose as much of a narrative as they can from these materials. To show the class the benefits of further research, tell the group to write down names, terms, and events that they would not know much about from reading these documents alone. Select and assign additional reading from a limited number of articles and monographs to fill in these gaps. At each stage of this work—I stretch it over five separate writing assignments—have them rewrite their basic narrative with the addition of this new material.

Once students have gone through these expository preliminaries, and have been introduced to the niceties of bibliographical development and scholarly attribution, they are ready to do a small term paper. Here, too, it is important to exercise some control over their efforts to insure a successful outcome. Required individual conferences through the duration of the research and writing process, while not directly related to writing, will help undergraduates think clearly about their topic, a key factor in good writing.

2. Readable English prose eschews the needless repetition of words and phrases. But names of people, events, and institutions must appear over and over again in a given paper. To get around this apparent dilemma, students resort to the hazy antecedents and ambiguous references that we all deplore. One of the chores of the historian-as-writing-teacher is to develop writing strategies that minimize this problem.

An in-class exercise, with anonymous excerpts from student prose as the text for the day, constructively engages all students in the revision process. For example, in discussing a paper heavy with "Charles V"s, "Philip II"s, and "Catherine of Aragon"s, I ask students to mention these people in terms of their relationship to one another—"nephew," "aunt," "father," "son," rather than their given names. If frequency of one figure is the problem—Philip II, for example—I have the students try referring to him by position he held—"king," "monarch," "ruler." The young Philip was a "prince" and "heir-apparent" as well. Such strategies, incidentally, have more than stylistic implications. Someone in the class will almost always suggest "tyrant," even "dictator" as an alternative to "king," thus raising questions about the nature of European monarchy and the ways in which the democratic values of the 21st century shape our perceptions of historical institutions.

3. We are very good at communicating our anxieties about plagiarism to undergraduates. To defend themselves against possible challenges students often take notes in the form of direct quotations, which they recycle—with attribution but unchanged—into papers. The result is not only stilted and shallow writing but also carries copying errors that sabotage the purpose of word-for-word excerpting. Worse yet, reliance upon such methods discourages paraphrasing, often the first step in the analytical writing up of research materials. Students, therefore, often start writing projects before having seriously thought through what they want to say. One result is the multiple "Awk."s with which we festoon their papers.

It is difficult to wean students off this habit, but it must be done. Classroom exercises in which they paraphrase assigned texts are again an excellent way of getting them attuned to the technique. Setting a limit on the number of direct quotes that can appear in a paper also helps to force the issue.

Good history and good English expository prose are not incompatible. Indeed, of all the ways of cultivating portable writing skills, a writing course in a major like history will probably do more for undergraduates than any of the other suggestions now on the table. Done systematically, with explicit and repeated guidance from the instructor on how one step relates to the other, such a course will make any reasonably diligent student a better writer and thinker when confronted with problems that require research and analysis. Best of all, in teaching these courses, we may learn something too.

—Paula Sutter Fichtner is professor of history at Brooklyn College and Graduate Center of the City University of New York. This paper was prepared as part of "Transformations IV: An Interdisciplinary Faculty Seminar on Writing in the Disciplines," sponsored by a CUNY grant to Brooklyn College in the spring semester of 1999.


1. For example, Jules R. Benjamin, A Student's Guide to History, 7th ed. (Boston: Bedford, 1998); Mark Hellstern, Gregory M. Scott, and Stephen M. Garrison, The History Student Writer's Manual (Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1998); Richard Marius, A Short Guide to Writing about History, 3d ed. (New York: Longman, 1999).