WAC for Historians: Using ‘Fine-Tuned’ Writing Assignments to Teach Students Disciplinary Ways of Thinking

Posted on November 10th, 2015 by

Scot French is an associate professor in the Department of History. Dr. French is a digital public historian who specializes in the interpretation of cultural landscapes and sites of memory associated with African American, Southern, and Atlantic World history.

“To date, I’ve evaluated four WAC-inspired assignments, with very promising results. My students are showing me how much they can learn about history by “doing” history through finely tuned research and writing assignments. They’re also revealing, through their written work, the strengths and weaknesses of each assignment and suggesting where I need to work harder as a teacher.”

Wordle for Historians

Last Spring I had the pleasure of working with WAC Director Pavel Zemliansky and WAC Coordinator Lindee Owens and two colleagues from the History Department – Emily Graham and Dan Murphree – on a WAC Faculty Fellows project called “WAC for Historians: Designing Level-Specific Writing Assignments to Promote Discipline-Specific Learning Outcomes.” Writing, we all agreed, is a critically important medium for communicating mastery of historical methods and content knowledge at all course levels – introductory, upper-level undergraduate, and graduate. Too often, however, we squander the full potential of our writing assignments by failing to establish their rhetorical context within specific course objectives or their larger purpose within the general curricular framework of undergraduate and graduate history education at UCF.

A series of Spring workshops and meetings, led by Pavel and Lindee, introduced us to new ways of thinking about the vital connection between writing and learning within a discipline-specific framework. How might we, as historians, use writing assignments to promote the critical reading of key texts or encourage the making of evidence-based arguments? What methods might we, as historians, borrow from specialists in Writing and Rhetoric to encourage student inquiry and discovery and eliminate writing-for-writing’s-sake drudgery? As the first WAC Faculty Fellows in History cohort, Emily, Dan, and I set out to fine-tune our classroom writing assignments with clearly articulated, discipline-specific, level-appropriate learning outcomes in mind.

Fortunately, in taking up this challenge, we had good working models close at hand. At the national level, the American Historical Association has embarked on what it calls the “History Tuning” Project“ to articulate the disciplinary core of historical study and to define what a student should understand and be able to do at the completion of a history degree program.” At the department level, we set – and frequently update — general learning objectives as part of our annual assessment of the GEP, undergraduate, and graduate programs.

As a first step, Emily, Dan, and I identified four general learning outcomes, which we then translated into level-specific objectives. To “keep it real,” we imagined a student advancing through the system — from survey-level to upper-level to graduate-level history courses – and gaining level-appropriate knowledge, skills, and abilities along the way.

  • Survey Level: Student demonstrates ability to use provided materials to perform basic analysis for improved comprehension of primary and secondary sources.
  • Upper-Level: Student demonstrates ability to locate and utilize range of secondary materials to contextualize and analyze primary sources; address major problems; and make evidence-based arguments.
  • Graduate Level: Student demonstrates ability to locate and utilize range of secondary materials, recognize and critique abstract themes / major problems (historiography/ methodology). Student also strengthens ability to prioritize information in order to write for varying audiences.

With these level-specific objectives in hand, Emily, Dan and I began “tuning” assignments for history courses we had taught in the past and planned to teach again in the future. For me, that meant revamping some old assignments and developing new ones for my Fall 2012 upper-level course, US South to 1865.

As a historian working at the intersection of traditional print and new media, I am always looking for ways to introduce my students to the web-based archives of primary sources –maps, texts, databases, etc. — being developed by historians for use in the classroom and beyond. As a WAC for Historians Faculty Fellow, I began to see new possibilities for integrating those online resources into research and writing assignments while advancing larger departmental and disciplinary goals for history education in the Digital Age.

website screenshotFor example, Emory University’s web-based Voyages: The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database introduces students to the broader, global context of Atlantic World history through essays, timelines, and introductory maps. As importantly, it includes a wealth of data, drawn from a variety of archival sources, on 35,000 slaving voyages – each with its own story. As a short writing assignment, I asked students to (1) choose a slaving voyage that ended in the Southern American colonies/states; (2) place that voyage in historical context; and (3) address the strengths and weaknesses of the database as a source of information and insight.

My students did a great job, by and large, of answering the questions I put to them. They conducted original research in the virtual archive and raised intriguing questions about the circumstances surrounding specific voyages, such as that of The Wanderer – an American slave ship illegally trading in the South in 1859. What my students lacked – and what I am committed to providing them now and henceforth – was guidance on how to research supplemental information on specific voyages (like the Wanderer) beyond the scope of the Voyages site. How can they use JSTOR and other scholarly databases, freely available through UCF library, to find secondary literature? What steps should they follow, as historians, if they cannot find their specific voyage mentioned anywhere else on the web? Can they construct an interesting and meaningful narrative out of statistics and geospatial data alone?

Website screenshotFor another assignment, I asked my students to investigate the lives and labors of English indentured servants in colonial Virginia using the Virtual Jamestown and Virginia Runaways/Geography of Slavery websites.Students devised individualized research agendas based on topics of special interest to them: gender, occupation, motivation for running away, etc. Then, using evidence gleaned from these “web-accessible archives,” each student crafted an essay relating the history of indentured servitude as a quasi-free, contract labor system to the more personal experiences of servants who had run away, sometimes in company with slaves.

One student used an April 1796 advertisement in the Virginia Gazette to tell the story of a runaway apprentice — an 18-year-old French boy who had worked at the public armory in New London, Virginia. Dressed in “a striped Nankeen coat, a striped pattern waistcoat, a black cloth ditto, a blue cloth jacket, trousers, a pair of worsted stockings, a pair of shoes, and plated belt buckles,” the boy “carried with him a set of puppets, which he probably intends to support for his economic well-being.” I had never heard of this case, and found the detail and analysis provided by my student extraordinarily compelling. Allowing the student to follow his own research agenda (within the general constraints of the assignment) produced new findings and expanded both his and my knowledge of the subject. I now use the example of this runaway servant/puppeteer in my lectures to capture students’ imaginations, illustrate the value of the “Virginia Runaways” database, and highlight the potential for new discoveries by students themselves as they embark on this assignment.

Website screenshotTo date, I’ve evaluated four WAC-inspired assignments, with very promising results. My students are showing me how much they can learn about history by doing history through finely tuned research and writing assignments. They’re also revealing, through their written work, the strengths and weaknesses of each assignment and suggesting where I need to work harder as a teacher. Creating these multi-faceted assignments takes extra time and effort up front, but it’s been well worth it to me. Already, without the benefit of a formal assessment, I can see that student engagement in my History classes through WAC-inspired research and writing assignments correlates with better classroom discussions, improved content mastery, and clearer, more confident writing on unit exams. In short, the students seem to be learning more, and having more fun doing it.

Partnering with the WAC program faculty on this project has immensely rewarding for me as well. As a recent “alumnus” of the program, I am eagerly following the work of Pavel, Lindee, and this year’s WAC faculty fellows. I also look forward to continued collaboration with my History Department colleagues Dan and Emily as we share our preliminary results with the department, the University community, the American Historical Association, and beyond.