Writing in the Major Requirement
History is a writing major that fosters a community of writers working together to produce cogent analysis of the past. We embrace writing as a mode of thinking and develop each writer’s personal sense of historical voice as she learns to frame historical questions enticing to the reader. Among the core competencies that writing in the major promotes are: the advancement of substantive, nuanced arguments; the ability to position oneself within the existing scholarly literature, the adaptation of relevant theoretical frameworks; and the construction of powerful narratives based on primary documents. The senior seminar paper demonstrates mastery of these elements of the craft and thus is the capstone of the major’s development as a writer.
In order to produce successful and gratifying outcomes, the department takes a developmental approach as majors proceed through their upper-level work. Thus, we note that the History Department teaches three distinct but related types of writing as majors work their way through the 100, 200, and 300 levels: 1) historiographical analysis; 2) discussion and assessment of theoretical frameworks; 3) analytical narrative based on primary sources.
Our 100-level and 200-level classes provide a solid base in historiographical writing through response papers, book reviews, exams, as well as bibliographic essays. These courses also introduce students to the basics of writing from and about primary sources, learning to account for not only the content of historical documents, but also the contexts in which the documents were produced and the biases the documents express. Our required course for majors “History Today: Debates and Practices” (History 295) introduces students in a formal way to writing about theory. This course, taught on rotation by most members of the department, features assignments such as analyzing the work of a particular historian with an eye toward how that historian defines and engages methodological and theoretical developments in the field. A final paper in History 295 asks students to anticipate the kind of methodologies that they would like to deploy in their advanced work and what theoretical frameworks will guide their selection of further courses and research topics.
Each 300-level class features a major research paper either emphasizing historiography or analytical narrative from primary sources, as a major writing component. Students draft these papers of approximately 12-15 pages in stages through a process that involves both peer-editing and regular professorial consultation. In order to ensure that every student has experience in each of these areas, course descriptions and syllabi will indicate clearly whether the course will emphasize one or the other kind of paper, with the expectation that every student have one of each experience, ideally before senior year.
Our senior capstone course, History 490, is conducted as a research seminar in which each student writes an original journal article length research essay (approximately 30-35 pages plus citations). These essays necessarily, to one degree or another, require students to weave together each of the major types of historical writing featured in our major—historiography, theory, and primary-source based analytical narrative. To an even more intense degree than the 300-level research paper, these senior research essays require extensive one-on-one consultation with the seminar leader, as well as with other members of the department, and a regular process of peer-critique. The result of this multi-phase process of writing within the major is a major work of original scholarship and a thorough, closely supervised grounding in a variety of modes of historical writing. Receiving a passing grade for the senior seminar satisfies the writing in the major requirement.