This week I thought I would write an easy-to-steal-from, toolkit type of post in honour of the first week of classes. Apologies in advance, as this means today’s entry will be long and obnoxious if you’re reading on your phone!
My approach to the classroom is hardly flawless, but I have spent some time thinking about and trying to design aids for teaching students how to write an academic paper. My students usually approach this problem by obsessing over form. This is because they think they start from 100% and lose marks, instead of starting from scratch and building up from there. And the easiest way to envision losing marks is by not following “the rules” – whatever the hell those are supposed to be. And so, I get the 10-page papers written in only 5 paragraphs, or the students who come to see me because I’ve written “unclear thesis” even though they wrote something vaguely argumentative at the end of the first paragraph. We then have to have the talk about how and why essay writing is taught in high school and how it doesn’t actually work that way once your arguments become more advanced. You can use as many paragraphs as you need to properly group your ideas, and a thesis is not definitive just because you put it in a specific place.
It’s at this point that the conversation gets interesting. If everything they’ve learned is just a rough structure, how are they supposed to write a university-level paper? It’s about ideas and argumentation, I explain. It’s about asking the right questions and then following through not just with opinions, but with evidence too. Most students get that a thesis has to be an opinion, but what they sometimes fail to understand is that for them to write a good paper: (1) people need to be able to disagree with their thesis in a reasoned way and (2) they need evidence for everything they say.
So what sorts of things do I tell students about constructing an argument? Here’s how I describe my independent research essay assignment (which students are asked to complete after they have written essay proposals):
Independent Research Essay Assignment
You must write a 7-9 page argumentative essay. What this means is that rather than just gathering and regurgitating facts, you need a thesis (an answer to your question), which you must then support with proof (that stuff you organized into themes when writing the proposal). When you are done, don’t forget that your essay must sum up all of this with a conclusion. Furthermore, as a historian, you have the added burden of acknowledging evidence that contradicts your position. You must thus also explain at some point in your essay why your overall argument still holds, despite alternate interpretations of the evidence.
As you’re writing, remember that the scholars whose work you’ve read have essentially done the same thing as you when writing their books and articles. They have constructed an argument; just because they are published does not mean they are objectively right in their conclusions. They must convince you in the same way that you have to convince your own readers. You are therefore free – and encouraged – to disagree with their analysis. The best papers will engage with what professional historians call “historiography,” or the various perspectives that different groups of scholars impose upon the evidence. To clarify, if you are working on the British Civil Wars, you might note that while some scholars do indeed use the terminology “civil wars,” others prefer “revolution.” This is far more than a semantic difference and has sweeping ramifications for the way they see seventeenth-century Britain. If this were your topic, you might then outline this divergence and explain your own position. But be careful! Stick to debates that resonate with your question and don’t get side-tracked by evidence or historiographic debates that have nothing to do with it.
Engage with primary sources in the same critical way. Do not just mine them for a single factoid so that you can add them to your bibliography. Ask what they tell you and whether they reinforce or undermine the arguments that you have been reading in the secondary literature.
The other tool I’d like to share with you today has to do with the writing process itself. Some of my students are good at coming up with ideas, but they have a really hard time getting them down on paper. Let’s face it, we all know that feeling of it “making sense in our head” but not anywhere else. These students understand the tasks required of them, but they struggle to articulate their response and their grades can suffer as a result. A big part of this is time management, and I remind my students almost every class that they should be working on their assignments because they need to leave time to edit things (as an aside, it’s worth reminding ourselves and our students that this means leaving time between finishing the paper and editing it, or our brains won’t see the problems in our text). But it can be more complicated than that and we shouldn’t just assume that students are lazy and left things to the last minute. Writing is hard, and the process is learned. So what do I tell them to help them on their journey? Below is a document I designed to help with these problems.
Different Ways of Writing
1) Are you an “organic writer” or a “bit-piece writer”? Most people are one or the other, but it’s best to try both before you conclusively decide where you fall. Both of these approaches start from the same point: once you’ve done the research, brainstorm the ideas you have about your topic and decide what your overall thesis is and what your supporting points are. On a rough piece of paper, lay these ideas out. This can be either in a very formal order (in which you think information will appear in your essay), or randomly spread out over the page. Just get everything down, so that you don’t forget and so that you have something to work with!
- The organic writer will begin at the beginning. Write the introduction first, and although you have a general idea of how you will move through your proofs (the supporting points), you might change the order as the argument dictates. So, as you finish each section, you’ll see where new commonalities emerge between the different proofs that you still need to write about (things that you may or may not have thought of before), and order your paper accordingly. The conclusion, as always, will come last and try to tie all of this together once and for all.
- The bit-piece writer is uneasy about starting with the broad thesis. Perhaps s/he hasn’t made up their mind or is just better able to write a coherent introduction when all the technical stuff is done. This person starts in the middle of the paper with whatever proof is most inviting. From there, s/he jumps around as necessary, and stitches all the proofs together when they’re done by using connecting sentences. The intro and conclusion come last. This method requires you to leave plenty of room for editing, as it will initially be “choppier” than a piece that is written organically. Although both methods require editorial time, budget more if you’re a bit-piece writer.
2) Make sure each proof is your voice: quotations and paraphrases of other people’s ideas are always part of the process, but make sure you are using them to enhance your argument, instead of letting them make the argument for you. Always explain the meaning of quotes/paraphrases and the reason you are providing them to your audience (in other words, address their significance – there should be no “orphan quotes”).
3) Check the coherence of each proof individually: read each section (intro/thesis; proof; proof; proof; proof; conclusion) on its own. Is there a clear point to each section? If not, rework it until there is. Also, does the same information appear in more than one place? If so, consider reorganizing further to keep your analysis of a specific document or theme close together. This is not always possible, and sometimes you will be citing the same information in very different ways, in very separate parts of the paper. But always ask yourself if information needs to be spread out, or, if your argument would be better served with a little shuffling.
4) Find a way of making sure the whole is coherent that works for you: leave your paper for 24 hours and then re-read it; have a friend in another discipline read it; read it aloud to yourself (this is my tactic) since using two senses instead of one heightens your ability to make sure you’re making sense. Double check that any questions you’ve posed, implicitly, or perhaps explicitly in the introduction, are answered and there are no loose ends. Likewise, make sure there aren’t any answers floating around to questions you haven’t asked (ie: make sure all the information is relevant). Essentially, you’re trying to switch your perspective from that of a writer, to a reader.
After trying one of these strategies, can you clearly identify your thesis, sub-points and conclusion? Does your paper flow clearly from one idea to another, or does it just break off and jump around? If the latter, go through and insert transitional language like “furthermore,” “equally important,” “for this reason,” etc… Sometimes this process may require entirely new sentences. Make sure the reader has a road map, and never just assume they will see the same connections you do. Once this all looks good, you just need to hand it in!
Please feel free to share these explanations with your students and/or adapt them for your particular courses. And as always, please share you own thoughts and tools in the comments below.