So far this semester, I have graded students’ brief writing assignments in two different classes. Both papers were grounded in describing an object. One paper asked students to describe a building and then identify what type of building it was (i.e. Roman temple), and the other paper explicitly asked students to compare a vase painting to events described in the Iliad. Even though the object description genre may seem fairly objective, as I graded the papers and provided comments, I noticed that many of my comments were talking about the papers as if they were arguments. For example, I often used the words “stronger” or “more convincing” in my comments. This is good. As the UCLA History Writing Center states:
2. A history research paper makes a historical argument.
Your paper must take a position on the problem you have posed. You are not simply making observations about the material you have read: you are using your observations to craft an argument that teaches us something new about the past. The argument you make might revise a claim made by other scholars, might illustrate a completely new way of looking at a topic, or might reveal a point that scholars have missed in previous research.
3. A history research paper is grounded in evidence from primary sources.
Unlike research papers in other disciplines, a history paper relies on primary source material, meaning materials that were produced during the period your paper addresses. They might be letters, diaries, census data, maps, speeches, treaties–any raw material from a historical moment. Primary sources are the key pieces of evidence you will use to support your argument.
By describing papers as arguments (which they are), I am trying to communicate two things to my students: (1) you need to be kind to your reader, and (2) you need to support your argument with citations for your evidence. This framework for the comments hints that, if you are not clear and not kind, you will not convince your reader. So you need to clearly lay out your logic and indicate your evidence (through citations). I think it also shows why these citations are helpful. Many students know (at least cognitively, if not in practice) that evidence strengthens arguments. Citations of the evidence, as indications that you are using evidence, help persuade your reader that your argument is based on evidence and primary sources (and therefore is more believable). So by connecting their papers to arguments (something they may be much more familiar with than classroom/academic paper writing), I remind them why evidence and citations are important.
A greater focus on citations and their persuasive force, I think, also encourages students to ground themselves in the evidence. In other words, it encourages them to think, “If I say something, I need to cite something, so I need to find evidence to support this claim.” This will, again, make stronger arguments and papers.
Hopefully this framework for my comments will have helped improve the next batch of students’ writing assignments that I get on Tuesday!
As a side note, by comparing the two assignments, I have noticed two other things that helped make the papers go well:
- Students are well prepared for the exercise by in-class activities and discussions.
- The expectations are clearly communicated and delineated, both in class and in the writing prompt. This could be through providing an example of the assignment, a checklist for the paper‘s requirements and expectations, or a very detailed prompt.