Topic sentences and paragraph structure are vital to writing clarity and coherence. A well-written topic sentence that lays out the single sub-argument of a particular paragraph, and a well-structured paragraph that supports that sub-argument with evidence and analysis are the cornerstone of historical writing. For more on paragraphs and topic sentences, see the Writing Tutorial Services website hosted by Indiana University Bloomington.
The next meeting of the History Journal Club will be held on Tuesday, October 20th at 2pm in DM370. For the October meeting, we will focus on reading and using secondary sources. To help us springboard into that discussion, the October article is Linford D. Fisher, “‘Dangerous Designes’: The 1676 Barbados Act to Prohibit New England Indian Slave Importation.” Fisher uncovered the full text of the 1676 Barbadian “Act of Explanation to the Act of Negroes, and to prohibite the bringing of Indians to this Island.” From the title, many historians assumed previously that the act banned all importation of enslaved Native Americans to Barbados, whereas the act only barred New England Indians. Fisher’s work thus marked a turning point for historians’ discussions of slavery in Barbados and the Atlantic trade in enslaved Native North Americans. The arguments and conclusions of older secondary sources, in particular, must now be reconsidered.
Many students get to college with the idea that it is essential to read every single word on each page of an assigned history text. For many secondary source reading, however, this approach is not the best use of time. Rather, the reader should actively engage with the text, locating the author’s central argument, and then follow that argument through the rest of the piece. For more, make sure you read our recent blog entry about reading secondary sources.
All college students are assigned a lot of reading. It is part of the job. History majors, in particular, suffer from a mountain of books and articles. Depending on the class, a large part of this reading will be secondary source books and articles. Patrick Rael of Bowdoin College put together a helpful list for how to read such history books and articles. Although he goes into more depth, the basic points are:
1) Read the title and table of contents. This information will tell you what the book is about and the general structure of the text.
2) Approach a reading “from the outside in.” Read the introduction and conclusion, which should help you find the author’s thesis. Also, in the introduction should be a more detailed discussion of text’s structure in relation to the author’s argument. Next, read chapters and article sections “from the outside in.” Read the first and last couple of paragraphs of a chapter or section. This approach should allow you to quickly gain insight into the major themes and sub-arguments of the text.
3) Only now should you read the text, but remember it is not a novel. You are not reading a classic of English Literature on a rainy Sunday. Not every word and sentence are of vital importance. You need to read actively, focus on following the author’s thesis through their topic sentences, evaluate their evidence for this thesis, and mark a few select areas that seem pertinent to the author’s argument.
For more information on how to read history secondary sources, I head to the How to Read a Secondary Source section of Purdue University’s excellent Reading, Writing, and Researching for History: A Guide for College Students by Patrick Rael.
Best, Dr. Ferdinando
Just as writing assignments vary from course to course, so too does the way that writing is evaluated. However, there are general trends in the way that historical writing is graded. Instructors evaluate undergraduate historical writing on its argument and support, its understanding of sources or course material, and its professionalism (sentence clarity, grammar, style, word choice, and citation format).
The thesis is an important aspect of historical work. A thesis is the central argument of any piece of communication. Undergraduates often are asked to find the thesis in their reading assignments. In undergraduate writing, the thesis means presenting a succinct argument. The thesis should be both a response to the writing assignment and the evidence used to support an argument throughout the essay. Instructors will often ask students to present their thesis in a sentence or two that will be checked against the main arguments in the body of the essay. Instructors grade both the presentation of a clear thesis and that the paragraphs of the essay support this argument. A clear tool for checking this is to try to sum up in a word or two how each paragraph fits into the argument. If this cannot be done, it is a good time to revise to make sure the paragraph is more on point.
Analysis also is an important part of undergraduate writing, see A BASIC PRIMER TO WRITING ASSIGNMENTS IN HISTORY COURSES. Instructors look for evidence that undergraduate writers have engaged with required sources. The only way that a student’s understanding and analysis of sources can be judged is through its presentation in the essay. Therefore, it is often an important part of instructor’s grading criteria. A way to check for analysis is to proofread each sentence and paragraph to see that the argument flows logically and has all of its constituent parts in the essay.
Professionalism is another component of writing historical essays. College-level writing is formal. Formal means that instructors expect writing that is proofread for grammar, sentence clarity, style, and citations. Undergraduate writers should present their work with the least amount of these type of professionalism errors as possible. One of the simplest ways to do this is to read each word, sentence, and paragraph aloud. Audible proofreading catches things that glancing over writing often misses.
While instructors will ask for different things of undergraduate writing, the best essays always will display a strong thesis, engagement with sources, and professionalism. These themes and tips should be included throughout the undergraduate’s revision process prior to submitting essays in history classes.
Thanks, Dr. Weimer
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Our first Journal Club meeting was this Tuesday and we had a decidedly delicious discussion about Colonial Jamestown and cannibalism. We used Rachel B. Herrmann’s “The ‘Tragicall Historie’: Cannibalism and Abundance in Colonial Jamestown” as a springboard for a conversation about primary sources. Herrmann noted that historians previously took the Jamestown Starving Time documents at face value and treated their mentions of cannibalism as established facts. She demonstrated, however, that there are clear differences among the sources, including the details of the possible cannibalism. Moreover, she outlined the particular motivations for the authors of each source, revealing clear reasons for propagating or denying stories about cannibalism.
Using Herrmann’s article as a model, we thus reviewed the best way to handle primary sources that provide quite different accounts about events. Succinctly, we covered how historians evaluate and interrogate sources. For evaluation, they first ask the basic questions: who, what, where, and when. Once they have this baseline, next they evaluate the type of source for what information it is likely to convey. For example, the details in a private journal and a newspaper article potentially will vary. Next, for interrogation they consider both the historical context of the source and the motivations for the source’s production. Herrmann discussed the historical context of both the 1609-1610 Starving Time and the mid-1620s when many of the Starving Time accounts appeared. She also detailed clear personal and economic reasons for the discussion of cannibalism in these accounts of the Starving Time. Following these steps, even budding historians can read primary sources actively and search for source variations that reveal much about the past.
The last thing we did at the meeting was determine that blue was the leading choice for favorite color among this month’s Journal Club participants. Blue was followed closely by green and red. Sorry to orange, gold, and grey, but you are bring up the rear. Remember, charts and tables help get across information clearly and concisely. If you are writing a term research paper and have complex data to convey, consider a table or chart. For this pie chart, I used the free tools on Meta-Chart.
The only thing missing from the September meeting was YOU.
The next Journal Club meeting is Tuesday, October 20th, once again at 2pm in DM370. The October meeting’s focus will be on secondary sources. I will post more details over the coming month.
Best, Dr. Ferdinando