Thursday, June 16, 2011

Review of a Guide to Writing History

Thrashing about to find a workable thesis for my current paper on Brook Farm and utopianism, I found Reading, Writing, and Researching for History: A Guide for College Students by Patrick Rael, Bowdoin College. Looks like they put it in the writing guide section of their Website.

Rael has targeted this guide to students, most likely undergrads. People looking to teach themselves history writing skills or others looking for a refresher, however, will find this Webpage useful.

The guide has provided my autodidactic self a lot of good tips, most especially how to come up with questions and use them to drill down to a workable thesis and a structure for my paper. I haven't experiemented with the tips yet, but I feel more confident just reading them. I plan on developing questions after finishing my praise of the guide.

Coming up with questions and theses plays an important part in history paper writing. History essay writing has plenty of other aspects, too, that need attention. Reading, Writing, and Researching for History: A Guide for College Students introduces and covers them. They include.

  • Reading secondary and primary sources like a fierce, effective predator
  • Developing and analyzing arguments (including generating questions & theses)
  • Research techniques
  • Structuring the paper, from the thesis to conclusion to facts to rhetoric
  • Presenting and citing sources in the paper
  • Editing and revising the essay after first draft
  • Even a model to provide inspiration
The layout comes across simple and easy to use. On top find the title and author. To the left, a table of contents with links to different chapters. The main body awaits your reading eyes to the right. Each chapter only takes up a few screens; nothing to worry about.

The Guide has PDF versions available for each chapter and one for the entire work. Just save it to your hard drive or print it out. No need for Internet access!

Rael adopts a great tone. Acknowledging that students often find the discipline of history intimidating, he goes out of his way to make the reader feel comfortable.

The academy talks down to the student. Rael wants to speak with the student as a person. History becomes cold, useless and meaningless to the general student because they can't connect to it. It takes the rare student who already has the history bug to make it through a course and do something with their knowledge. Rael admits this fault with the academy.

He made this guide as a remedy. He writes in everyday language, provides examples and encourages students of history to ask questions of others and of history.

My schooling didn't discourage asking questions. It just didn't teach how to ask questions. From what I remember about writing essays, I remember learning structure for the 5-paragraph essay:
  1. Introduce thesis in first paragaph
  2. First argument supporting thesis in second paragraph with 3-4 sentences supporting argument
  3. Second argument supporting thesis in third paragraph with 3-4 sentences supporting argument
  4. Third argument supporting thesis in forth paragraph with 3-4 sentences supporting argument
  5. Tie things up in fifth paragraph with conclusion and a couple wrapping up comments
I don't remember spending much time on developing that thesis and argument. We were supposed to just come up with a thesis, arguments and all the support.

Suffice to say, I did fine with this structure on high school tests and even on short essays in college. I can't really say how I did fine, though. It just all worked out.

How much fault can students take if facts just get passively poured into them then receive skeleton instructions to use all that random information to make some kind of argument? Where does their motivation come from if they don't learn the significance of those facts and how to feel that significance? How can we expect them to just throw down historical arguments when they don't learn how to develop historical ideas, questions and arguments?

Teaching them to develop ideas can help to teach them passion for the topic.

Just from the introduction page of Reading, Writing, and Researching for History: A Guide for College Students, Rael shows his hope of transferring his love of history to his students and readers. Readers willing to take the journey will find an inspiring guide for developing questions that will make history more significant, meaningful and, dare I say it, exciting.

Reading, Writing, and Researching for History: A Guide for College Students makes for a great read. It could easily become a go to resource for any student from high school level to the decline of your mental facilities.

In fact, curriculum's should make this guide a must read. It would probably have one drawback, though: too many students will want to become historians, taking away workers from other industries. Oh well, I think our future selves will know how to handle that problem better than we do now. Let's deal with it then.

Links of interest: Brook Farm, utopianism, Reading, Writing, and Researching for History: A Guide for College Students

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