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Writing in the Major Spotlight: History 209S

Two students sit at a table looking at a pile of Post-It notes with key concepts on each note

In History 209S: American Political History, Professor Jennifer Burns hopes that her students “will get lost on the frontier of knowledge.” But “the story of the quarter” is that “we all get found,” she adds.

History 209S serves as the History capstone and its designated Writing in the Major (WIM) course. As Writing Fellow and Ph.D. Candidate Alex Stern puts it, 209S is “not just another research seminar”: the teaching team introduces students to archival work and works closely with them as they develop a 20-page publishable essay. Stern explains the class is designed to help students do things right. The writing assignments and in-class activities all hone students’ research and writing skills and consistently advance their work-in-progress.

For the most part, history students enter History 209S understanding that doing history requires learning to write an “archival paper,” an argument with a foundation in primary sources, but they don’t yet know how to produce it. For this reason, 209S foregrounds discussion of writing strategies particular to history throughout the quarter: find your character(s), craft your narrative, and document continuities and change. Moreover, the history of history is always at issue as students formulate claims in response to historiography. As Julia Busby, Class of 2019 History Major and Political Science Minor, confirms: this WIM course helped her “locate writing as an intervention in existing historical work.”

Reading and Writing Assignments

As early as Week 2 of the quarter, students begin work in Stanford and Hoover archives. With lots of support from the archivists and through conversation with their professor and Writing Fellow, they become comfortable with the uncertainty and excitement of not knowing what they will find. The instructors keep class reading assignments to a minimum so students can focus on their own research and writing, but they do assign Joan Bolker’s Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day. Key concepts from the text–starting small, writing messy, and the zero draft–are discussed in almost every class. Professor Burns says Bolker’s popular book also addresses wellness and work/life balance. It reminds students that our brains are our most valuable instruments.

Writing assignments all build toward the final 20-page research paper. Two response papers on secondary sources important to the students’ research projects remind students how to read to write. In three paragraphs, students address what the source says, how it says it, and how they can use it in their research. A parallel assignment, “Primary Source Show and Tell,” invites class dialogue about student-selected primary sources. As Griffin Bovee, Class of 2019 History and Political Science major, explains, this exercise drew on the developing expertise of the class: “classmates would see different things in [your primary source] to deepen your interpretation.” Stern further notes, “a lot of oral communication complements the writing assignments,” as students formally respond to their classmates’ presentations on primary and secondary sources.

To focus their research, students prepare a formal research proposal that includes succinct historical background, articulation of “specific, researchable, and meaningful” research question(s), identification of what scholarly conversations the research will join, a project plan, and an annotated bibliography of 10 primary sources and 10 secondary sources. The research proposal is peer reviewed and revised before being submitted and graded. For Julia, the proposal assignment was the most helpful of the quarter as it forced her to address a weakness in her research and writing: crafting an original and appropriately narrow research topic.

Students rhetorically analyze examples of successful papers from past classes to observe discipline-specific strategies they can import and adapt to their own projects.

They can also see for themselves that if they draft early, they will have more time for focused revisions such as devising a more compelling framework or crafting more precise topic sentences.

In addition to reading the sample papers, students hear directly from the author of the work, who comes back to visit the new class. Their peer gives students insight into the lived experience of writing, testifying to the benefits of a robust writing process.

To support drafting, Donna Hunter, the Writing Specialist in History, leads a non-linear outline workshop, which encourages students to use sticky notes to arrange and re-arrange their ideas. From there, they “freewrite,” generating five pages that can be from the beginning, middle, or end of their emerging arguments. For Griffin, “freewriting definitely helped me get over my block. I wanted to put something on the page, something I could work with.” This low-stakes, high-impact writing served as “a confidence booster.” For Julia, a self-described procrastinator, creating a rough draft gave her “time to think creatively” and “sit with” what she’d done, ultimately helping her see that she needed to re-organize and more carefully prove her argument. Moreover, when students draft sooner rather than later in the quarter, they can benefit from peer review. Talking about writing, especially as yet ungraded writing, is a crucial part of the course. Professor Burns oversees peer review, often pairing students to take advantage of strengths or affinities for particular topics. She recalls her time as a writing tutor in college and the rewards of working with peers; she encourages her students to serve as mirrors and sounding boards for each other, creating spaces where ideas can flourish.

In this small class, all participants share their progress in almost every meeting, reflecting on when and where they’re doing their writing. The teaching team shares how their writing is going, too. Professor Burns brings in her calendar to show students how and where she’s writing, sharing practical time management strategies. She draws on her experience writing her dissertation and transforming it into her first book, Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right, which required her to systematically plan, find balance, and pace herself for marathon projects. The class creates a community of practice that suggests we’re all in this together.

As Griffin says: “the class forces you to be accountable to yourself and set the schedule . . . [it reinforces the idea that] you need to be working constantly on your 20-page paper because it is WIM and the whole point is writing.”

Students and Faculty Reflect

In History 209S, students grow as writers and as historians. They come to a more profound understanding of American political history, moving past conventional narratives to consider complex people and archival sources. As they locate and curate primary sources in Stanford’s many archives, they articulate the idea that will drive the selection of sources. For Julia, the best part of this WIM was the opportunity to experiment with her writing process and argumentation while exploring a topic she is passionate about, the recent history of feminism. She found the extensive personalized feedback extremely helpful as well as the required drafts; both of these elements of History 209S taught her the value of revision. For Griffin, the course similarly showed him the value of collaboration, particularly with peers and a “phenomenal” Writing Fellow. He loved that the course was dedicated to one thing, the writing of a primary-source driven research argument, in his case on California’s contentious political history.

Professor Burns realized that by making her process visible, she can be more vividly present in the class.

She chooses to teach History 209S because the course intertwines so beautifully the work of professors and the work of students.

For example, as the class discusses one of the early assignments for the course, an annotated bibliography, she shares one that she wrote over seven years ago. It was the genesis of her current book project, a biography of Milton Friedman. Professor Burns is most successful when she’s also writing every day, something she does with her 209S students; the course provides a real “symbiosis” she says.

Works Cited and Further Resources

Bolker, Joan. Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day: A Guide to Starting, Revising, and Finishing Your Doctoral Thesis. Owl Books, 1998.

Burns, Jennifer. Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right. Oxford University Press, 2009.

Green, Anna, and Kathleen Troup, editors. The Houses of History: A Critical Reader in Twentieth-Century History and Theory. New York University Press, 1999.

Sword, Helen. Air & Light & Time & Space: How Successful Academics Write. Harvard University Press, 2017.

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