by Karen McNeill, History
Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2005
Did you hear the loud groan echo through the corridors of Dwinelle Hall? Somebody just mentioned the History 7B research paper. This assignment demands that graduate student instructors teach their students — most of whom are taking the course to fulfill the American Cultures requirement rather than out of an inherent interest in history or historical inquiry — how to write a ten-page documented critical essay based on original research. Ideally, it can offer students an opportunity to discover the treasures of the Bancroft Library’s archival collections and an understanding of the past that no history lecture can capture. In reality, the research paper is a daunting task for students who have never attempted such an assignment before and do not know what a primary source is, do not write often or well, are not deeply invested in unearthing the past, and are busy fulfilling the requirements for several other demanding courses. By the third time I taught this course, I had to figure out a way to motivate the students to produce research papers that they enjoyed writing and I enjoyed reading.
Personally, I could not bear to read yet another paper about the Civil Rights Movement, the Black Panther Party, the Free Speech Movement, Vietnam protests at the University of California, the Beats, or the counterculture. While all of these are worthy historical subjects, students invariably produce papers that are too broad in scope and relatively uncritical summaries of already familiar stories. I adopted a fresh approach to remedy this problem. The periodicals room at Doe Library houses an extraordinary collection of newspapers, so I assigned students to read any newspaper that dated to 1950 or before. To offer some boundaries, I suggested they look at California newspapers. While some students happened upon an event, person, or place that has been the subject of many a monograph, they more often discovered some little-known story that could be researched itself or that sparked an original idea for the paper. The students picked topics that naturally appealed to them, which helped them maintain their enthusiasm for the duration of the project.
Once they had chosen the topic, students had to turn in three one-page critical analyses of a primary document, complete with copies of the documents and proper citations of them. The short assignments did not create more work for the students; if done well, students were essentially writing rough drafts of their papers as they fulfilled the assignments. Yes, I created more work for myself, but I could also better gauge any problems — the quality of the sources, analysis and argumentation, citations, the feasibility of the project, or general grammar — that might arise in individual papers or among the class as a whole. In turn, the students knew where their strengths and weaknesses lay and had time to address them before handing in the final paper.
That semester students completed the best batch of research papers I have ever received. I cannot say that the quality of student writing improved dramatically, but the quality of the research and analysis did. Despite my warnings, a few students inevitably produced papers that were too broad in scope, but more often I read about such original topics as a children’s reading program in Los Angeles during the 1920s, or the intersection between science, the advertising industry, and miracle medical cures in the early twentieth century. Students did not find the process burdensome either; on the contrary, they stated in their GSI evaluations that the short assignments kept them from procrastinating, made an overwhelming process more manageable, and improved their writing. Above all, students appreciated my regular feedback. This process made the semester a more enjoyable and rewarding one for everybody involved.