Genre and the History Classroom

Published on: 24 Jun 2019

James Steven Byrne 

Danielle Kinsey began the inaugural post on this blog by referring to her experience as an undergraduate studying history in the 1990s. Like Danielle, I was an undergraduate in the 90s and had a similar experience: though I had excellent teachers and loved my courses, my classroom experience overall was significantly less varied than what I and most of my colleagues try to provide today. I wrote frequently, but none of my courses used writing-centred pedagogy. For example, I can’t remember ever being shown an exemplar to use as a model for an upcoming assignment, and although I read a great deal of historical scholarship, we rarely if ever discussed it as writing. For the most part, the faculty seemed to assume that students either already knew how to write historical essays or that we would pick it up by osmosis as we went along. That isn’t to say that the assignments I wrote were bad or useless – far from it. I learned how to analyze primary sources and to draw on secondary sources to support my claims, crucial skills for any historian. However, I also entered my graduate program without ever having thought much about why historians wrote the way they did.

My first position out of graduate school was a lectureship in the Princeton Writing Program, which led me to think much more explicitly about centring writing in my classroom, and about discussing assigned readings not only for content, but also as examples of writing. Since coming to Quest, I’ve also had the good fortune of working closely with Ellen Flournoy, our Rhetoric Coordinator, which has pushed me to sharpen my writing pedagogy. As a historian, my teaching has benefitted enormously from bringing practices from writing and composition into my classroom. In this post, I’d like to focus particularly on the use of explicit discussion of genre, a common technique in writing and composition pedagogy, in the history classroom.

Alongside the more concrete content and skills that we aim to impart to our students, historians often want to provide students with a sense of the values of the historical profession. Indeed, without some sense of historians’ values, the skills of historical analysis can seem meaningless or contextless. Explicit attention to genre when discussing assigned readings, especially historical scholarship, can address this. Using genre as a teaching tool can develop students’ understanding not only of conventions – how historians write – but also values – why historians write as they do. When I discuss genre with my students and incorporate attention to genre conventions in my assignments, my goal is not to codify a set of rules for students to follow, but rather to think about how common features of historical writing express values that historians frequently share.

Attention to genre conventions as expressions of values can help take aspects of historical writing that might otherwise seem arbitrary and give them meaning by connecting them to other things that students are learning and doing in the classroom. For example, why do historians continue to favour footnotes and endnotes, when other disciplines have adopted parenthetical citation styles? One way to help students understand this as more than professional inertia is to ask them to consider how frequently historians’ notes contain the phrase “see also” or some near equivalent, followed by references to one or more works, something that’s easier to do in notes than in parenthetical citations. This can help students understand how historians tend to imagine themselves as a community (we’re the people who actually follow those references up!), and highlight the value that historians place on establishing context as a necessary prerequisite for interpreting primary sources. We list those works to “see” both to justify claims about historical context that can’t easily be boiled down to single “facts” and to show our colleagues where to start if they, too, want to develop a sense of that particular context. This, in turn, links a characteristic feature of historical writing to a crucial skill that undergraduate history students are developing, the ability to establish historical context as the groundwork for a persuasive historical analysis.

For beginning students, attention to genre conventions is an effective way to teach reading strategies. Asking students to identify expected elements (where’s the thesis? How does the author motivate their argument?) is a good introduction to reading things like journal articles, which many students will initially find overwhelming. However, more advanced students can also benefit from thinking about this. Genre conventions represent values, but they’re also situated in particular contexts, and highlighting this can help give students a sense both of how historians imagine their audiences and how the discipline has developed over time. Works that don’t conform to students’ initial expectations can be especially fruitful for discussion.

For example, in a couple of my courses, I assign a classic article by  Caroline Walker Bynum, “Fast, Feast, and Flesh: the Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women.” My students typically struggle at first to identify its thesis, needing at least to consider it among themselves in small groups, and sometimes to engage in a guiding discussion with me afterwards, to find it. Bynum’s argument is complex, and she proposes, rejects, and refines several explanations for what she finds in her primary sources, but the first reason that students struggle with identifying Bynum’s thesis is that it’s not where they expect it to be. Most students are conditioned to expect a thesis statement to be near the end of an essay’s introduction, but Bynum uses a delayed-thesis structure. Discussing why Bynum might have chosen to use this less common convention can situate the work in a particular moment of historical scholarship and highlight the ways in which historical arguments engage with the values of the larger historical community.

In this case, I point out to students that the article was published in 1985 and that Bynum was among the first generation of women to enter the historical academy in large numbers. That hint is usually enough for at least a few students to make the connection that terms of Bynum’s analysis – gender and the body – would not have been so common in the mid-80s as they are now. When asked to consider the audience of senior historians that Bynum might have had in mind, my students again typically don’t have much trouble imagining that many of them might have been skeptical about analysis informed, as Bynum’s is, by feminist theory. This then leads to a discussion that does double duty in emphasizing Bynum’s importance as a feminist historian and in illustrating how an author might use a delayed thesis to emphasize shared values (e.g., rigorous use of primary sources) to draw readers into an argument that relies on values (e.g., feminist emphasis on embodied experience) that might not be shared.

I hope that I’ve set out a basic case here for how discussion of genre conventions can be a useful tool for both engaging students with historians’ values and demystifying historical writing. I’ve mostly focused on genre as a tool for discussing reading – I’d like to follow up with a subsequent post on genre as a tool for writing assignments.


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