Genre and the History Classroom, Part II

Published on: 23 Jun 2019

James Steven Byrne 

In my previous post, I focused on using explicit discussion of genre conventions in assigned readings as a tool for engaging students with historians’ values. In this post, I’d like to follow up with some thoughts about genre as a tool in communicating assignments to students and make an argument for incorporating a broad variety of genres into one’s assignments.

As an undergraduate, nearly all my writing assignments fell into the genre of “undergraduate history essay.” I’d characterize this as an apprentice genre aimed at introducing students to the skills necessary for historical analysis and incorporating some, but not all, of the conventions of professional historical essays as encountered in journals and anthologies. The primary variation in this genre of assignment is whether students are given a set of sources from which to construct their argument or whether they’re expected to do some independent research and find at least some relevant sources on their own.

There are several ways in which students can benefit from explicit discussion of genre with this kind of assignment. First, discussing genre can simply give students a better sense of what they’re meant to accomplish with an assignment. What does a historical thesis look like, and what work is it meant to accomplish? Students, especially early in their academic careers, often fail to imagine an audience beyond the professor who gave the assignment. This can lead to papers that feel boring or misconceived, even if they formally address the prompt. For example, earlier in my career, I would often get students writing papers on medieval cultural or intellectual history that essentially argued that some medieval thinker was, in modern terms, wrong (e.g., a critique of Thomas Aquinas’ proof of God’s existence). As I included more explicit discussion of genre and, in particular, more explicit discussion of both strong and weak examples of student essays, I was able to minimize the number of students who went off track like this and more effectively address the ones who did.

When I discuss writing in class, both published and student, one of the things that I try to draw my students’ attention to is the ways in which historians motivate their arguments. We expect all persuasive writing to be motivated, that is, to account to its readers for why they ought to be interested in what it has to say, in some way. But what counts as a good motive is tightly linked to genre and audience expectations. There are motivating moves that are common across academia; we all frequently identify gaps in existing scholarship and show how our work fills them. However, the kinds of questions and arguments that we consider interesting vary widely across disciplines. To return to Caroline Walker Bynum’s essay “Fast, Feast, and Flesh,” the example that I used in my previous post, Bynum begins by noting that although scholars of medieval religion had written a great deal about poverty and chastity, there had been relatively little attention paid to food, even though gluttony and fasting were central concerns in medieval religious writing. This is, as I’m sure all of my readers will recognize, a textbook historical motivating move. However, although the broad move that Bynum makes, identifying a gap in the scholarship, is common in all academic writing, the particular problem that she poses is distinctly historical. The implicit question that Bynum poses in her first paragraph, “what was the religious significance of food to medieval people,” will, if she persuasively addresses it, deepen her readers’ understanding of a central aspect of medieval spiritual life, precisely the kind of l knowledge that historians value. In Bynum’s reference to others’ emphasis on poverty and chastity – money and sex, as she points out – she also critiques presentism in the form of emphasizing modern obsessions over the concerns of one’s historical actors. This, especially, is a distinctively historical critique – it has more power for historians than for any other audience.  Returning, then, to my example of a student critiquing Thomas Aquinas, if students have had some introductory discussion of what a historical audience values and how that manifests in historical writing, it is easier to see why a motive like “Thomas Aquinas was wrong about an important issue” might be appropriate in a theological or philosophical argument, but probably isn’t in a historical argument because without more context it doesn’t hold out any promise of deepening readers’ understanding of any particular historical milieu. 

In addition to helping me communicate assignments better, thinking about genre pushed me to broaden the types of assignments that I give beyond the standard undergraduate historical essay and assignments that scaffold towards it (such as primary source analyses or annotated bibliographies). These “standard” assignments are useful in developing students’ core skills in historical analysis – they teach students to think like historians. However, they’re also apprentice genres for a type of writing that outside of the classroom is done almost exclusively by professional historians with graduate degrees. Some of my students will go to graduate programs in history or closely related fields, but the large majority won’t. And historical essays are not the only ways for students to develop their skills in historical analysis. So, for example, in my course Chivalry and Feudalism, a medieval studies course that focuses on ways in which conflicts were resolved in a society in which state power was often very weak, one assignment I set is for groups of students to write and enact a ritual liturgical cursing and humiliation of the saint (these were monastic responses to serious transgressions, essentially calling down the wrath of God and the monastery’s saint on the transgressors). I give students a small packet of primary and secondary sources on liturgical cursing and humiliation, and this assignment comes at the end of a unit in which we’ve discussed conflicts between clergy and aristocracy. Doing the assignment well requires students both to use the provided sources to develop an understanding of the from and purpose of these rituals and, because the rituals included reference to the transgressions that had provoked them, to situate their ritual in a plausible historical context. In other words, it develops many of the same skills that we use more traditional assignments to build. 

This kind of re-enactment certainly won’t be appropriate for all courses, but it can be especially helpful in courses in which one expects to have a high proportion of non-majors as it puts some core issues – especially the central importance of being able to situate a source in a proper context – that are sometimes more implicit in traditional essays. Beyond this, it’s also helpful to consider published genres that use historical analysis but aren’t necessarily scholarly essays – these can help both majors and non-majors consider ways in which historical arguments can be used to address a public audience. For example, in my course Slavery, Democracy, and Capitalism, on slavery in the Atlantic world, the first major assignment for groups students to produce the text for a library exhibit using sources drawn from the course reader. Each group chooses a theme for their exhibit and writes a group introduction and conclusion, while each individual student chooses three primary sources and does a short write-up of those, connecting them to one another and their group’s larger theme. This develops many of the same skills as a standard primary source analysis, but in a rhetorical situation that’s more public-facing. In the course’s final assignment, students choose an issue of contemporary political or cultural relevance and write a piece of long-form journalism that shows how an understanding of the history of slavery in the Atlantic world can deepen our understanding of it (we discuss Ta-Nehisi Coates’s article “Why Do So Few Blacks Study the Civil War?” as our primary example of the genre). Again, this develops some of the same skills as a research essay, as students still need to draw on primary and secondary sources to show a thorough contextual understanding of some aspect of Atlantic slavery, but the genre also pushes students to consider the role of historical arguments in the public sphere.

These are just a few examples of ways in which more attention to and use of genre as a teaching tool has improved my pedagogy. I hope that they’re useful for my readers, too. As historians, we all value writing and historical communication, and this is one way of making it less opaque and more accessible to our students.


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