History in the Trenches: Teaching the Undergraduate Capstone Course

Mary Stockwell, April 2009

Years ago when I started my career in history as a graduate assistant at a large state university, I remember thinking before those early morning Western Civilization classes, “I hope I can teach students how to write ‘real’ history someday.” In my mind—and probably in the minds of most historians in the trenches of 100-level survey courses—the thought of teaching an upper-level class in researching and writing history seemed like a distant oasis that I would reach only in my dreams. That dream finally came true for me when I became the chair of a history department at a small Catholic college in the Midwest. As the chair, it was my job to teach the upper-level course in historiography to history and education majors as a capstone course in their programs. Much to my surprise, the oasis I had dreamt of for so long evaporated like a mirage before me and I found myself in the trenches once again.

What were some of the problems? History majors tended to dismiss the course as “just another term-paper class.” They picked a topic and then spent the rest of the semester pretty much on their own until they turned their paper in during finals week. Education majors resented the course as one more required class that kept them away from their real job of teaching students. Even worse, most of the students were clueless about writing even a short history paper. Some older ones had actually heard of abstracts, outlines, and footnotes, but that was long ago in courses they had taken at other colleges. Younger students were supposed to learn how to write a research paper in a required 200-level English course. But most seemed to have forgotten everything they had learned by the time they enrolled in historiography. Still my favorite complaints came from those I would call the “History Channel majors”: students who liked watching history fully digested on television, but the thought of actually writing history was beyond them.

My first reaction was a knee-jerk one. “In my day, I wrote a 20-page research paper in every class!” “Yes,” I imagined my students groaning, “she probably did it while walking to the library five miles one way, ten miles home, and in the snow!” Whining about the good old days didn’t help matters, but my natural bent as a historian to think my way backwards did. I asked myself, “When did I really learn to write history?” It didn’t take me long to answer. It was in my graduate seminars with the noted historian of the American West W. Eugene Hollon. I never turned in just one draft to him. Instead, I turned in however many drafts it took to get it right. I remember the pain of seeing my carefully crafted master’s thesis covered in red. But I also remember learning that historians were first and foremost writers. While their work must be based on the best scholarship, it must also “flow” across the page.

Could this experience be usefully recreated for students in an undergraduate capstone course? If no change was made, I’d end up reading a stack of papers in the last week of the semester with almost no interaction with my students. I decided, therefore, to restructure “HST 430: Historiography” as a biweekly seminar where students would be told on Day One that they were authors and I was their editor. The purpose of the seminar would be for my student authors to research and write a piece of history for publication in Tell Me a Story, the department’s new online history journal. Each class in the seminar would be an actual step a historian takes in the process of writing for publication.

Step One

The first lesson in writing “real” history comes in Class One when students are asked to describe the history that most interests them. The goal is to help them envision the work they want to write. They learn that historians begin by writing short statements about what their history will cover. The historians then submit these summaries to conferences where they hope to present their work. For a longer piece of history, like a book, they write “proposals” that provide an overview of the entire work for possible publishers. They also submit a list of primary sources for their proposed work along with major secondary sources, better known as “competing titles.”

Step Two

In Class Two, students present their vision along with a list of sources. At first students were reluctant to comment on each other’s work. A year ago, when teaching a particularly silent class, I showed students my vision for a chapter of a book I am writing on Anthony Wayne. After what seemed like an eternity, one brave student finally said, “You could improve your title by shortening it. You also failed to list any sources that are not specifically written by or about Anthony Wayne. And what did his own soldiers or the British think of him?” That’s all it took for the class to open up and let me know what to do to improve my “abstract” and “review” of the literature.

Step Three

The next step comes in showing the student authors how to structure their work. As historians, we tell a story across time. We move from some point in the past to another point closer to the present as if between two anchors. But historians also raise questions and provide answers about the story that we are telling. This argument also anchors our work. These two strands remain separate and yet are bound together. It’s like a “double helix,” I realized. I now explain the outlining process with pictures of chromosomes on the screen in front of the class. The students’ job is to create an outline that starts and ends in time and provides an argument that supports the storyline.

When the students meet in Class Three, their shyness about presenting their work is usually gone. Before the class is over, we have had a lively discussion about every outline. I then recommend that they get a three-ring binder and place dividers in it that match their outline. This might seem cumbersome but if they organize their research up front, they will have a much easier time once they start writing. I also take the time to explain the use of footnotes.

Step Four

I next meet with the students about their research in individual sessions. They then complete their first drafts, which they present in Class Four. We usually have time for half of the students to show the opening paragraphs of their works to the class. I then set up another round of meetings that take place once I have had a chance to edit their histories. “Don’t be alarmed if you get your first draft back covered in red,” I explain, “this is what editors do in the real world!”

Steps Five and Six

After I meet with each student individually, the authors incorporate my editorial changes in their second drafts. In Class Five, students who did not get the chance to present their first drafts now present their second ones. At the end of the class, I promise to have my edits of the second drafts back in their mailboxes within the week. They must then incorporate the comments in their third draft that will be presented in Class Six. I ask them to “dress up” for this final class as if they were presenting at a conference or meeting a publisher. They must also write a short biography about themselves that will be posted along with their published work in the next edition of Tell Me a Story. By the time the student authors deliver their final drafts, they have learned to write “real” history that brings the past to life by connecting a story across time with an underlying series of questions and answers.

My college’s history capstone course is now an intense process for student authors and their editor alike that leaves me searching for better metaphors to explain how history is written. This past Christmas I came up with another one, probably after hearing the Nutcracker one too many times in a local coffee house. Maybe writing history is like scoring a ballet. The story already exists, but we write the music so people can understand it. It was then that a former student—now studying for a master’s in history at a large state university—said to me, “That notebook idea you taught us in historiography really comes in handy.” Maybe the metaphor of a history teacher always in the trenches remains the best one after all.

—Mary Stockwell is professor and chair of the history department at Lourdes College, in Sylvania, Ohio.