Writing as a Historian (Univ. of New Mexico)

Dr. Virginia Scharff, Distinguished Professor of History, vscharff@unm.edu
Fall 2011, University of New Mexico
Class Meetings: Tuesdays, 4:00-6:30 p.m. (August 2011–December 2011)

Using This Syllabus: This syllabus is designed to provide faculty with a framework for developing a nonfiction writing workshop or course.

Purpose of This Course: This course provides opportunities for graduate students to practice writing assignments, receive instructor and peer critiques, and create a community of practice. Over the course of the semester, students develop their writing skills, learn to make strong arguments based on historical knowledge and interpretation, learn to critique their peers’ writing, and become comfortable with and dedicated to the craft of revision.

Skills It Addresses: Communication, Collaboration, Intellectual Self-Confidence

Course Introduction for Graduate Students

From the Fall 2011 course syllabus

Never let anyone tell you that writing is easy. The immortal S. J. Perelman advised against it. “Lay off the muses,” he wrote. “It’s a very tough dollar.”

But you’re here in history graduate school, so you’ve obviously ignored such good advice, and you are determined to write. Why not write well?

Graduate students often approach writing with the attitude of a 1950s housewife getting rid of the garbage. They’ve accumulated stuff, in libraries and archives rather than grocery stores, and they need to throw it out. It’s not much fun, but it has to be done. They don’t much care how, or where the stuff goes, or what happens to it after it’s out of their hands. Technology helps (In-sink-erator! MacBook!), but all it does is make the disposal process faster and easier, sometimes too fast and too easy. We forget that garbage is not itself a product, but a by-product of things we want people to consume.

In this seminar, we will remember that we write in order to reach readers. They consume and digest, remember and recycle our work. We will stop writing as if we are simply tossing out miscellaneous bits and pieces of things we’ve collected, and start writing as if we are preparing delicious dishes. We will compose with care and precision, in the hopes that our audience will savor, enjoy, find sustenance, and tell their neighbors.

As historians, we are writers of nonfiction. Our first job is to persuade our readers that what we write is true. Our second job is to persuade readers that they should care enough about what we’re saying to take the time to read what we write. Readers today have myriad choices about how to spend their information-consuming time (Your essay, or Top Chef? Your essay, or Richard White’s new book? Your essay or Josh Marshall’s blog?) We have to make readers want to spend their time with us.

About this Course

Writing Assignments

I designed the course as a nonfiction writing workshop. Most weeks, students wrote essays of no more than 1,000 words in the genre assigned for the week (See Topics in syllabus below), on any subject of their choosing. For a final assignment, students also had the option of revising five of the essays or choosing a longer piece of their previous work, to redraft with an eye toward publication. In the latter case, I asked them to submit the original piece in advance, with comments from previous reviewers, and added my own suggestions for revision.

Papers were due in class the week after they were assigned. Students submitted one electronic copy by e-mail, and brought two hard copies to class. When students handed in their short essays, they also exchanged papers with another class member for reading and critique the following week. During critiques, the class provided clarifying questions and comments. I added comments based on my own readings, both with regard to individual essays and on the way in which the group had tackled that week’s writing challenge.


I required only two books for this course: William Zinsser’s On Writing Well and Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, which we discussed August 30 and September 6. Each week thereafter, since the best writers also read voraciously, I required students to bring examples of good nonfiction writing to discuss in class. Students chose useful examples of the kind of writing I assigned for that week. For instance, when I asked students to write about an event, they could choose anything from Elliott West’s description of the Sand Creek Massacre, to Tom Wolfe’s Electric Kool-aid Acid Test, to a great piece of reporting on the current presidential campaign.

Learning Outcomes

Through weekly writing assignments, instructor and peer critiques, and the creation of a community of practice, students developed or sharpened their existing writing skills, learned to make and support strong arguments based on historical knowledge and interpretation, learned to critique their peers’ writing, and became comfortable with and dedicated to the craft of revision.


What worked? I think students gained the most from the need to develop a productive writing routine, to crank out short pieces of writing on deadline, to learn to take sympathetic but rigorous criticism, and to experiment with different genres. They learned to be tough on themselves but not to invest too much ego in any phrase, sentence, or draft. Because all students had to meet the same demanding schedule and respond to one another’s suggestions, they developed wonderful esprit de corps. Many, if not most, ended the semester as more confident and accomplished writers than they had begun.

What needs work? The range of genres needs some updating. Next time around, I’d give the students the option to treat one or more assignments as blog posts or tweets. I would also rethink how to use outside readings in each genre, possibly by establishing a Facebook page for the class for additional discussions between sessions.

I was also generally disappointed with the final projects from students who chose to revise longer pieces. Few students chose this option, and those who did may have underestimated the time they would need to tackle comments requiring further research and substantial revision in argument. Or possibly, they were just pressed by other papers, and feeling burned out on writing. I think I would skip that option in the future.

Course Schedule

August 23

August 30
Discuss required book: Lamott
Discuss topic #1: Tell me a story
Essay #1 due

September 6
Discuss required book: Zinsser
Discuss topic #2: Point of view
Essay #2 due

September 13
Discuss topic #3: Description of an event
Essay #3 due

September 20
Discuss term projects

September 27
Discuss topic #4: Travel piece
Essay #4 due

October 4
Discuss topic #5: Description of a process
Essay #5 due

October 11
Western History Association meeting—no class
Identify interview subject for essay #6 and arrange interview

October 18
Discuss topic #6: Interview
Essay #6 due

October 25
Discuss topic #7: Personality Profile
Essay #7 due

November 1
Discuss topic #8: Book review
Essay #8 due

November 6
Discuss topic #9: Other review
Essay #9 due

November 15
Discuss topic #10: Op-ed piece
Essay #10 due

November 22
Thanksgiving week—no class

November 29
Pre-submission workshop on final projects

December 6
Discuss final projects
Final projects due