Teaching Innovations

“The Play's the Thing”: Students Write Historical Fiction

Marvin Lunenfeld, November 1992

"Knowledge conquered by labor becomes a possession," wrote Thomas Carlyle, "a possession entirely our own. A greater vividness and permanency of impression is secured, and facts thus acquired become registered in the mind in a way that mere imparted information can never produce." The excitement of history can come alive to undergraduates when they work with primary sources to discover their own answers. This is especially true when they create new knowledge and do not merely recapitulate facts in the context of received conclusions.

Yet, the traditional research paper frequently fails to engage students, perhaps due to their lack of training. Because many have little experience writing an academic paper, beginning students often cobble together whatever they can in hopes of passing the result off as a serious effort.

What can be done to motivate students to write in a fashion that will engage their interest and result in something that is a possession entirely their own? One solution I have found for my Renaissance and Age of Reformation courses has been to have students devise works of historical fiction that bring them into more intimate contact with an unfamiliar time period. This type of writing can probably be adopted in any course, save the most basic introductory survey.

During the first week of classes I announce to my students that they will be given license to develop—among other possibilities and instead of the typical term paper—a short story, a series of letters, diary entries, a segment of a movie script, a scene from an opera, an act of a play, a story board, a comic strip, a song cycle, an epic poem, a TV sitcom, a soap opera, a trial transcript, a slide presentation, a series of news stories and columns, or an "autobiographical" scrapbook. The choice of format is up to them, which is rather terrifying at first for any student rarely called upon to make decisions. In my initial discussions I carefully avoid using the word "creative," since too many students have, unfortunately, come to believe that they are capable of little more than memorizing The Facts. I have had more success with "innovative," which, although a distinction without a difference, has proven to be far less intimidating.

The primary documents in Gene Brucker, The Society of Renaissance Florence: A Documentary Study (NY: Harper Torchbooks, 1971) and Gerald Strauss, Manifestations of Discontent in Germany on the Eve of the Reformation (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985), with which I start off the respective courses, are filled with engaging episodes that cry out for dramatic treatment. Around the midpoint of each term we study, respectively, Machiavelli's comedy Mandragola and John Osborne's drama Luther, to demonstrate how a professional playwright does the job.

There should be a sequence of four assignments that open lines of communication: a preliminary biography, a project sheet, a short initial draft of the project, and the finished project. I begin first thing in the term, right after distributing an extensive chronology with lists of rulers and creative individuals. The preliminary assignment is to select a person from this handout (or anyone in the appropriate period students might have in mind, since advanced music, English, and art majors have, I find, rather firm ideas), type a half-page biography, and list three books on the subject actually on our library's shelves (along with call numbers). They must also ask of that historical figure five significant questions, as if he or she were alive and available to answer. I recommend they look up a few individuals in their assigned reading, in the latest Britannica, which has excellent bibliographies, or in the Encyclopedia of the Renaissance. (Reference texts cannot be included as a part of the required listing of books or cited thereafter.) This modest chore is necessary to get students thinking about a topic as early as possible or they will be very slow in starting their project. The preliminary assignment is returned with very brief comments, with the focus usually placed upon sharpening their choice of books.

The next phase, two weeks later, is a typed one-paragraph project sheet setting out the proposed subject plus the anticipated format and, once again, at least three book titles. The earlier preliminary assignment and the project sheet need not treat the same historical personage. Sometimes students have discovered there were not enough books at hand to treat their initial choice, or they could not locate any primary documents in translation, or they have become inspired in another direction.

The final project, I explain from the first day, does not have to be biographical in nature. Some students thus decide, instead, to cover a battle (Lepanto), a war (the Peasants' Rebellion), the creation of musical works (Palestrina's), a voyage (Vespucci's), an invention (Leonardo's orthocopter), humanism (Laura Cereta's views), a debate (the Diet of Worms), a trial (Gutenberg's), the creation of a painting (the Sistine Chapel ceiling), or a building (the Duomo).

Bold students, who have something unusual in mind, typically try it out on me in the office before committing to paper. My master rule is Rabelais's motto over the gate to the Abbey of Thélème—"Do What Thou Wilt." Virtually anything goes, as long as the concept has a firm research base and the writer believes he or she has the courage to carry the concept through to the end. Many communications students want to jump right in and immediately record something with four tracks. They need restraining, so that they first produce a written script for approval. At this early point, I recommend that students who have working relationships with professors in disciplines appropriate to the project's topic see them for additional guidance. I have found that my colleagues are pleased, rather than put off, by this bit of interdepartmental cooperation.

Nervous and unsure students stop by the office, desperate for an idea. To help them, I have built up a collection of copies of better papers from past years, which I place with the secretary (or they could be put on library reserve). When all else fails, I follow the advice given in the Passover Haggadah to the Jewish father who had, of his four sons, one who was a slow starter: "And with him who does not know how to ask you must open and begin yourself." Such students, who will have to be assigned both a topic and a treatment, often are happiest with a short story format, this being closest to their previous experience of history. Not many students, however, seem to require hand tending.

It is necessary to insist the project be written in the historical present to thrust students into distant eras. If they want to place themselves in the text as narrator or as a character, this can work well enough. However, it is not acceptable to have the project bring a historical figure into today's world, since the sense of distinct place and distant time I strive to have them grasp is always lost.

To assure that students do not get the erroneous idea that they can just invent anything they please, without recourse to significant outside reading to supply their factual base, they must append to the first draft, and to the finished project, a two-page "bibliographic essay" that tells, in a conversational style, which pages from which books they read, exactly what they took from those pages, what they transcribed from one medium to another (i.e., when a letter became a piece of dialogue), and exactly what was their own invention. I have found to my surprise that this works better than the standard endnotes in a research paper, because it makes writers fully aware when they have done nothing more than paraphrase a couple of books.

For useful sources, our library has been buying the latest scholarly biographies, along with core documents in translation (e.g., Columbus's Logbook, Machiavelli's letters, Great Debates of the Reformation, Luther's table talk, or Joan of Arc's trial transcript). Additionally, to add verisimilitude and color to their writing I put on reserve books about costume, architecture, food, and social life, upon which they must draw. Fernand Braudel's The Structures of Everyday Life: The Limits of the Possible (NY: Harper & Row, 1979) is a mine of data. Other useful texts are: Reay Tannahill, Food in History (NY: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1973); Daniel J. Boorstin, The Discoverers: A History of Man's Search to Know His World and Himself (NY: Random House, 1983); Joseph and Frances Gies, Life in a Medieval City (NY: Harper & Row, 1969); Marzieh Gail, Life in the Renaissance (NY, Random House, n.d.); John Gage, Life in Italy at the Time of the Medici (NY: Capricorn Books, 1970); E. R. Chamberlin, Everyday Life in Renaissance Times (NY: Capricorn Books, 1968); J. R. Hale, Renaissance Europe: Individual and Society, 1480–1520 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978); and Marcelin Defourneaux, Daily Life in Spain in the Golden Age (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1970).

The first draft falls due three weeks after their project sheet has been approved. We hold a peer evaluation session when the four-page typed draft is due. (The completed project will run between seven and ten pages.) The session is listed in the syllabus as mandatory attendance. I take a few moments to collect the papers for entry in my roster book to demonstrate the importance the draft plays in the final grade. Students who intend to develop a visual presentation include sketches with the preliminary text.

The position I take with the class about peer evaluation is that it is a waste to put in a great deal of effort for something only one person—the teacher—will ever see. Working in groups of four or five, students read and comment upon what the others have done. This helps them break out of isolation. Members of the groups are requested to evaluate each project in writing, based upon criteria written on the board: sense of historical period, clarity of dramatic sequence, color and texture in the writing, and persuasiveness of the argument or story line. It is good to recommend that students discuss the papers with the authors as they read along. I sit in with each group, in turn, as a "resource person" to keep them going, to exhort them to be critical, and to check that discussions stay fairly close to subject matter.

I return the drafts with my own comments, which prod students to put in additional work on the factual base of their writing and to flesh out details of an environment appropriate to their era. The final version often makes a giant stylistic leap, sometimes ending up, however, a good deal longer than requested, but by then the papers are often so interesting to read that they seem not too great a burden to go through with dispatch a second time. As Erasmus pointed out in the Adagia, "The fondness for writing grows with writing." Certainly not all students will agree, of course, but it is up to the instructor to encourage those writers who suddenly discover they have it in them to become good. Two of my graduates have gone on to try their hand at historical novels, and one has written an illustrated children's story based on her class project.

The deadline (on a day when there is no class) for the final version of the seven- to ten-page papers, plus the two pages of the bibliographic essay, is set for at least three weeks before the end of the term. This assures that there will be time for presentations during the remaining sessions. Jesuit educators of the early modern period had their students write and present sacred plays, as well as participate in debates, as a way to instill a taste for argumentation and a striving for excellence. Taking my clue from this estimable mode of education, I offer my students, on a voluntary basis, the chance to go public. I dangle the lure of lunch at the best local restaurant as the prize to the two winners in each class. (A lone winner might be embarrassed to go anywhere with a professor. Alternative prizes, or an adjustment in the grading, can also be offered.) In exchange for a modest out-of-pocket expense I get the rare opportunity to share a meal with my best students.

Not all instructors will want to devote any of their class time to presentations, but this does have pedagogical benefits. For one thing, students are alerted to material which has not been covered in the course of their reading or the lectures. For another, there is a certain sameness that casts a pall over the last few weeks of any term, as students and teachers may tire a bit of one another. Also, since many of the students wonder how the projects turned out, it is intellectually and emotionally stimulating to demonstrate what fine work their fellows are capable of doing.

Typically, I get from six to nine students willing to participate. Those with projects that are primarily visual circulate them over the course of a week. I find that by making one public presentation per class session I still have half the period for lecturing or discussion. It also helps take the pressure off to reduce the amount of outside reading due for analysis in class discussion during these periods.

Some students read their efforts aloud, perhaps with a dramatic flourish. Ones who more desperately want to win tape record their work, sometimes with music or sound effects. In the case of one of my students who is blind but wished to take part, I found a young actor through our drama department who read the script on the Knights' War. It is becoming increasingly popular for students to borrow a video camera from home or the Communication Department. One young woman with a business major coerced her many relatives to take roles in a video drama about a Florentine banking family. I have had a student put on his deeply intellectual play with actors wearing paper-bag masks drawn for Dante, Socrates, and Machiavelli in Limbo, and a young woman design puppets of Calvin and Servetus for the latter's graphic burning at the hands of the former. One participant brought in singers from the School of Music to do her operatic piece on Petrarca and Laura. A young woman who wrote on the fate of music at the Council of Trent somehow worked in a live brass quintet, which played three motets to an appreciative audience. Some of these presentations were mediocre, but others were far more excellent than the student believed her- or himself capable of at the start of the term.

The only two genres that have not worked out well are the television interview format and the rap song. The "talking heads" approach, with which students are familiar from Nightline and other news shows, has little potential for drama or elaboration since the paper ends up a series of questions and answers without much follow-up. So far as rap songs go, I have had two musicians compose and record them—concerning Chaucer and Joan of Arc. One of the composers even presented his song with strobe lights and two dancers. Although the classes enjoyed both rap efforts as a diversion, the historical content remained stubbornly negligible in each case, despite my strenuous critiques and exhortations to incorporate additional research. Perhaps a teacher more attuned than I to this musical mode will have better luck.

To keep a balance in the voting for winners of the prizes, so that flash does not overwhelm content, I hand out printed forms with three categories: historical content, inventive format, and effective completion. Each section carries a numerical value of 1–2 (low) and 4–5 (high). A 3, however, is unacceptable so as to keep the voters from straddling. There is also a section on the form for a written evaluation, to provide a memory jog when I hand out the tally sheet after the final presentation.

Art is potentially dangerous. Every teacher who gives students freedom to select both formats and subject matter for their projects faces a potential loss of control over the final product. A decision thus has to be made by teachers if their goal in the learning process is to pass on the wisdom they have accumulated by painstaking effort or if it is to assist students as they fumble their own way toward insight.

According to former students, one side effect of having to conquer knowledge by their own labor in doing historical fiction, and in having discovered what their fellows could do, is that their participation in the struggle to learn has put them in touch with their personal creative source and empowered them to think in an original and sympathetic way about the past. This is something that they can carry with them for life, gaining the advantage of which Einstein spoke in Out of My Later Years: "Education is what remains when one has forgotten everything he learned in school."

—Marvin Lunenfeld is professor of history at the State University College of New York at Fredonia. His most recent books are Keepers of the City: The Corregidores of Isabella I of Castile, 1479–1504 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987) and 1492: Discovery, Invasion, Encounter. Sources and Interpretations (Lexington, MA: D. C. Heath and Company, 1991). With his son Peter, he has just published College Basics: How to Make a Good Start and a Strong Finish (Buffalo: Semester Press, 1991).