Method in the Madness: Teaching Historical Research to History Majors
Claudine Ferrell, September 2002
In the 1980s senior history majors at Mary Washington College often referred to their capstone project, Historical Research, as "hysterical research," having realized that they were not prepared for the lengthy research paper on which their senior year centered. During the semester of their project, they received instruction in research, and many of their advanced history courses had required research projects. Their skills as researchers, thinkers, and writers, however, were hit—and—miss. Faculty expected juniors and seniors to know how to use the library, pick a topic, gather evidence, define a thesis, and document, but they admitted that they had not focused on imparting these skills to history majors. And, even if some instructors had tried to do so, not all students took their courses.
Both the history faculty and their library liaison decided to fix the problem. The result was HIST 299, Introduction to the Study of History. While students today worry about the requirements of Historical Research—now a 30— to 40—page paper preceded by a proposal and literature review—they are no longer "hysterical" and overwhelmingly cite HIST 299 as the critical course in their education at Mary Washington.
In 1988 the 10 members of the department met to discuss in detail the skills necessary for success not just in Historical Research but in other history courses as well. Discussion focused on research and writing, and the resulting course—known simply as "299"—initially emphasized library research and the requirements of several types of papers. Over the years, however, the course has evolved. It still emphasizes research and writing, but thinking and speaking are now equally important components.
During 299's formative first decade, instructors used a common syllabus and calendar. The course began slowly with class meetings on what it means to be a historian and on library research. Then, a multitude of small assignments were added on such topics as plagiarism, passive voice, quoting, and bibliographic form, as well as historiography. Today, individual instructors have more flexibility, but they still adhere to the essential structure and make—up of the old course.
Course Structure and Benefits
Helping make today's course a valuable one are several critical facts:
First, each class is limited to a maximum of 15 students. When the department designed the course—the first of its kind at MWC—it made the commitment to make the necessary sacrifices to staff it. The department offers five sections every academic year, so the department loses only two or three offerings each semester in order to staff HIST 299. (Each department member teaches a 4/4 load.)
Second, the course includes a significant library component. Several early class meetings are spent in the library in sessions taught by a reference librarian (who has taught every section of HIST 299 in its 14—year history.) He constantly updates these sessions to provide students with "state of the art" guidance, and he works with them individually throughout the semester. History majors, not surprisingly, see the library as a second home and the reference librarian as a member of their department.
Third, 299 is writing—and speaking—intensive. The school has writing and speaking across—the—curriculum requirements, and the course officially carries the SI/WI designation. It requires at least three major papers—usually book review, proposal, and research paper. Each assignment is covered in class discussion and handouts, each paper is reviewed by the instructor and discussed with its author, and each paper is rewritten before it receives a grade. (History majors receive frequent praise for their well—written papers. Numerous papers written by HIST 299 students, as well as by history majors for other courses, have won the school—wide writing contest.) HIST 299 also requires at least three oral presentations, each lengthier and more demanding than its predecessor and each tied to the process of researching and writing a research paper.
Fourth, the course emphasizes critical thinking through its focus on historiography and on the process of selecting a topic, researching, evaluating evidence, and defining a thesis. HIST 299 is an introduction to how historians think as much as it is to how they research and write.
Fifth, instructors require students to meet with other members of the faculty. While receiving expert advice on topics and research angles, students also become more familiar with the department and its offerings.
Sixth, the course helps students feel a part of the history program, a process of special significance to transfer students. The small class size, the frequent out—of—class meetings, and the oral component help students "fit in." Because 299 is limited to history majors—the only course for which that is true—and draws students early in their program (sometimes even first—year students), each class develops a special esprit that unites students throughout their MWC career.
Seventh, 299 has made it possible for the department to raise its expectations and adjust requirements in advanced courses, including Historical Research. Instructors know that students know how to write proposals, for example, and do in depth research; as a result, the range of assignments has broadened and minimal class time needs to be spent on mechanics and form.
Course evaluations for HIST 299 tend to be less enthusiastic than they are for upper—level history courses, and students complain about the seemingly endless course assignments—including those related to the fine art of using Kate Turabian's Manual for Writers. Still, current and former students frequently stop by their 299 instructor's office to discuss how well they did in another course on an oral presentation or on a book review. They have also been known to brag about helping fellow students maneuver in the library. (The helping and the bragging have contributed to the formation of two HIST 299—like courses in economics and political science.)
Graduating seniors and alumni also continually confirm the course's value. In focus groups and surveys, seniors argue that 299 was the most valuable course they took at MWC, not just in their history major. As many have commented, "I hate to admit it, but 299 made all the difference. It helped me in all of my other classes." Finally, alumni in graduate school have reported that, while other students in their classes are stumped by a research or writing assignment, they confidently handle it thanks to 299.
Both students and faculty agree that the defining element of the history major at Mary Washington College is HIST 229. It ties students to the discipline, to each other, to the library, to their instructor, and to the department. It excites instructors who work closely with the department's stars of the future. It is the course that defines the success of the history program at Mary Washington.
—Claudine Ferrell teaches history at Mary Washington College.