>Teaching the critical history essay

>I’m in the midst of grading the last batch of my graduate students’ critical history papers from my research methods class. Given that it’s 4pm and I’m leaving the house in just over 12 hours to catch an early morning flight to go to the Pastry Pirate’s graduation, and I still have half a dozen things to do before I leave, including grading the last 3 papers, I really shouldn’t be blogging. But the following just occurred to me and I kind of wanted to throw it out there before I forget.

Anyway, one of the recurring problems of many of these papers — whether they’re otherwise well-researched or well-written or not — is that the writers don’t do a very good job of summarizing the critics’ arguments. They have a tendency to tell me the topic of an article, book, or chapter without really telling me the argument of said work. They’ll even say critics X and Y address the same general topic without giving me any idea if X and Y agree with each other in their assessment or interpretation of the topic. And some of the more problematic essays don’t even quite make clear what the general subject of a critical work is because they’re too busy identifying a theme in the primary text and lining up a critical work that seems to address that theme. So they’re putting their reading of the primary work — usually a somewhat hazy one — first and slotting in the criticism.

And therein lies the problem. They don’t quite realize what it means to write a critical history and that’s my fault. We talked all semester about entering the critical conversation, of “listening” to it for awhile before offering your own contributions. And we dissected the structure, form, and rhetorical moves of a number of journal articles. And I told them where to find models of a critical history and wrote detailed directions of what they needed to be doing in this paper, making it clear that it was summary and synthesis, but that they were the shaping force of it. *But*, I didn’t explain to them what a history was. I didn’t make clear that they needed to shape a narrative from the critical sources, that they were telling a story of the conversation thus far. I didn’t explain that while obviously the primary text was the driving force behind what critics wrote, nevertheless the driving force behind what the students wrote would be the criticism, that that was their subject, that that was what a reader of a critical history wanted most to know about. I assumed it was obvious, but it isn’t, so many of the students are falling back on what they’re usually asked to do in a research paper, or the methods they’ve usually fallen back on — i.e., the ‘tell me about X subject in Y work of literature with research’ paper. They’re also ignoring the connections between the arguments; no one, not even the best students, are addressing X’s influence on Y. I’m not even sure they’re noticing where critics are in each others bibliographies, even though I did teach them that following bibliographies is one of the ways to tell if a critical work is being cited over and over, or to find works that imperfect electronic searches have missed.

Part of the problem is that I didn’t use the term “critical history.” I came up with something else that I thought would be less intimidating — bibliographic essay — and I did so also because I’m not expecting them to be comprehensive (I asked them to look for major trends in the criticism). But mainly I need to be more explicit about how to go about this kind of writing. I have to tell them that they must digest and explain the main argument(s) of each work they address. I have to tell them that they need to be aware of influence and argument — that they need to look to footnotes and bibliographies for the players in the larger conversation. And that, above all, *they* are telling a history, that their major task is to interpret the interpretors and present them for their audience.

Next time I’ll do this and see if the results improve. In the meantime, I’ll go easy on the grades, but make some of these things clear in the comments.


3 thoughts on “>Teaching the critical history essay

  1. >I use ‘bibliographic essay’ too, when what I really want is something between a historiographic essay and a lit review. But one of the things I do is to have them read an example and we go over the different aspects in class. Then, in the assignment sheet, I am very explicit about asking them to identify each author’s argument, the kinds of evidence s/he uses, and whether or not s/he seems to agree/disagree implicitly or explicitly with other arguments on the same subject. Still, it’s one of the hardest things to teach, I think. One question — have they written critical reviews before? I find that teaching them to identify these things for one author and then critique is a good first step.

  2. >I’ve been trying for 13 years and still don’t have it right … but I do find that mandating a somewhat formulaic structure (Critic A says, critic B says, I say) at least gets the student to place their argument within a larger conversation, rather than to use critical work as a support for some general thoughts they had already.

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