Excellence in History is best measured through the ability to communicate effectively in the written form. History is essentially a vast repository of interpretations, authored by those who have carefully analyzed and evaluated an aggregate of evidence with logical and critical thought. Writing purposeful and persuasive narratives that question a diversity of primary and secondary sources to further illuminate or critique existing arguments, or to offer new interpretations of events, personalities, issues, and ideas, is the Historian’s Craft.
Effective writing in History requires argumentation, evidence, and assessment. Argumentation means to write with purpose. Arguments must be supported with evidence. Evidence-based arguments must then be assessed to determine significance, relevance, or knowledge gained in pursuit of “total history.”
One valuable writing assignment that teaches effective writing in History is a book review. Student writing here is often descriptive and conditional, not purposeful and emphatic. My conversations with students made me realize that their writing was without purpose because they were reading without purpose. Because effective writing requires effective reading, I help my students to first understand how to read.
As students read a book, I ask them to consider not what they read but what they learned. When students are asked what they learned, they have to pause and really think about not only what they read but importantly what they understood and what struck them as significant. By prioritizing what they learned rather than what they read, students can more easily determine what is relevant in the reading.
After thinking about what they learned in their reading, I next ask students to outline a “plan of action” in the form of a “Jeopardy Table” before writing the book review. Using the television game Jeopardy as my cue, I ask students to develop a table, with the principal themes listed at the top and sub-themes listed under each of them. I ask students to specifically determine the purpose of the book, as that would serve as the over-arching theme (s) of the table. The themes that follow would reflect on what the students learned, what the various arguments are with supporting textual evidence. Only when the rubric is complete can students write the actual review. They are asked to conclude every theme analyzed with its assessment, that is, an appraisal of how the argument and evidence furthers the understanding of the over-arching purpose. Students are asked to review their logic in how they prioritize the themes and also conclude their papers with thought-provoking comments on the strengths and limitations of the book.
The natural tendency of historians is to shy away from rubrics. Historians are good with words, not with drawing lines to create a table. But I welcome such a rubric, for it is a great visual, thematic tool for students to reference as they write well-organized and well-articulated papers with scholastic confidence, precision, and erudition.