So the fall semester is well underway…

Is it really almost October? Last Monday we hit the 1/3 mark, which for me means really truly starting the Civil War (with armies & battles & stuff) in my Civil War era course — and that students in the course submitted proposals for their research papers this week. I assigned a set of three “progress reports” on the way toward their paper, this semester timed to coincide with Fridays I must miss class for conferences. So they are posting their proposals on the class blog (a private Blackboard blog — I didn’t feel like setting up something new for three blog posts over the course of the semester), and then were assigned commenting roles for their classmates’ posts. They posted on Friday morning and I immediately skimmed each proposal to match them with appropriate commenters, but I just now read their comments.

I’m really impressed with the quality of their work and their willingness to help each other out. I’m also excited about the breadth and specificity of their proposed research. Collectively, they have proposed a wide range of topics; individually, they seem to understand the need to focus their attention. Not one person has proposed a paper in which they will tell me everything that went wrong for the Army of Northern Virginia at the battle of Gettysburg. Instead, they want to write about foreign policy, the war’s impact on universities, and the origins of the Black Codes. Several have proposed papers related to women or children. The topics with a more military bent are creative as well: how communities coped with the aftermath of a nearby battle, soldiers’ responses to the Gettysburg Address, desertion, guerilla warfare, etc.

In this first assignment, they proposed a topic and summarized the primary source material they’d found so far — mostly so that I know they have enough to work with. Next, they will locate and summarize secondary sources, to demonstrate their understanding of the scholarly debates related to their topics and craft a strong research question. They’ll then go back to the primary sources to put their arguments and examples together. The third blog post they share with the class will actually be a research poster summarizing their papers, which will be in draft stage at that point. At each stage, they get comments from me and their peers, which should help them write better papers. The paper itself is due a week after the research poster.

One of the things we’re trying to emphasize in our revamped methods course is the collaborative nature of good historical research and writing. The research process — especially revision — is another, which is why I want them to share their posters before submitting their final drafts. It will give them a chance to test their arguments and best examples. I’m curious to see how things go this semester. I think we are off to a good start so far!

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