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Writing Across the Curriculum

HIW 325: History of Modern Japan
Writing in the Majors Guidelines
Professor William Wooldridge

Role of Writing

Historians seek to use sources to examine the past. We rely on writing to accomplish this task. Writing history forces us to explain the forces that shape human lives and to account for the vast diversity of responses to those problems. In formulating ideas, we write to figure out the questions we wish to ask, to explore the possible ways of answering those questions, and to consider different possible approaches to a given topic. We write to figure out what we want to say. In more formal settings, historians write to describe different times and places in the world and to narrate change over time. Frequently historians write to argue with one another, attempting to demonstrate why our questions are relevant and why our answers are better than other possible answers. Most importantly, writing about the past can change the way we see the world.

This course asks students to use each of these purposes for writing to explain the transformations of Japan from 1600 to the present and to reflect on their own impressions of Japan. It stresses, in particular, the large amount of variation possible in short, formal essays, and emphasizes the necessary connections between writing and thinking.

Disciplinary Writing

This course will give students practice in the following kinds of writing:

  • Writing to think: short writing assignments at the beginning of class in which students formulate thoughts and reflect on the kinds of sources they have encountered.
  • Short, formal essays, 4-5 pages in length, in which students use primary sources to answer a question. Of the three essays required for the class, one requires students to describe a moment in time, one asks students to account for change over time, and one asks students to join an argument among historians.

Expectations of Students in a WIM Course

Students will:

  • Come to class prepared to write about assigned primary and secondary sources.
  • Discuss their thoughts in class.
  • Complete three short papers.
  • Make arguments about the past in each of their papers. Students will support their arguments with evidence and evaluate the sources they are using (“evaluate” means to account for the context and biases of the source).
  • Revise their writing.
  • Reflect on their writing.

Expectations for Faculty in a WIM Course

In this WIM course faculty will: 

  • Provide engaging primary sources likely to produce vivid impressions of a given historical moment and to stimulate creative responses.
  • Expect students to use writing to not only record, but also inspire their thinking. Examples of such assignments can include journals, “exquisite corpse” or similar collaborative writings, and in-class reflections (this list is not exhaustive).
  • Explain and model the conventions of historical writing, particularly those of citation and critical evaluation of sources.
  • Through lectures and class discussion, illustrate why historians are interested in particular questions and show how we go about answering questions.
  • For formal assignments, communicate as clearly as possible the goals of the assignment, the kind of writing required, the concepts necessary to make the assignment engaging, and the imagined audience or occasion of the writing.
  • In feedback, make as clear as possible what steps students can take to revise their papers.

Criteria for Assessing Student Writing

For informal assignments, faculty will note whether or not students seem to have read and understood (or at least attempted to understand) the readings.

The best-written formal essays display the following characteristics:

  • The introductory paragraph culminates in a thesis statement that answers the question.
  • Each paragraph includes a sentence, usually at the beginning or end, that explains clearly how the content of the paragraph supports the argument made in the thesis.
  • Each paragraph includes specific examples that demonstrate or illustrate the main point. In certain cases, the paragraph may be a close reading of a single episode from the source. The best papers include a description of the historical context in which a source appeared and a consideration of the source's likely biases.
  • The examples, and the conclusions the writer draws from them, will include enough detail and specificity to make the writing vivid.
  • The mechanics of the paper follow standard conventions of the historical profession and of English grammar. Through footnotes and departmental citation format, the writer will cite the source of each example.
  • The best papers consider possible counterarguments.
  • The best papers have a logic of presentation, so that it is clear how each paragraph follows from the previous paragraph.
  • The best conclusions do not merely repeat the argument, but outline further implications, suggest alternative questions, or offer possible avenues of future research.