Chris Myers Asch
We all know the frustration of encountering undergraduate students (particularly nonmajors) who enter the classroom with a fixed sense of history. History is just “what happened,” they believe, and the professor and readings simply give “facts” that must be memorized and regurgitated on exams. They read passively (if they do the readings at all), trying to “absorb” as much of the “content” as possible.
As historians we know the fallacy of this approach, but aside from simply telling them, how can we encourage students to be more engaged in their learning, to challenge what they learn, and to approach history as an interpretive process?
One way is to turn the pedagogical tables and let students scrutinize, critique, and edit our own unfinished work. Professors teaching their own books is nothing new, of course, but there are important pedagogical differences between using a finished book and using a draft in progress. Having students edit a draft rather than just read a book engages them in the process of writing and interpreting history, an experience that not only helps them understand and retain the material but also gives them confidence to become better critical readers and thinkers.
For the past two years, I have taught a course using drafts of my own unfinished manuscript about race and democracy in Washington, D.C. For each class, students read a draft chapter and critique it in the form of an “Editor’s Note.” I offer a series of questions to help them focus both on content—important themes, arguments, and questions—as well as style—narrative devices, word choices, and argument structure. During class, students compare notes with each other, and as a group we analyze both the historical topics and the writing.
Teaching your own unfinished work presents some challenges. Some students may shy away from offering honest critiques out of an excess of politeness, deference, or concern about grades. They also may feel unable to make a valuable contribution. One student told me after reading the first chapter that she did not feel “qualified” to offer criticisms or suggestions to someone who is supposed to be an expert in the field. You have to take time early on to show that you are authentically open to their feedback and that you appreciate their honest evaluations.
Once they are convinced that you will take their comments seriously, however, beware: this approach is not for the thin-skinned. Many of your students may relish the opportunity to dig into a professor’s work, and you may get some “payback” for the snarky, dismissive, or challenging comments that they have endured on their writing in years past. My students have lambasted parts of my manuscript as “stale” and “repetitive,” shredded my arguments as “nonsensical” and “confusing,” and belittled a chapter opening as “gimmicky.” One woman rolled her eyes at “over-dramatic” lines that she thought sounded like “something from a Marvel comic book.” Ouch. It certainly is humbling.
If you can withstand the barrage of criticism, the benefits are tremendous. For example, it will make your writing much better. The students serve as a valuable focus group of committed readers who engage thoughtfully with the text and offer ways to improve it before it goes to print. Intolerant of jargon, uninterested in academic debates, and often unimpressed by rhetorical flourishes, they force you to write in engaging, accessible prose.
More importantly, the process changes how students approach the course. It feels more real because they are doing assignments not simply for a grade, but to help shape a future book. “The experience is far different when you know that what you are doing is going to actually have an impact,” wrote one student in an end-of-course survey. They respond by not only doing the reading, but doing it well (though they often complain that reading so carefully takes too much time!).
Reading an unfinished manuscript felt “empowering,” explained one student, “because it made me aware of my agency as a reader.” Students become more active, both in their reading and in class discussions. One thoughtful international student, accustomed to professors demanding deference, felt liberated. “The idea that it is still in progress makes it easier to take that step of allowing myself to be critical and challenge what is being conveyed,” she wrote. “It is ‘okay’ to criticize it, which allowed me to be more analytical, critical, and at the same time open to what is being said.”
Editing their professor’s chapter drafts teaches students how to give and take thoughtful criticism and encourages them to look at writing—both narrative style and the structure that undergirds the book. Approaching the manuscript as an editor “forced me to read a lot more closely and think about each idea and how effectively it was conveyed rather than just skim for content,” a student wrote. “I was reading the manuscript with a closer eye, looking for places to edit, how sections and paragraphs connect to each other, and what was relevant versus irrelevant in the chapters.”
Another student explained how this approach was different from how he generally viewed history books. “Normally, I see history books as a source of information rather than a form of literature,” he noted. But when forced to scrutinize a manuscript, “I looked for the connections between paragraphs and searched for overarching themes throughout the chapters.”
As they pore over the drafts, the students also begin to ask questions about the writing process. How do you decide what to include? Why did you only spend a sentence on this person? Why did you put this section here? How long does it take to write a chapter? Discussing the nuts and bolts of writing helps underscore an important lesson that students often fail to internalize—that revision is essential to good writing. The experience shows them that even professors struggle with writing, that even experts make mistakes, and that even good writers need to revise. When I tell them that I have revised each chapter probably ten to fifteen times, their mouths drop.
This approach also helps students think differently about history—as one student put it, reading a manuscript “raises very important questions about how history is told and remembered.” By analyzing a draft in progress, students see history being written, and they realize that what emerges as a published book is not simply “what happened” but is instead one particular historian’s interpretation of what happened. That interpretation may be persuasive and well-researched, but it is not incontrovertible fact. The experience gives students confidence to challenge what they read and see history as an ongoing, evolving process of interpretation. “Often, while reading history, I simply take things as fact, but this time, I was paying more attention to how ideas, sources, and characters were presented,” wrote one student.
This kind of engaged, active, and probing interaction with the course material is precisely what we want students to do with all of our classes, not just the ones where they happen to be editing their professor’s work. As the course progressed, some students came to the realization that they could do this with any published material. Indeed, that is one of the key lessons I want them to take away from the experience.
I encourage students to make the leap—to take this approach into other classes and to be critical, empowered readers with published material of all kinds. I hope professors, too, will make the leap and give students the chance to scrutinize and shape history as it is being written.
Chris Myers Asch is the Editor of Washington History and teaches history at Colby College. His book, Chocolate City: Race and Democracy in the Nation’s Capital will be published next year by the University of North Carolina Press.