In fall 2020, students in my undergraduate course, Technology and Identity, asked a series of excellent questions about how to structure claims, quotations, and other evidence into a formal paragraph, and how to use transitional words and phrases to link paragraphs together into a longer analysis. In response, I developed several iterations of a handout, dissecting a passage from one of the assigned readings for that course. I post it here in the hopes that it will help others as well.
In my advice on Topic Sentences, I’ve long advised students, both as readers and writers, to understand how a series of topic sentences often form a summary of a longer story or argument:
The first thing to notice is that strung together, the topic sentences summarize the passage as a whole. If the whole article is written in this way, then a reader can zip through the piece by reading only the first sentence of each paragraph, choosing to read full paragraphs only when she wants to know more about the claim made in the topic sentence. Few if any books an articles are written entirely in this manner, but in most cases, one can get the gist of a paragraph by reading the first two sentences, or the first and last sentence. Aim for the same kind of summary.
In fall 2019, a student introduced me to a lovely term for this device: the “topic-sentence poem,” which she had learned from her teacher, Dr. Cynthia Schafer of the Walker School of Marietta, Georgia. Henceforth, I’ll be teaching this as “Schafer’s Topic Sentence Poem.”
In September, the American Sociological Association issued a statement, endorsed by the American Historical Association and other scholarly associations, noting that “a large body of research has demonstrated that student evaluations of teaching (SETs) are weakly related to student learning and are often biased against women and people of color. ” I encourage all university students to read this statement before completing their course evaluations.
This morning’s Washington Post devotes an entire page to a marked-up transcript of a recorded conversation featuring Bob Woodward, President Trump, and Kellyanne Conway. Reporter Aaron Blake models critical reading: noting key passages and comparing them both to each other and other information he knows.
In a particularly good section, Blake examines both internal tensions (Conway’s refusal to answer who denied Woodward’s request for an interview with Trump) and external tensions (Raj Shah’s position as principal deputy press secretary vs. Trump’s statement that “I don’t speak to Raj.”).
Note how Blake chooses a verb that signals the significance of Trump’s statement: “Trump admits Shah is doing that without talking to him.”
Also note how earlier in the transcript, Conway shifts to the passive voice to obscure responsibility: “I put in the request. But you know, they — it was rejected.” Woodward asks, “Who are the people?” in a failed effort to pierce the fog.
[Aaron Blake, “Transcript: Phone Call between President Trump and Journalist Bob Woodward,” Washington Post, September 5, 2018.]
Meanwhile, on Twitter, Bill Hayes has posted several photographs of books annotated by the late Oliver Sacks. Sacks not only flagged key passages; he also recorded his own reactions, turning his reading into an active conversation with the author.
See also, How to write in your books.
Jeffrey J. Selingo, “Why Can’t College Graduates Write Coherent Prose?,” Washington Post: Grade Point, August 11, 2017:
Extensive writing is rarely assigned in many college courses because it’s labor-intensive, raising the workload for students and professors. Students don’t understand why they need to write five-page papers, let alone 20 pages, given that many of them won’t write much more than PowerPoint slides, emails, or one-page memos once in the workplace.
But training for any activity in life requires a level of practice that usually exceeds the tasks we will need to handle later on. This time spent on a task is sometimes called the 10,000 hours theory — that it takes roughly that amount of practice to achieve mastery in any field. Not every college graduate needs to be a novelist, but if college students become competent writers who draft clear prose, then they’ll also be able to compose anything on the job, from PowerPoint slides to reports.
How to Narrow a Research Topic. Primarily for undergraduates in capstone courses and graduate students in research seminars, but really for anyone who needs to define a manageable history topic.
Hanover College, History Department. On Marginalia: Note Taking for College Students and Others Who Want to Make the Most of Their Reading Time
Making marginalia (notes or symbols written in the margins of a document) is the best way to get the most out of the time you spend reading a difficult text.
New advice for doctoral students in history: “How to Take an Oral Comprehensive Exam.” The process should be one of the most valuable experiences in graduate school.
Ellen Bresler Rockmore, “How Texas Teaches History,” The New York Times, October 21, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/22/opinion/how-texas-teaches-history.html.
In the excerpts published by Jezebel, the Texas textbooks employ all the principles of good, strong, clear writing when talking about the “upside” of slavery. But when writing about the brutality of slavery, the writers use all the tricks of obfuscation. You can see all this at play in the following passage from a textbook, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, called Texas United States History:
Some slaves reported that their masters treated them kindly. To protect their investment, some slaveholders provided adequate food and clothing for their slaves. However, severe treatment was very common. Whippings, brandings, and even worse torture were all part of American slavery.
Notice how in the first two sentences, the “slavery wasn’t that bad” sentences, the main subject of each clause is a person: slaves, masters, slaveholders. What those people, especially the slave owners, are doing is clear: They are treating their slaves kindly; they are providing adequate food and clothing. But after those two sentences there is a change, not just in the writers’ outlook on slavery but also in their sentence construction. There are no people in the last two sentences, only nouns. Yes, there is severe treatment, whippings, brandings and torture. And yes, those are all bad things. But where are the slave owners who were actually doing the whipping and branding and torturing? And where are the slaves who were whipped, branded and tortured? They are nowhere to be found in the sentence.