I've been thinking a good bit about templates for assignments this semester. Some of this was prompted by a series of discussions organized by our Office of Instructional Development around the Gerald Graff book They Say/I Say. As I have noted earlier, this book offers some basic templates to help students organize the relationship between the scholarly discourse ("they say") and their own contributions ("I say"). I tend to follow such templates myself, in fact, beginning (at least the first draft) of many papers with the phrase "Many scholars have argued..." in order to set up my own (presumably) different perspective on a particular historical problem. Graff's templates for this rhetorical "move" are far more complex and sophisticated offering students such useful phrases like "Although X does not say so directly, she apparently assumes _______" (23) or "X is right that _______, but she seems on more dubious ground when she claims ______" (60). Such templates certainly introduce students the kind of techniques and templates that are common in academic writing. This is particular important in lower level courses because we cannot expect students here to have had much, if any, contact with academic writing (and textbooks commonly work to downplay authorial voice in favor of implied consensus).
While we can complain that books like Graff allow students to work around the arduous task of deciphering academic prose and discerning the stylistic ticks that make formal writing work, the book does provide a way to get students thinking more carefully about language, arguments, and presentation. Teaching by templates certainly leads to more aesthetically appealing final products. I teach our introduction to historical methods class (The Historians Craft) and I require students to give a professional style conference paper on their research at the end of the course. I encourage them to follow a fairly strict template for these papers.
1. Present your topic clearly.
2. State your thesis.
3. Place it within the historiography of your field.
4. Discuss your sources and method.
5. Demonstrate your argument’s validity.
6. Conclude with reference to this thesis’s broader implications.
The results of this rather formal structure are papers that are similar in form and vary in content. On the one hand, this structures and limits the students' creative impulses. On the other hand, it produces papers that are easy to understand and evaluate.
The final paper for my graduate historiography class is a thesis prospectus. Such papers typically follow a fairly restricted number of templates. Nevertheless, I've been reluctant to provide a template for this assignment, and this has caused some consternation among my students in this class. Some of my reasons are selfish: I dread reading 20 cookie cutter papers. On the other hand, I also want to encourage students at the graduate level (particularly in a graduate level historiography class) to recognize the vitality and variability in our field. Part of the process of discovering one's own academic voice and understanding the discipline at the graduate level is recognizing the huge diversity of template available for any aspect of the academic process. This causes the class some consternation, but I'd like to see that as a product of academic and perhaps even intellectual growth.
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