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Prep History Students for the Future with a Writing Workshop

Dr. Christopher E. Manning’s in-class workshops help students learn history and improve their writing chops by editing themselves and each other.

Educator

Christopher E. Manning, PhD

Associate Professor of History, Assistant Provost on Academic Diversity, Loyola University Chicago, IL

PhD, MA, and BA in History

Dr. Christopher E. Manning is a history professor with a passion for writing. Among his many published works is William L. Dawson and the Limits of Black Electoral Leadership. Another piece of writing—an article titled “God Didn’t Curse Me When He Made Me Black”—won the Henry E. Pratt Memorial Award given by the Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society. And he is currently writing two books: one about volunteer mobilization after Hurricane Katrina and a memoir about race and identity while growing up as a “military brat.”

At Loyola University Chicago, Dr. Manning teaches courses ranging from US History to American Pluralism (history from colonial times through the present, with a focus on marginalized people). And for every class he teaches, he knows that only a few of the students will go on to be history majors and even fewer will make a career out of history. So he takes a unique view of the purpose of his courses—much to the benefit of his students.

“I really have my eye on the prize of developing their professional skills to meet the demands of the workplace,” he says, “whatever they end up doing for work.” And that is what led him to incorporate historical writing workshops into every one of his classes.

Challenge

Writing skills are often weak

Manning feels that many students do not have the writing skills necessary to be prepared for the workforce. “I didn’t think that students were learning the rigor or multilayered editing that I feel is essential for quality writing,” he says. “I just wasn’t seeing it—sometimes even if they had taken the school’s required writing course.”

Innovation

Weave writing into any course

Manning developed a system that helps him teach students to edit their own—and each other’s—work for arguments and analysis, structure and grammar and mechanics, and prose.

Manning feels that teaching writing and history should be deeply integrated, going beyond just the grading of papers. “A history student needs to write well,” he says. “There’s just so much information. You have to communicate specific variables to make your argument understandable.” But, he adds, writing well is also not enough. “It’s about editing. You need to boil down large amounts of information into concise arguments, theses, and essays.”

“Most of my teachers didn’t do this with me, and I wished more had,” he says. “I had one teacher who ripped a paper apart and gave me so many writing ideas. I wondered, ‘Why didn’t this happen before?’”

Context

“[By adding writing workshops, I] have a class of 30 students who think they are talking about editing, but really they are having conversations about history. You can’t just talk about the editing without talking about the topics, so it solves two problems.”

— Christopher E. Manning, PhD

Course: HIST 203 American Pluralism

Course description: This course will examine American history from the perspectives of people who have lived at the margins of American citizenship. Specifically, this class will present the development of the American state through the histories of an array of people who, at various times, have not experienced the full benefits of being American. The course will ask several questions: How do we reconcile America’s stated philosophical goals of liberty and equality with the genocide waged against Native Americans and the implementation of American slavery? How did various European peoples, who had been categorized in races other than white, become transformed into and accepted as white Americans? How did the expansion of the American economy in the Industrial Revolution affect the lives of the working-class men and women who fueled its growth? How has women’s struggle for equality evolved over the course of American history? How did the affluence of the post-World War II era set the stage for America’s freedom struggles of the 1950s and 1960s? How did AIDS and disabled activists transform our understanding of rights in the 1980s and 1990s? And what does Hurricane Katrina tell us about the current state of inequality in America?

See resources shared by Christopher E. Manning, PhD

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Lesson: Hold an in-class writing and editing workshop

To make writing instruction especially effective, Manning helps his students become editors: Students work with one another during in-class discussions and workshops where they share, discuss, and review each other’s writing. He feels that this constant peer interaction and feedback is critical to learning, and it has led to a notable increase in student engagement and in-class discussion (not to mention the improvement in student writing).

Here are the steps Manning uses to set up and run his writing workshops.

Introduce the concept of workshops

In the first class of the semester, Manning shares with students how he has structured the course—that it includes two to five writing assignments that will be complemented by in-class writing workshops. He makes it clear that during the workshop, the students will be getting into groups of two or three and giving each other feedback on their work, just as he will be providing them teacher-student feedback. And he makes it clear that both are critically important. Editing, he explains, takes practice, and it is easier to edit someone else than it is to edit yourself; thus, the importance of working in groups.

Share resources and examples

Also on day one, Manning shares some preliminary materials that will help students understand their new baseline for writing. He provides handouts on writing style, structure, and citations. He also tells students to read segments of The Elements of Style, a short but well-regarded writing manual, before each workshop. Last, he provides examples of what he feels are well-crafted essays that came out of previous classes, which students can read at their leisure.

Clarify structure of outlines and assignments

There are strict structure rules for outlines and assignments in his class. The title of the outline should be a question. Roman numeral one should be the answer to that question in one sentence. Every sub-point must relate to the thesis. Draft structure should match the outline.

Manning stresses how off-putting mistakes are; not only do students’ grades reflect how well they followed the rules but also how mistakes in the real world can have dire consequences, so it is better to become detail-oriented now.

Review the outline first

Manning holds the first writing workshop when the first outline is due. Students come to class with a completed outline and are instructed to bring their first full writing assignment by the date of the next writing workshop. Manning thinks the outline portion is far too important to get mixed in with the writing of prose.

When reviewing the outline, students focus on evaluating their peers’ work for arguments, analysis, and structure.

Then review the paper

When students first give their paper to a partner, Manning instructs them to tell the partner what they were trying to accomplish. What were they attempting to argue? After the student reviewer has looked at the written work, if there is a difference between what was said and what was written, it is flagged as a challenge to rectify until the two are consistent.

After this substantive review, students check for style using the style sheet that Manning provides. How are the grammar, mechanics, and prose? Manning tells the students that prose is the hardest to evaluate since it is more subjective.

Choose a paper at random for in-class review

While the students are reviewing and providing their feedback, Manning walks around the class; he does this to, in his words, “make a big show of randomly reviewing someone’s edits.” He chooses a student’s outline or paper to review and then points out what he thinks worked and what did not. By randomly reviewing someone’s work in class, he shows he cares about the review process and sharing within the groups.

Encourage lots of questions—during or after class

Each workshop takes about 45 minutes, Manning says. He often takes questions for the remainder of class and sometimes answers questions afterward as well. “Quite a lot of students stay and like the extra help,” he says.

Outcomes

Manning’s favorite outcome is the way this assignment integrates the building of writing skills with the discussion of history. “You have a class of 30 students who think they are talking about editing, but really they are having conversations about history,” he says. “You can’t just talk about the editing without talking about the topics, so it solves two problems.”

Student feedback

Students love Manning’s engaged, interactive workshops. Recent verbatims from class evaluations include:

“Participation is super important. Don’t take [his course] if you don’t want to be actively involved in understanding history.”

“[I’m] so glad someone took the time to go over all this [work].”

“You will really learn to analyze history critically. Even if you aren’t a history buff, you will gain much from Dr. Manning, and you’ll have to work hard but he’ll help a lot.”

“Definitely worth taking. Just make sure that you participate in class constantly.…”

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