From Round to Square (and back)

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Thursday, September 20, 2012

Assignments (1)—Historical Sources Letter

One year ago on Round and Square (20 September 2011)—Remonstrance: A Critical History
Click here for the introduction to the Round and Square series "Assignments"
[a] Connection RF
As a new addition to Round and Square, the "Assignments" topic has two functions. First, it allows students (and the occasional parent or sibling who wants a vicarious academic experience) to check the assignment, even if a paper copy has been lost. The second is more significant, though, and it is the reason that I am posting the things that I require my students to do. I have always wished that teachers would share more of their teaching materials. In my career, have benefited enormously from the great ideas I have gleaned from other teachers. To be sure, some of my ideas (and assignments) are clunkers, but I hope that more of us will share some of this stuff a little more freely than many teachers have done up until now.

Sharing and caring (and a small bit of daring).

I have used the "letter" assignment in various ways (and classes) for many years. There is a very simple idea behind it: students writing for an audience they can truly envision—one they know well—almost always raise their games. A funny thing happens when a college student is asked to write a letter to a person (just one living, breathing, thinking human being) of her choice. Over the years, students have chosen parents, grandparents, and siblings. They have also quite often chosen high school teachers, neighbors, and students they know at other colleges. A few of the most memorable recipients over the years have included an incarcerated acquaintance (county lockup), a guy someone met at a truck stop over the summer, and the governor of an American state.
[b] Writing RF

The only requirement is that it must be written to a real person and that (after revisions) it must actually be sent. I make sure of that by requiring revised copies in my office two weeks later in fully-addressed envelopes. I then send them myself, making sure that "sent" appears next to the score in my grading software. This tiny detail makes all the difference in the world, and students learn something important about "audience." They are not writing a letter "as though" their audience is "such-and-such" (or grandma). They are writing to grandma or their high school social studies teacher. 

In short, they are actually writing to someone who will read it.

Over the years, the stories surrounding these letters are as interesting as the letters themselves. People have reconnected, shared ideas, and learned (I hope) just a little something about what a cluster of pages in an actual envelope (with a stamp) can do for a relationship. There's nothing like a letter to forge a bond.

At this point in my teaching, I am requiring these letters in a few classes as the first assignment—one meant to accomplish what John McPhee (in the example below) encourages for writers who are "stuck" early in the composing process. This assignment focuses on the use of "primary" and "secondary" sources in historical and cultural analysis, but I also use it in my course on social and cultural theory, as well. Explain "sources." Explain "theory." You might be surprised how helpful a little letter can be. 

For you...and for grandma (or Teacher Joe).

Japanese History and Culture
First Writing Assignment—Sources: The Letter 
By choosing the letter format for your first writing assignment, I am asking you to build upon the skills you have already begun to develop in analyzing (and providing examples for) source materials in historical and cultural research.  You have already reached a point where you have some experience with “sources,” and your job will be to explain it to an intelligent non-specialist. Letters from “the field” (in our modified “archive” of primary source materials in David Lu's Japan: A Documentary History and Helen Craig McCullough's Classical Japanese Prose, as well as a wide range of secondary sources) are a good way to refine your thoughts about historical studies, and they are a useful medium for beginning the intellectual “framing process” that will accelerate as we move through the next two-thirds of the course.
[c] Useful RF

The letter writing exercise is especially useful while studying primary and secondary source materials. The nonfiction writer John McPhee explains to NPR listeners that a letter is often precisely the solution to problems of interpretation or clarity—when in doubt, write to mother, he says. In this case, it is not a plea of “send money” that the letter contains, but rather a reworking, rethinking, and contextualization of his work. You need not limit yourself to kinfolk, but you need to think about who(m) the recipient will be—ideally someone who will welcome a letter about “using sources”. 

*Note: Even if you are in the class, it is not required that you listen to this; it's here for context.

Toward that end, you should pay attention to the following issues.

1. The letter needs to be “long enough” to get you deeply into several issues regarding sources themselves, particular approaches, and a few examples.  There is no absolute upper limit, but I am going to make a lower limit of 2,000 words (about six pages). Even if you are a very efficient writer, you will need this much “space” to give your reader a good picture of your work. Somewhere between 2,000 and 3,000 words (six to ten pages) is just about right. Include a word count at the end of our paper (e.g. “2, 877 words” or Word Count: 2,877).
[d] Explain RF

2. I am asking you to connect with a very specific reader, and to explain “sources” in a level of detail that s/he will find satisfying. You are the expert, and your “audience” is the person who will be reading your letter (I will, of course, be reading over her shoulder). I have found that this kind of assignment helps students to explain even abstruse matters, because the personal relationship they have with their readers demands an attention to patient explanation that is often lacking in more “academic” forms of writing, in which they assume that a professor already knows what they are writing about. 

3. You may approach your materials from any angle that you like, but you will need to “cover” at least the following items, no matter what order you choose. 

          a. You must discuss the “what is ‘a source’?” question. Provide your reader 
               with at least a few ways of thinking about it. It goes without saying (yet I 
               shall say it anyway) that you need to describe both the basic and some 
               subtleties of "primary" and "secondary" sources.

          b. Give your reader a sense of what you have learned up to this point about 
               how to use sources (primary and secondary) to interpret human behavior 
               in the past. Use examples, either from your texts and from our class 

          c. Finally, give your reader some sense of what it is like to “read sources” 
               by discussing the literary and historical dimensions of some of our texts.  
               It might be useful to think of the “pragmatic/historical” dimensions that 
               are explained on the syllabus. Just as an example, imagine explaining 
               the Japanese emperor in the Heian era who too great pains to protect 
               his little cat, Lady Myoubu (of the fifth rank). Now find another example.
[e] Three parts RF

4. The best way to approach the writing process is in three parts (this is a friendly suggestion). First, jot down some notes for each of the “sections” of your letter. Second, using those notes as a guide, write a rough draft of the whole letter. Third, revise, polish, and refine. Voilà you will have something not unlike what Alexis de Tocqueville might have written about understanding a complex, foreign culture that baffled and enticed him. While your letter won’t be as long as Democracy in America, it is likely—if it is done well—to be much like Tocqueville’s rich and evocative letters back to his family about encountering people, texts, and institutions in a strange land called the United States. You get the idea. 

Letters are due (in hard copy form) by 5:00 p.m. on Monday, October 1st.

Add the word count and your box number to all papers!

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