Teaching Grad Students Academic Writing

by Daniel Riches, Department of History

To me, the most important role we serve as teachers of graduate students, especially early-career graduate students, is helping them along the path of transition from being students of a field to becoming (admittedly junior) professionals in that field. This process of becoming a professional is, in my opinion, the very core of graduate education and deserves careful attention, though surprisingly few graduate courses seem to make their role in this process explicit, and even fewer graduate students seem to be aware of the transformative process they are undergoing.

hands holding pen and magnifying glass over a book

I think this is unfortunate, as the shift from student to professional requires a fundamental re-orientation in how one reads, in how one writes, and perhaps most importantly in how one conceives of oneself and one’s studies vis-à-vis knowledge — all processes that can be more successful, and more rewarding, when one is self-aware that they are happening.

Helping early-career graduate students realize that they are leaving the world of knowledge-consumers and entering into the (strange!) guild of knowledge-producers is, for me, one of the great challenges, but also one of the greatest joys, of graduate teaching.

I try to make this process an explicit focus of my graduate classes. Some of this comes from the nature of our class discussions, where we focus less attention on the direct historical content of our readings and more on noticing the historian active in the text: What is our author up to in this text? How does s/he go about accomplishing that intention? What kind of skills were necessary in order to produce work like this?

I also push my students to think carefully each week about the authors of our texts: Where (and by whom) was our author trained? What has his/her career trajectory been? At which point in that trajectory was our book written, and do we see any correlation between career position and the nature of scholarship produced?

None of these moves are particularly unconventional in themselves, though I do push to make them (and the broader discussions about our profession that they produce) the explicit focus of our class.

What may be more unconventional is the nature of the weekly writing assignments I have my students complete. Graduate classes in history usually require our students to read a monograph per week, and often have their students write academic book reviews of each week’s reading. This is a perfectly valid and valuable exercise that insists upon careful reading (with an eye cast towards both the significance and the shortcomings of the book) and provides training in an important form of academic writing (the review.)

My writing assignments, however, go in a different direction for the reasons I’ve laid out above. I have the students write what I call ‘reaction papers’ where their assignment is to discuss (in two pages maximum) how their engagement with that week’s reading has caused them as young historians-in-training to think about the historian’s craft and what it means to be a practitioner of it.

I urge them to view each week’s reading as an extended master class taken with the author of our reading where the students have the opportunity to think deeply under the guidance of that author’s work about just what it is that we historians do, with the hope that they will emerge from each week’s reading seeing the profession they are joining in a different light.

Butterfly pupae at different stages of maturity

I stress to the students that their papers can take a myriad of forms — I don’t have a specific template in mind other than that the papers encapsulate hard, self-reflective thinking on paper about becoming a professional.

Some papers end up responding in-depth to specific elements of the work at hand, replete with direct quotations and specific analysis of passages in light of the broader professional issues they relate to.

Others merely use the book (or elements of the book) as a launching point for reflections that quickly depart from any specific discussion of the book itself (many papers begin “Our reading this week made me think about…” and then off they go!)

Both are perfectly fine, and both can be helpful steps for the students along the strange and winding path from student to professional.