Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Personal Contemporary History Assignment

Well, in one of my earlier posts about a month or so ago, I wrote about a possible new history paper assignment. "Well, I've adapted to my students this semester and decided to try out a new assignment with them, by having them write up the history of the last ten years, from their own perspectives."
I was much surprised by their final projects, which all turned out to be very good--even from those who I didn't think had a chance of writing ten coherent pages. You can take a quick look at the papers: novaonline.nvcc.edu/eli/evans/campus/His135/Assignments/Links.html
I originally planned on using a wiki to set this up a collaborative project, but the free, online wikis available to me did not seem fitted to the task of long, research papers from multiple groups of collaborators. No matter how much I worked around--and I'm sure that it could have been done--but it seemed to be too much of a hassle for me to figure it out. It should have been simpler. So I settled on using google docs. Now, I could not track editing changes or specific collaborators with google docs, but the docs worked ok and it was simple. Besides, there weren't too many students who opted for the collaboration (Don't we all hate group work!), and so it just amounted to me working online with individual students.
Anyway, back to my point that students did very well. Some needed a bit of prompting, but most did a lot of work and enjoyed the paper and the opportunity to reflect on what they had seen and already lived through in the past ten years.
Most, of course, wrote primarily of things that happened in the US. That is not unusual, given that most of these students were very young with limited news exposures, but still some had overseas experience and could bring very interesting perspectives to the assignment.
Second, it was hard to get students to do supplemental research to investigate more thoroughly the events that they were writing about. This was especially the case with the use of Wikipedia. Most students are more than happy to read wikipedia, but they are not interested in looking further for more sources, nor are they even interested in looking at the notes or citations in a wikipedia entry itself.
Third, there is a problem of writing contemporary history and that is the issue of historical perspective--there is very little when covering ten years past. I worked a bit on this, but the very nature of the assignment which was kind of a personal memoir of recent history allowed me to bypass some of this issue.
Fourth, it was difficult to get students to read the other papers and produce detailed, competent critique, even though many ended up covering the same events. For example, a lot of students wrote about the Columbine Shootings, but they would not ask why one student omitted something, or point out mistakes in information in another paper.
Fifth, what struck me more than anything was the fact that when students had to work on impersonal, analytical writing assignments, such as I use elsewhere in the course, then they really struggled. They struggled with writing mechanics and style; they struggled with thesis and content. But with their personal writing and memoirs in this assignment, they wrote pretty darn well. I think that is reflective of the kind of writing that they now do in high school (I write this, I think this, I feel that, I, I , I , but that is not the kind of writing that they need to succeed in college or professional life.