Writing A Historical Argument (Overview)

TypingIf you ever want to have real fun, start talking about the 'correct' way to teach writing with any group of teachers. For serious fireworks, try it with AP History folks after you've all had a drink or two. Better you stick with safer, less provocative topics like abortion, religion, or the validity of comic books and superhero movies as cultural touchstones.

There are many good ways to write a decent argumentative (historical) essay, but even more ways to write a bad one. If there were only one 'right' way, we'd all teach it that way, students would all write them that way, and they'd all get 5's on their AP exams and A's on our semester tests. Wouldn't that be swell?

But it's not that straightforward. There are too many different types of prompts about too many different subjects, and often a wide range of possible approaches to even the most straightforward of the lot. Writing in the Histories (or the 'social sciences,' if you prefer) is a booger because really, you can't boil it down to a set of steps or rules likely to apply in every situation for every prompt. On the other hand, many students need structure and some modeling in order to begin learning a new skill - especially one as potentially intimidating as outlining a historical essay.

Here are some ways to approach historical writing - in this case, the 'Argumentative Essay'. If you're uncomfortable with so much structure and worried about students thinking they must eternally cram whatever they have to say into the same Jello mold, you're absolutely right to worry. On the other hand, if you genuinely believe that with little guidance and armed with sufficient content knowledged, students need only be pointed the right direction and set free to wax convincing, you're - what's the word? oh, yes - delusional.

Just kidding. You may simply be overly idealistic. After all, you DID become a teacher.

Writing Argument


The thesis statement tells the reader what the essay will be about, and what point you, the author, will be making.

This is a fun conversation (aka argument) starter. Most of the quibbling I encounter is in the ego-wrapped minutae of what determines "correct" practice, not whether or not there is a correct practice. Even those who say there is no correct practice - when pushed - will often concede that within the confines of specific contexts there is more and less correct choices of practice (which basically means they believe in subjective correct practice rather than universal correct practices with occasional exceptions). The worst part of this quibbling in my opinion is the impact that it has on the student writer. Anytime that an instructional practice silences the student's authenticity (either by "You're doing it wrong" or by "Why do you insist on using structural crutches?"), we have gone astray. Teaching is about growth, not correction. We succeed by nurturing our students, not through controlling their actions and by proxy their persons. As someone who has specialized in writing instruction, I have seen, heard, and held many different perspectives on the subject (not all, for I am not omniscient mind you) watched as most of them are centered on the authority of the instructor and the guarding of the discipline more than the growth of the student.


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