Sequencing Formal and Informal Writing Assignments To Support a Discussion-Oriented History Course

Professor Susan Johnson, History and Chican@ & Latin@ Studies, UW-Madison
In this sample syllabus, Professor Susan Johnson leads her students through a sequence of writing assignments that balance formal and informal writing tasks. One formal assignment, a review essay, is included.

The U.S. Southwest: “The Middle Place,” El Norte,” or “The Southwest”?

History 600, Seminar 7

Chican@ & Latin@ Studies 330

5245 Humanities


Office: 5117 Humanities

Thurs. 10-12 & by appt.


This is a reading-intensive and discussion-oriented course designed to familiarize you with scholarship published in the last twenty-five years on the history of the region now called the U.S. Southwest. It is also a research- and writing-intensive course that will to introduce you to research methods in the field and to the art of historical writing. Always at issue in this class will be the very definition of the region under study; indeed, a major focus will be on how different groups of people have imagined this region, which Navajos have called “the middle place,” Mexicanos have called “el Norte,” and Anglos have called “the Southwest.” In all of this, we will pay special attention to the concept of revisionism. Is there a particular kind of historical scholarship that is revisionist, or is revisionism a central aspect of the historian’s project? In addition to reading book-length scholarship, we will also learn about primary sources and research methods. Five class periods will be devoted entirely to individual research projects, and part of many other class meetings will emphasize research. We will also be meeting with university and state historical society librarians to discuss how to find primary sources on the Southwest here at UW-Madison. Written work will include seven short, informal “discussion-point” papers; a formal review essay in the first part of the semester; and a formal research paper in the latter part of the semester that uses both primary and secondary sources.


Course requirements

1. General. Class is a place for collective learning. Because this course is reading-intensive and discussion-oriented, it will only work if we all contribute the following: faithful attendance; prompt completion of weekly readings; interactive and respectful participation in discussion. Please note that unexcused absences will be reflected in your course participation grade.


2. In class. In order to facilitate collective learning, the following is required of all students.

Discussion-point papers: For seven of the eight weeks in which we read a book-length work of historical scholarship, you will turn in a short (one-page), informal paper in which you describe two or three issues raised by the reading that particularly interest you and that you would like the class to discuss. These informal papers should be submitted by email (NO ATTACHMENTS PLEASE; JUST TYPE YOUR REMARKS INTO THE BODY OF YOUR EMAIL MESSAGE). You must submit your paper by email no later than 5 p.m. the DAY BEFORE class meets to discuss that book (thus by 5 p.m. on Monday, before Tuesday morning’s class). Prof. Johnson will read these papers before Tuesday’s class to see what kinds of issues you would like to discuss that week. Note that there are seven of these papers required of you, even though there are eight books assigned (actually, there are nine books assigned, but one is a collection of scholarly articles that has a different written assignment associated with it; see Feb. 22 class below). This means that you can choose one week not to write a discussion-point paper and still receive full credit for this aspect of the course. The papers will not be graded, but will be marked with a +, ü, - system, and will be considered in determining your course participation grade.

Primary source punditry: For some of the weeks in which we read a book-length work of historical scholarship, one or more of you will serve as primary source pundits for the class. In other words, you will be responsible for paying particular attention to the author’s research strategies. Where possible, you should identify and locate at least one primary source the author used to make his or her arguments, and report to the class about the use the author has made of this source (your report should last about five minutes). If possible, bring the source or a copy of relevant parts of the source to class for the other students to see. You will also be responsible for helping to facilitate discussion that week by reminding your classmates, whenever appropriate, of the author’s research strategies.


3. Formal papers. In addition to the discussion-point papers, you will write two formal papers for this class:

Review essay: In the first part of the semester, you will write a 3–4 page (750–1000 word) review essay on the first four books we read together as a class. We will discuss the content of this paper in class, but your basic assignment is to elaborate on how these books revise and expand your ideas about the region we now call the Southwest. The paper must be turned in by 3:30 p.m., Thurs., Feb. 17, in Prof. Johnson’s mailbox on the 5th floor of the Humanities Bldg. Late papers will be marked down by at least 1/2 of a letter grade unless you have made prior arrangements at least 48 hours in advance (prior arrangements involve a conversation with the professor).

Research paper: During the latter part of the semester, you will work on a second assignment, a 10-12 page (2500-3000 word) research paper in which you use both primary and secondary sources to make a historical argument. A topic statement and bibliography for this paper are due by 3:30 p.m. Thurs., Feb. 24, in Prof. Johnson’s mailbox on the 5th floor of the Humanities Bldg. A rough draft of your research paper is due by 3:30 p.m. on Thurs., March 31 in Prof. Johnson’s mailbox on the 5th floor of the Humanities Bldg. Late rough drafts will not be accepted. If you do not turn in a rough draft at this time, your course participation grade will automatically drop to “F.” You will get your rough draft back with Prof. Johnson’s comments in class on Tues., April 12. The final research paper is due by 3:30 p.m. on Thurs., May 5, in Prof. Johnson’s mailbox on the 5th floor of the Humanities Bldg. Late papers will be marked down by at least 1/2 of a letter grade unless you have made prior arrangements at least 48 hours in advance (prior arrangements involve a conversation with the professor).



Your final grade for the course will be determined as follows:

Course participation (includes in-class discussion and discussion-point papers)         25%

Primary source punditry                                                                                      10%

Review essay                                                                                                    25%

Research paper                                                                                                 40%


. . .


Short Paper Assignment: Review Essay

History 600 / Chican@ & Latin@ Studies 330

For this assignment, I’m asking you to write a 3-4 page (750-1000 word) review essay on the first four books we read together as a class: Hall, Social Change in the Southwest; Iverson, Diné; Weber, Mexican Frontier; and Chávez, Lost Land. Before you begin this paper, you might take some time to reflect on how these books have revised and expanded your ideas about the Southwest, perhaps by jotting down a list of insights you’ve gained from each of the books. Once you’ve made that list, you might look for connections among these insights. Are you particularly intrigued, inspired, or troubled by certain sets of questions or issues that arise out of your reading of these books? No doubt you are, and these questions or issues can be the subject of your paper. I’m not expecting you, then, to address any particular questions or issues, but rather those that most interest you.

There are several different approaches you might take, and the ones I suggest below are only a few among many possibilities. You may well come up with an approach on your own that does not resemble any of these. I encourage you to follow and develop your own intellectual agenda. If you’re concerned about whether or not your approach is acceptable, feel free to send me a brief email message, and I’ll be happy to respond. You do not need to concentrate equally on each of these books, and you do not need to give “equal time” to whichever books you choose to analyze. You should address at least three of the books, however, and you should have something substantive to say about each of the books you discuss. Also, you do not need to limit yourself to a literal reading of how these authors define the Southwest, in general, or that portion of the Southwest they study, in particular. Instead, you need to make a coherent argument about the intellectual conception of the Southwest and its history that emerges from your reading of these four books. Is “the Southwest” a meaningful concept that helps us to understand the historical situations described and analyzed in these books? Is the “Mexican frontier” (or, for an earlier period, “New Spain’s Northern Frontier”) a more helpful term? When we view the history of this region from the point of view of particular peoples (and their contemporary heirs), such as Navajos or Chican@s, how does the region and its history look different? How does the approach of a historical sociologist like Hall help us to think differently about a place like the Southwest? What are the historical forces and trends that have helped to create the region we now know as the Southwest? Is the narrower geographical focus on the Southwest employed by Hall more helpful than the broader focus employed by Weber? Is it more helpful to view the region from the point of view of particular peoples, as do Iverson and Chávez? These are among the kinds of questions you may want to answer in your paper. Obviously, you can’t answer all of them, and you may have questions other than these that you wish to raise. But your paper should pose a historical question and then answer it relying on the readings we’ve done in common so far.

Your paper should be written as if you anticipate an audience much larger than the audience you will actually have (that is, me). Write as if you imagine your audience to be other advanced History majors or Chican@ & Latin@ Studies Certificate Program students who have neither read the same books nor taken the same course as you. That means you can’t just launch into an intricate discussion of these texts, their arguments, and the historical ground they cover without first providing for the reader the background and context s/he will need to be able to follow your reasoning. For example, if you’re introducing for the first time information or interpretation you’ve gleaned from Hall, Social Change in the Southwest, you’ll need to explain first what the book is about. If you’re writing about the Navajo Nation, don’t assume that your reader will know exactly where Navajos live, where the term Diné comes from, or what the Long Walk was; you should provide this context.