Writing about history

Will Fitzhugh’s crusade to get high school history teachers to assign research papers to allegedly college-prep students made the New York Times.

“Most kids don’t know how to write, don’t know any history, and that’s a disgrace,” Mr. Fitzhugh said. “Writing is the most dumbed-down subject in our schools.”

His mood brightens, however, when talk turns to the occasionally brilliant work of the students whose heavily footnoted history papers appear in his quarterly, The Concord Review.  Over 23 years, the review has printed 924 essays by teenagers from 44 states and 39 nations.

Publishing in the Concord Review is the equivalent of winning a national math competition, says William R. Fitzsimmons, Harvard’s dean of admissions.  

In the most recent issue, a senior from Montclair, N.J., writes of Theodore Roosevelt’s tenure as a New York police commissioner; a New Orleans student profiles a 19th-century transcendentalist philosopher; and a senior from Seoul documents the oppression of Korean residents on a North Pacific island.

Fitzhugh started teaching history at a Massachusetts high school in 1977.  Already, the long research paper was out of fashion. But a sophomore’s well-researched, 28-page paper on America’s strategic nuclear balance with the Soviet Union persuaded him he hadn’t been asking students to work hard enough. In 1987, he started the review.  it’s won praise but little financing.

Most essays come from students at private schools. Few public school history teachers assign long research papers, Fitzhugh says.

He recently asked the head of a history department at a New Jersey high school if he assigned research papers.

“Not anymore,” Mr. Fitzhugh quoted the teacher as saying. “I have my kids do PowerPoint presentations.” Mr. Fitzhugh said he scoffs when some educators argue that research papers have lost relevance because Google has put so much knowledge just keystrokes away.

Researching a history paper, he said, is not just about accumulating facts, but about developing a sense of historical context, synthesizing findings into new ideas, and wrestling with how to communicate them clearly — a challenge for many students, now that many schools do not require students to write more than five-paragraph essays.

In 2002, the Shanker Institute, a research group associated with the American Federation of Teachers, funded a nationwide survey of public school history teachers. While 95 percent  said assigning long research papers was important, 80 percent said they never did because they had too little time to read and grade them.

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  1. tim-10-ber says:

    I am curious — my younger son attended the supposed top 30 public school in the country. He was never, ever assigned a true research paper. He did one in 8th grade for the feeder school complete with a powerpoint and a presentation. He had to footnote his references and everything. Yet, never in high school…until his senior year at a private school.

    Yet, I started doing research papers in public school in either 4th or 5th grade. Complete with my encyclopedia, trips to the library, index cards for references and notes, etc.

    What has changed? How many teachers now assign real research papers – say 10 pages plus references and footnotes? When do you start assigning them? What grades? If you do not assign them, why not? How do you prepare your students to truly write — more than the lame 5 paragraph paper that constitutes the state writing test? How many assign creative writing assignments in english or other subjects?

    Thanks for the info!

  2. Tim-10-ber — I know that I had my first research paper in first grade– it had to be a whole typewritten page long, have a bibliography, and use at least 5 sources.

    We usually had one big paper a year, complete with notecards, outlines, and ever escalating research requirements and word counts.

    So, when we had to do a major paper in 11th grade, (minimum 20 pages, months of work, etc. etc.) we had been working up to it for years. It was a bear, but it was something we were prepared for–the next logical step.

    I wonder if students are less capable of writing a long paper now, because they HAVEN’T been working up to it…..

    Which reminds me— I need to get cracking with my first grader! 🙂

  3. There are two things that strike me about this. First, research papers aren’t even always required by academics. A professor friend of mine told me that at the last conference she went to, presenters were allowed to come with either an abstract of their latest research or a poster. A POSTER?!?!?! These are professional word-fluffers and they can’t even come up with abstracts of their own work? A sign of the times, I guess.

    The other thing that strikes me is that this has been going on for a very long time. I remember writing a research paper in 11th grade. I remember that being a real shock because we hadn’t been working up to it. In 12th grade we had a 5-page paper due each Monday in addition to an in-class essay each Friday. When I got to college my required “intensive” writing class had fewer than 5 5-page papers due over the course of the whole semester.

    My children attend a school where they have to do papers in addition to the PowerPoint presentations. They hate it and it’s a real struggle for them even with all our support at home. But I know it will serve them well in the future. I do think it’s a little sad that they’ll be in the minority when they hit high school and college.

  4. Everhopeful says:

    I teach in the humanities at a midwestern state university. When I assign research papers, most of my students tell me they have never done one in their life. They don’t have the foggiest notion how to research, quote, cite, etc. One of my graduate students didn’t even know how to format a bibliography. I’ve found over the years that even the brightest students become 50% dimmer when writing research as opposed to opinion essays.

  5. I remember having to write a history paper in, I think, sixth grade, but nothing before that. We had papers in English class all through high school and, of course, all of my science fair projects had to be accompanied by a proper paper.

    We just need one simple law: the ability to sue teachers and school districts for malpractice, things would tighten up fast. I know, I know, too much collateral damage, but I can dream, can’t I?

  6. i know what would bring research papers back into the classroom: make them part of the state exams. language arts teachers only require 5 paragraph essays to be written b/c that’s all that’s required on the state tests.

  7. In 2011, we use in-text citation, not footnotes. This reminds me of a text a homeschooler showed me they were using that painstakingly explained how to use the card catalogue system.

    Our state has eliminated all writing from the EOC exam — budget cuts, you know. I’m happy because it means I don’t have to spend time teaching the crap essay they had and can do more interesting types of assignments.

    Nevertheless, my kiddos do a research paper every year. We use MLA; social studies uses APA (except for one old timer who insists on Chicago).

    FWIW, I’ve always thought that social studies is an untapped resource for reading and writing instruction.

  8. “some educators argue that research papers have lost relevance because Google has put so much knowledge just keystrokes away”

    So when the kid finally graduates and has a responsible job…and his boss asks him to write a report about something…he’s just supposed to tell the boss to Google it?

  9. dangermom says:

    Even my pretty abysmal high school required a couple of long research papers. In 20 years, I guess that’s almost disappeared. I had no idea, actually–my kids are still in the elementary grades.

  10. Michael E. Lopez says:

    Lightly Seasoned saith:

    In 2011, we use in-text citation, not footnotes. This reminds me of a text a homeschooler showed me they were using that painstakingly explained how to use the card catalogue system.

    First off: I hope against hope that you mean “we” in the sense of “people in my classroom”. But I’m definitely getting a “royal we” sense from your comment, though, and fear that you may be under the impression that there is some sort of large-scale univeral consensus on citation form and that you’re among the ranks of the au courant and enlightened. This bothers me for two reasons.

    First, there isn’t any such agreement — and if there were I’d hope to every God in every pantheon that it wasn’t MLA. (It’s a functionally horrible style designed by someone who hates writing.) A lot of people — a lot of serious academics — still use footnotes, even in English and Critical Theory — so “we” probably isn’t as expansive as you’ve made it sound.

    The second reason that this bothers me is that it seems to me, again from your tone more than anything you said, that you are under the mistaken impression that citation form actually matters.

    Now, high school teachers often get all worked up about citation format and bibliography format because that’s what they remember from being undergraduates in college: the professor who made them list all their sources in Chicago style, or whatnot. Most high school teachers haven’t ever written a serious piece of research: all they’ve ever done are the sorts of hypothetical, speculative exercises demanded of their students. (“Write a 12 page paper on the Mongols… go hit the library!”) The ones who have done serious work are likely to know that citation format is waaaaay down the list of priorities, somewhere between what color socks you’re wearing when you turn in the paper and what brand of staples you used.

    Teachers often get fixated on citation form because it’s easy to grade. It’s objective. There are rules and expectations and they are fairly easy to explain. But the truth is that serious academics know the score: the format of your sources matters not one whit until you’re actually going to publication (or are submitting to a really tight-ass journal), and often not even then. MLA, Chicago, APA, Bluebook, Kate Turabian… few except the most narrow-minded pinheads at a university care what book you use (or even if you use a book at all — I’ve got my own citation style that I use for my pre-publication academic work) so long as the sources are recognizable and verifiable.

    There isn’t a university instructor I’ve met (and I work with many every day from a variety of disciplines) who cares about bibliography format so long as it’s legible and not confusing. I’ve never even had it come up as an issue except from nervous Freshmen whose high school teachers lied to them and told them that we cared about such things in college.

    That’s not to say that students shouldn’t learn a style in high school. You don’t learn to fence in the abstract: you go to a particular salle and learn their style of fighting. You don’t learn to play college Bball in a vacuum… you go to a particular school and learn what they have to teach you.

    But the value of learning a style is just that: learning the sorts of things that need to be included to make your work verifiable and (to an extent) reproducible in the scientific sense. Styles integrate the fundamentals into a cohesive whole, but it’s almost always the fundamentals that matter, in sports, in art, or in academics. A student should learn that titles and publication dates are important. He or she should be alert to disambiguating similar author names. He or she should know something about how to use a pin cite.

    But beyond the basic principles… who cares? Certainly not your students. Certainly not (most) of their future professors. And certainly not their future employers. Most companies are going to have their own in-house format rules anyway for reports and such that the students are going to have to learn later on, so it’s just as well that they don’t get caught up in the fetishistic worship of “proper” citation form.

  11. My pet peeve was the teachers who demanded that the NOTECARDS be done a certain way! I used to make them in the way most useful to me, and then have to do a separate set to turn in that matched the specifications.

    Taking good notes is important. How the notecard is formatted is a matter of personal preference!

  12. For heaven’s sake, Michael. You *do* go on. Of course it is the “royal we.” I am speaking for high school teachers, of which I am one. WE do not teach footnoting anymore. It is outre. I believe it became so the moment word processing made it easy to do. (I’ve actually done real academic research, but whatever).

    Secondly, no, particular style does not matter as long as a student learns one and how/why all the little bits are there. It’s nice (to them) to be consistent throughout one’s department, if not high school. Plagiarism tends to be a big deal.

    Most of the formatting work is done by websites. Bedford St. Martin’s has a good one, as well as my good friend Easybib. Very few of my kiddos use index cards anymore — they generally use online tools to create their notes (in the proper format, which has a purpose, even if they later deviate from it to something that works better — of course, I couldn’t even read in 1st grade I’m pretty sure, so I certainly wasn’t typing up research papers — I could be way off and leading my students down the path to perdition — but then, hey, apparently I’m the only high school teacher in Amurica who is assigning a research paper these days, so I can’t corrupt too many youth).

  13. We just need one simple law: the ability to sue teachers and school districts for malpractice, things would tighten up fast. I know, I know, too much collateral damage, but I can dream, can’t I?

    Oh, for god’s sake. Idiots, idiots everywere and nary a body to beat. (before someones whines, it’s a joke. I wouldn’t actually beat anyone face to face. Even an idiot.)

    I think the vast importance of “research papers” is absurdly overrated, and articles whining about the lack are often fronts for IB zealots. Teach a kid to write well, and

    Teach kids to write, and they can apply that skill to any purpose. Assign a research paper to kids who can’t yet write, and it’s just an invitation to plagiarism.

    There is simply no evidence that assigning research papers in high school will do much to improve college outcomes.

    I teach in the humanities at a midwestern state university. When I assign research papers, most of my students tell me they have never done one in their life.

    It’s quite possible they are lying. But either way, who cares? They learn, or you flunk them.

  14. Call me an idiot all you like, but allowing a student to graduate from high school without ever requiring them to write a research paper is educational malpractice, clean and simple. You can’t blame the student or the parents for lessons you never tried to teach.

  15. Wow! Teachers lie, don’t assign writing, and should be sued for malpractice. Have a good day!