Michael LaCombe, Associate Professor of History and Chair of the History Department, talks with Instructional Designer Belle Gironda about applying ideas from the Writing in the Disciplines workshops in a course on American Civilization to 1877.

Michael LaCombe, Associate Professor of History and Chair of the History Department, talks with Instructional Designer Belle Gironda about applying ideas from the Writing in the Disciplines workshops in a course on American Civilization to 1877.

Of the twenty-five faculty enrolled in the summer WID workshops, Michael Lacombe, Associate Professor of History and Department Chair, was the only male participant. When we talked this fall about his experiences in the workshops, I had to ask if he had any insights about the causes, or the significance, of the gender imbalance. (To be fair there were two other male applicants among the original 44 who applied to the workshops, but they had positions near the bottom of the first-come-first-serve waitlist and so did not make it into a workshop this time.) LaCombe threw up his hands in bafflement, “It may have to do with a misperception that writing is a ‘soft’ subject—and, if it’s not our discipline specifically, we think we have much more important things to contend with—like, we’re historians!’”

When I asked what compelled him to apply to the workshops, he said that his primary motivation, initially, was a desire to be more effective when commenting on his students writing:

I had come to feel like my responses might sometimes be a little too mood-dependent—I wanted to be able to give every student the same quality of response to their writing —even on a day when I was dealing with a leak in my roof. I was also feeling like I needed some new approaches…feeling like, ‘there’s only so much you can say…’.

As it turned out, I went ‘all in’ on the WID thing. I did change the way I respond to student writing—but that happened mostly as a result of how I transformed my writing assignments so that now, among other things, commenting on student writing is a clearer, more focused and more interesting task—because I get to respond to students at the level of ideas.

I redesigned my writing assignments, using suggestions from the workshop, to emphasize critical thinking and to include crucial information in the assignment  like the writer’s role, the intended audience and a very specific task of persuasion.  By asking students to answer questions in different voices, for different audiences I discovered ways that I could get my one-hundred level students to engage in higher order learning activities like evaluating historian’s arguments and addressing interpretations—things we do with majors but not typically with beginning students and non-majors—until now.

In my 103 class, American Civilization to 1877, I give weekly writing assignments in which students respond to questions related to the week’s readings. Those questions used to be things like: ‘Explain the significance of the Whiskey Rebellion’ or ‘What were the antifederalists opposed to, and how did James Madison respond?’ These are not terrible  questions but  when students try to answer them, they’re stretching, they don’t know who they are, what voice to adopt, in that scenario. It leads to what Historians like to call “Movie Trailer Syndrome”—where students’ writing takes on this sweeping, portentous, tone—like a voiceover on a movie trailer saying…“In a time of darkness…” They’re not comfortable with academic writing. In their heads it sounds like that disembodied booming voice—their struggle with the writing buries any ideas they might have—and sometimes it’s painful to read.

I decided to take seriously the workshops’ suggestion to make assignments that give students a role and and audience and a clearly defined task. I removed  the unnatural constraint imposed by their need to to sound “academic” in these shorter weekly assignments. And, by ‘planting’ arguments in my questions and providing more familiar real world scenarios in which they can approach those arguments, I can see non-majors in an intro level class engaging higher level historical thinking.

In LaCombe’s current version of the course, students now choose from a variety of weekly reading questions like these:

  • Aunt Marge, while she was away at college in California, joined a vegan nudist commune. Uncle Bud thinks the idea is either hilarious or repulsive, depending on his mood. Explain to Uncle Bud why lots of people joined utopian communities before the Civil War and what they did there.
  • Your little brother has locked himself in the bathroom because he has to write a report on the War of 1812 and his friend gets to write on a really cool war. Talk him out of there by describing the War of 1812 as a really cool, pivotal moment in American history.
  • Remember Uncle Bud?  The rabidly patriotic one?  He and your Aunt Marge (remember her?  Went to California for college and never really came back?) are at it again.  Uncle Bud claims that the American Revolution was fought for liberty, period.  Aunt Marge says it was started by a bunch of rich white dudes who didn’t want to pay their taxes.  Please settle this argument.

LacCombe also explained that this approach has also opened up new opportunities to have students do some peer review of one another’s work—an activity that he had previously found to be ineffective with most students in 100  level courses:

Now that they are adopting these personas in their writing, to make their historical arguments, they can also adopt another persona from the scenario when they give each other feedback on their writing. They can be the opinionated Uncle Bud or a know-it-all little sister as they point out or challenge any potential weaknesses in an argument or places where evidence is lacking or not well-aligned. Again it facilitates the kind of thinking I want them to do—as writers to anticipate these kinds of questions and comments and to have an awareness of alternative perspectives—and as readers, to read critically. But, the use of the personas allows them to relax into it and to diffuse their anxiety about being critical —with humor. It’s not them—it’s the little sister talking.

This whole process has even made grading more enjoyable for me. I used to say that grading is the only part of my job that feels like work—reading material to design and prepare for classes is pleasurable, being in the classroom is usually fun—it was only when I was grading that I really felt like I was earning my money. The changes I’ve made in my writing assignments have allowed students to produce writing that is full of personality and humor and ideas. When I read their work now, I feel like I get to know them and, even better, it has allowed me to do some ‘hardcore history stuff’ with them that I had never been able to do before in a class at this level.

Professor LaCombe’s research focusses on the English Atlantic world before 1650, and in particular the role of food in interactions between English travelers and native groups. He teaches courses in early America, the American Revolution, Native American history, food and history, antebellum cultural history, and a research methods seminar on Jamestown’s first fifteen years. He is the Chair of the History Department and an Associate Professor of History.

This article is from the Fall 2016 edition of the FCPE Newsletter.

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