Wednesday, May 20, 2015

STANDARD-BEARER FOR ACADEMIC WRITING

EducationNews.org; Houston, Texas
Interview with Michael Shaughnessy



Samantha Wesner, 21 May 2015

1) Samantha, could you first tell us a bit about yourself, your education and experiences?

I grew up attending public schools in Texas and, after age ten, New York. I learned to read at age four and read rapaciously as a young kid. I read much less after entering a high school whose good academic ratings hinged on a rigorous math and science program. The U.S. history research paper I describe in my guest blog post here was a game-changer—it made me re-evaluate what I, a high school student, wanted to do and could do. In college, I majored in history with a studio art minor, and took enough French to be able to read primary source documents for a senior thesis on Enlightenment France. While a student, I worked at Houghton, Harvard's rare book library. I also worked in publishing before coming to The Concord Review.

2) I understand that you have taken over the editorship of The Concord Review. However did this come about?

I was keen on finding a job where I could do meaningful work, preferably at the intersection of history, publishing, and education. So The Concord Review seemed a good fit. When the job interview ended, I walked away with a copy of the journal in hand. The eleven student essays inside were wonderful. The mission of the Review—to recognize exemplary student work and to promote the history research paper—was beyond exciting for me, a young graduate whose high school history research experience had been formative. I have since become the journal's managing editor while Will Fitzhugh remains its editor.

3) The Concord Review has, for years, produced some of the finest writing from high school students from around the world. How do you hope to keep up the fine work of Will Fitzhugh?

Will Fitzhugh has done incredible work, not least in seeing the need for The Concord Review and establishing it as the standard-bearer for academic writing in high school. The Concord Review invented the niche it occupies in publishing and education. To our knowledge, it is the only journal of its kind in the world. We currently have a steady flow of submissions. Will has curatorial prerogative—after an initial screening, he selects eleven exceptional essays for each issue from a pool of hundreds.

Part of what I personally would like to do is simply to get the word out so more students know of the opportunity. I am confident that there are students out there who might take on the challenge of an in-depth research paper if they knew about The Concord Review. And the experience of seeing an extensive project through to fruition is invaluable to a student whether or not the result is published.

4) On to the writing issue—why is there so little writing expected in the high schools across America?

Writing is not easy. It is time-consuming; it requires focus, effort, and mental stamina. It's also not instantaneously gratifying. Probably one of the most tired clich├ęs out there at this point is that the internet is responsible for shorter attention spans and weakened abilities to focus in those of us who grew up in a digital age—myself included. Whether or not that is true, the rise of 140 characters, Buzzfeed-style lists that staid news organizations have begun to emulate, tl;dr mentality, etc. make your average 6,500-word Concord Review essay look not only prodigious, but academic beyond reach. There’s also a perception that history and academic writing are not as crucial to a student’s so-called career-readiness or even college-readiness as are other fields and skills.

The intractable problem of time and resource allocation is another important factor. Many teachers are already struggling under a heavy load, some with more than 100 students to teach. Many simply do not have the time to read, grade, and give feedback on extensive research papers. Moreover, there is so much history to cover that it’s hard to squeeze a long assignment in without short-changing curricular obligations. Even a writing assignment that receives no written feedback, however, has enormous educational value. And depending on the school district, there might be a space for a research paper if, say, school ends in late June while AP history tests are scheduled for early May. Still, this obstacle is a significant one and cannot be ignored.

5) Even more bluntly, why is there so little writing in colleges and universities?

I don’t think I know enough about the state of writing in colleges and universities to offer an informed answer. I do know, however, that writing experience is cumulative. The more writing students do in high school, the better prepared they are to tackle college writing assignments. So it follows that if writing assignments have fallen out of favor at the high school level, college freshmen are less prepared for college-level writing. Perhaps colleges adjust their course offerings accordingly, or perhaps students are less inclined to take classes in which major term papers will be assigned.

6) I think this is blatantly obvious, but why is a Power Point or Prezi Presentation no substitute for a well written, well researched term paper?

Presentations and papers exercise different skill sets. Both have the potential to prompt deep thinking on a historical subject. In my opinion, having to write a paper often encourages a greater degree of understanding of a topic than creating a powerpoint presentation does. Writing forces the transformation of nebulous thoughts, arguments, and interpretations into coherent sentences in a way that a typing out a bullet point next to an image doesn’t.

A paper takes time to craft. Writing slows things down to a pace at which connections and insights have more of a chance to present themselves. It can keep a student honest about what he or she really understands. A student in the middle of a research paper might think: Hmm, I can’t formulate this sentence in a way that sounds clear. Maybe I’m not understanding this issue as well as I need to. In a powerpoint scenario, the same student might just type out a few words and be done with it. The difficulties would come later, during the presentation, at which point there’s no chance to go back to the research phase and learn more. In writing, thoughts have to go from half-formed to fully-formed.

7) Let's divide up writing and researching. How can schools develop better writers, and how can the schools develop better scholarly researchers?

In terms of research, I would advocate library-class partnerships. Students should have at least a class period devoted to learning about the research tools they can access at the school library, including digital resources. A standard list of resources can give students something to grasp when they’re starting their research. Students should also learn about Chicago or Turabian citations, since if they submit to The Concord Review, or take a history class in college, that know-how will be important. It can be as easy as showing students the Chicago-Style Citation Quick Guide—available for free online at: www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/tools_citationguide.html.

As for writing, there is no substitute for practice. But at least a baseline of writing instruction is crucial in that it provides a vocabulary with which to talk about writing—thesis statements, introductions, conclusions, body paragraphs, and the rest. Examples of other students’ writing, whether by way of peer review or sample essays (those published in The Concord Review, for example), are also useful. They can help a student feel less alone in what is a often a solitary endeavor.

8) Where can people get more information? Do you have a web site?

Anyone interested in The Concord Review should stop by our site, www.tcr.org, or find us on Facebook. Will Fitzhugh and I also welcome inquiries by email or by phone: fitzhugh@tcr.org; samantha@tcr.org; (978) 443-0022.

If you’re interested in reading the journal or using it with students in the classroom, we offer online and print subscriptions. Our subscribers receive 44 fascinating, in-depth, historical monographs per year, on topics ranging from the Greek lawgiver Solon to the Savoy Ballroom. Individual essays can also be ordered through our website (www.tcr.org/bookstore). Of course if you know a history teacher, be sure to let him or her know about this opportunity for his or her students. And if you are a history teacher, encourage your students to research, write, and submit their history research papers to us!

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