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 clichés 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: firstname.lastname@example.org; email@example.com; (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!
Monday, May 18, 2015
WE DON’T WANT TO KNOW YOU
The Concord Review
18 May 2015
Three times a year, The Boston Globe (in the Athens of America) has a 14-16-page Special Supplement celebrating local "scholar-athletes" with pictures and brief write-ups. These are high school students who have taken part in soccer, tennis, golf, football, swimming, baseball, basketball, softball, wrestling, and what-have-you, and done well by various measures. Their coaches, too, get their pictures in the paper and sometimes a paragraph of praise. In addition to these supplements, hardly a day goes by during the school year when some high school athlete, team, coach or event doesn't get "covered" by The Boston Globe. A local philanthropic group has recently raised several million dollars to promote sports in our public high schools.
As we all know, sports involve students, parents, boosters and the like, and they build teamwork, discipline, character, equality (of a sort), ambition, competition, and attendance. Parents do not need to be dragged to games the way they do to school meetings or Parents' Night to talk to teachers. In many cases, they pay fees to allow their youngsters to participate in sports, and some even raise money as boosters for trips to games, tournaments, etc. Community involvement is fairly easy to get in sports, and there are very few edupundits who find work advising schools and communities on how to get parents and other community members involved when it comes to school sports. I know of no new initiatives or workshops to teach parents how to get involved in their children’s sports programs. Athletes also enjoy rallies, cheerleaders, and coverage in their high school newspaper as well.
Not long ago a young student basketball player in Massachusetts, 6'10" and very good at his sport, "reclassified" himself (changed from a Junior to a Senior?), so that he could choose among the many colleges whose coaches want him to come play at their institutions. His picture not only appeared several times in his local school newspaper, but also showed up several times with stories in The Boston Globe (the Sports Section is one of only four main sections in the paper each day). Apparently we want to know who our good high school athletes are, and what they are achieving, and what they look like, etc.
There is another group in our high schools, which might be called not "scholar-athletes," but perhaps "scholar-scholars," as their achievements are in the academic work for which, some believe, we build our schools with our taxes in the first place. But we tell those "scholar-scholars" that we really don't want to know them. Their work does not appear in The Boston Globe. Their pictures and stories do not appear in the three-a-year Special Supplements or in the daily paper (there is no "academics" section in the paper of course), or even in their local high school newspaper.
Whenever the subject of students who do exemplary academic work in our schools comes up, our cliché response tends to be that "they can take care of themselves." But if we don't seem to feel that good high school athletes should have to get along in anonymity, why do we think that anonymity for our best high school students will serve them (and us) well enough, in our education system, and in the country, which is in a serious fight to stay up with other countries who take their best students and their academic achievement very seriously indeed.
Sometimes when I mention that it might serve us well if we gave some recognition to our best high school "scholar-scholars" people say that I must be "against sports." I am not. I am just critical of the huge imbalance between our attention to athletes and what we give to scholars at the high school level. 100 to zero doesn't make the best balance we can achieve in recognizing them, in my view.
Of course, I am biased, because for 28 years I have been publishing exemplary history research papers by high school students (so far 1,154 papers from 44 states and 40 other countries) in a unique quarterly journal, and none of them ever gets mentioned for their history scholarship in The Boston Globe. Folks tell me this practice is not limited to the Athens of America, of course.
If we are worried about the performance of our student athletes, then the relentless coverage of their efforts might seem justified. I know we are worried about the academic achievements of our public high schools, yet when scholar-scholars in the high schools get published in The Concord Review (and then go on to Stanford, Yale, Harvard, and Princeton—as about 30% of our authors do), or get to be Rhodes Scholars (as several have), they don't get mentioned in The Boston Globe. Actually one author, Jessica Leight, from Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School, did get her picture in the paper when she got her Rhodes Scholarship, after being named Junior Eight Phi Beta Kappa and graduating summa cum laude at Yale, but no mention was made of her Emerson Prize-winning paper on Anne Hutchinson, which was published in that unique international quarterly journal when she was still in a local public high school.
So let's do continue to praise our local high school athletes and their coaches. But isn't it time at long last now to think about the message such publicity sends to our diligent and successful scholar-scholars and their coaches (I mean their teachers—who are also ignored) about what we value as a society? Why has it been so important all these years to send them, when they are doing not only what we ask them to do in school, but well above and beyond what we have expected, the message that, sorry, but "We Don't Want to Know About You"?