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Journal of American History

2002 Syllabi
Teaching outside the Box

Editors' Introduction
Gary J. Kornblith & Carol Lasser

U.S. Women Activists
Catherine Badura
Syallbus: 1998, 2000 | Article

The Black Athlete
Amy Bass
Syllabus | Article

Recovering Detroit's Past for History & Theater
Charles Bright

American History Since 1865
A. Glenn Crothers
Syllabus | Article

Intro to American History
John J. Grabowski
Syllabus | Article

American History
Cecilia Aros Hunter & Leslie Gene Hunter
Syllabus | Article

In Search of America's Civil Rights Movement
Alyssa Picard & Joseph J. Gonzalez
Syllabus | Article

Out of Many: Histories of the U.S.
David A. Reichard
Syllabus | Article

Women & Social Movements
Kathryn Kish Sklar
Syllabus | Article

Law & Society in American History
John Wertheimer
Syllabus | Article

Colonial & Revolutionary History of the Southern Tidewater
James P. Whittenburg
Syllabus | Article

American National Character
Michael Zuckerman
Syllabus | Article

The Collaborative Research Seminar

John Wertheimer

At the first meeting of my legal history seminar at Davidson College, I tell my ten students that our goal for the semester is simple: to produce a collaborative research paper that is so well conceived, so thoroughly researched, and so finely written that it gets published. Publication, of course, will not always be possible, though I will thank you not to mention this to my students. But whether or not my seminar accomplishes its stated goal of publication, I am confident that it will always achieve its unstated goal: to teach students--and remind me--how to research, write, and love history.1

Davidson College is a "highly selective" liberal arts school in North Carolina. It has been a good home to my collaborative research seminar. All of the school's 1,650 students are full-time; almost all live on campus. History is a popular major here, and law a popular career choice. Attracting good, hardworking students to my legal history seminar has not been difficult.

I originally conceived the collaborative research project as a mere training exercise to prepare students for what I thought would be the seminar's capstone: individual research papers. Walking--and talking--through a single research project in the term's first half, I thought, would prepare students to write papers of their own thereafter. Teach the flock to fly together, then watch them disperse and soar.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the individual term paper: the flock became so fond of their collaborative project--and each other--that they refused to separate. They pleaded with me to drop the individual assignment so that they might continue collaborating. I feigned reluctance but was inwardly delighted. I had already noticed that collaboration had ignited a passion for history usually restricted to honors students and departmental groupies. What is more, I too had unexpectedly fallen for our topic (a 1931 arson case involving a group of young, white, female inmates who torched their state-run "training school" to escape its horrors) and did not fancy saying goodbye to it just yet. I agreed to stick with the group project and have never looked back.

I have now taught my seminar four times. Each year my students and I explore a different episode from North Carolina's legal history. In addition to the arson case described above, we have studied a 1914 challenge to a Winston, North Carolina, city ordinance mandating racial residential segregation; the Reconstruction-era prosecution of a black man and a white woman for "fornication," even though the couple was legally married; and a depression-era community's female-led efforts to shut down Greenwich Village, a bawdy roadhouse that had opened in its midst.2 I am already looking forward to next year.

In what follows, I will discuss organizational detail, wherein lies the devil of the collaborative research seminar or of any effort to teach outside the box. To start, I offer three general suggestions. First, trust your students. Motivate, coordinate, but do not dominate their efforts. Second, be flexible. No matter how well-crafted your syllabus is (and craft it as well as you can), be prepared to make midstream modifications. Third, be as committed to the group project as you expect your students to be. They will make the course a top priority only if they see you doing so.

Getting Started

On the first day of class, following the usual pleasantries and a stirring peptalk, I move directly to topic selection. Because this is a make-or-break point, it sparks immediate student engagement. There are multiple ways of selecting topics. Once I handpicked a topic and fed it to my students on day one. That tactic had several advantages: I knew that the topic was good, I was able to prepare relevant assigned readings in advance, and my class hit the ground sprinting.

I now believe, however, that it is pedagogically preferable for students to generate their own topics--even if it means slower starts and, possibly (though not necessarily), weaker papers. The topic proposal is now my students' first research-and-writing assignment. Since my course deals with legal history, each student proposes a law case that could serve as the centerpiece of our collaborative paper. I limit the dates within which the cases must fall, mandate that the cases come from North Carolina to facilitate off-campus research, and provide an evaluative checklist to help students identify cases that would make good topics.3

Each student then explores our library's law books, nominates a case, and writes a short paper explaining the nomination. As with all written assignments in the seminar, students submit their topic proposals electronically, and I post them online for the entire class to see. Students read each other's proposals and come to the next session prepared for deliberation and topic selection. Once a consensus emerges, I celebrate the selection, congratulate all on their good proposals, and paraphrase Thomas Jefferson's first inaugural address on the need to forgive past differences and join together for a common purpose. The semester is short. We have much to do. Let's get to it.

The Research

Research begins when each student submits a list of promising secondary sources. I compile them into a master bibliography, which I post online.4 Students select and read works from the list, jotting down notes on three-by-five index cards. When done, they prepare one-page write-ups, summarizing the works' main points and evaluating their usefulness to the group project. The write-ups go online, so that students can use them when preparing the term's first major writing assignment, the historiographical essay. That assignment asks each student to do two things: analyze the current state of historical understanding of the group topic and describe the original historiographical contributions that the group paper might make. It is a challenging but important assignment.

Although secondary sources are essential, it is the primary source research--especially the off-campus variety--that provides the seminar's magic. After topic selection, I use class discussion to generate a list of research questions. Although many answers will be available right on campus, others will require travel. I work the phones, the Web, and reference librarians to learn about promising holdings in the area. I then send student researchers out with clear travel orders. ("Go snoop around and see what's there," incidentally, is an acceptable travel order.) Student researchers should take good notes, photocopy relevant material, keep their eyes open for unanticipated leads, and prepare thorough research write-ups. Believe it or not, students love the research trips. Anonymous course evaluations describe them as: "very helpful and lots of fun," "extremely helpful," "good, fun experience," "a great learning experience," "very productive," "very beneficial," "hugely helpful--learned how to do research and learned a lot about history," and "central to my learning in the course; I loved them."

Here are four keys to primary-research success: (1) Make off-campus research a requirement, not an option. Students will travel more happily knowing that there are no slackers back on campus, laughing. (2) Tell students that you are well aware that archival research is a hit-or-miss proposition. You will not hold it against them if, despite their best efforts, they return empty-handed. (3) Solicit money from your chair or dean to reimburse student expenses. Even a small amount will have large symbolic value. (4) Insist that students carpool. In transit my students have, as one put it, "bonded." In the archives they have divided unpleasant tasks, celebrated finds with high fives, and learned tremendously from each other. "I remember when we went on our first research trip," wrote Stan, a senior history major, in a peer review of his classmate Mike. "We didn't find much that day besides a good Italian restaurant. Still, I remember being impressed with Mike's resourcefulness. Having researched for four years, I figured there was nothing else I could learn. Mike proved me wrong. As we worked together, we were able to teach one another some of the tricks of the trade. It was a pleasure to get to know him and work with him." Magic.

The Writing

The writing for the group paper will be different from any writing students have previously done. It will be collaborative, not individual. It will be made from scratch, not slice-and-bake. And it will be a long-term commitment, not a one-night stand. I begin the process by having each student prepare a tentative outline. In seminar, we consolidate student ideas on the chalkboard. Besides providing for clean narrative flow and clear argumentation, the master outline should divide the material into roughly equal segments whose number matches the seminar's enrollment. Students then decide who will write which section of the paper. Some matches will be obvious. Only Robin, the lone student to explore the Heriot Clarkson papers, wants the Clarkson section. Only Ed, a genealogy buff (honest), volunteers to write about the Spake family's background. Other choices will be less clear. You should be part traffic cop, part auctioneer, and part shepherd. When every slot is filled, have your students distribute all research photocopies and three-by-five cards among themselves according to subject matter.

Allow a couple of weeks for the preparation of a first draft. Prior to the deadline, ask seminar members to bring tentative section outlines to class. Talking through these, in order, will remind students of how their individual parts relate to the whole.

Once students have written and electronically submitted their first drafts, compile and distribute copies of the whole paper. If you like bloated, disjointed, aimless prose, you will love the first draft. If not, you will find it dreadful. Do not despair. Think of it as a teaching opportunity, for so it is. Have each student edit and comment on the draft. In seminar, discuss what needs to be done, section by section. This will be time-consuming but valuable. The second draft will surpass the first; the third will be better still.

To enliven and sharpen the repeated rewriting, seek the comments and guest appearance of an outside reader. I have been blessed with four wonderful outside readers: Nancy Hewitt, Martha Hodes, Steve Kantrowitz, and Brian Luskey. For weeks in advance I invoked their pending visits as a spur to hard work. Our visitors invariably reassured us that there was hope, after all. They also suggested productive ways of rethinking our material, leading us back to old sources with new questions.

After your group paper attains some polish, consider a public presentation. The discipline required to reduce a fifty-page paper to a forty-five-minute presentation is of immeasurable value. Prepare students to present their sections in turn. Prior to the show, have at least one full run-through in which students time each other's presentations and you take notes like a theater director. While some of your remarks will involve delivery ("Melvin, lose the gum"), the important ones will involve content. If your pen runs out of ink, feel free to borrow the following remarks, since they will apply: "We need better transitions." "We need to identify the essential points of each section and communicate them more clearly." "We need to explain what we are going to say, say it, and then say what we have said." Although such remarks are putatively aimed at the presentation, their ultimate target is the final draft.

Students blossom at the public presentation. They invite friends, professors, and parents. They prepare overhead projections. They dress up and comb their hair. Unaccountably, no matter how crummy the rough drafts and dress rehearsals, the public presentations are always wonderful. My favorite part might be the question-and-answer session at the end, when students stand shoulder to shoulder and field questions as one.

There remains only the paper's final revision. Students should strive to re-create the clarity achieved at the public presentation. They should also attach brief remarks that begin with the phrase, "If I had unlimited time to research and rework this section, I would improve it in the following ways: . . . " With the submission of final drafts--and an end-of-term party--the collaborative research seminar concludes.


Assigning individual grades in a collaborative research seminar is not as difficult as it might seem. Indeed, since students submit written work just about every week, grading options abound. The major writing assignments--historiographical essays and rough draft sections--can be graded, as can less formal assignments such as research reports and rough-draft critiques. Assigned readings can be quizzed. A take-home final can be added. Professors who like distributing frequent letter grades may easily (and perhaps profitably) do so.

It is also possible, however, to go through an entire semester without assigning a single formal grade. I did so last spring and saw no decline in student effort. Students received, in one's words, "critique after critique" of written work during the term, but no letter grades. Every week I wrote notes in my grade book regarding each student's performance, both in class and on outside work. By semester's end--especially after reading my students' candid performance reviews of themselves and each other--I had no difficulty calculating final grades that seemed no more arbitrary than usual. Students did not complain. (Only one student last spring took me up on my offer to hold personal "evaluation conferences" upon request.) One student remarked that the unorthodox system "allowed for greater intensity of research and less stress." Whatever grading scheme you adopt, leave plenty of wiggle room to reward intangible contributions and hold free riders accountable. If the project goes well, grading will be but a pleasant afterthought.

One of my quietest seminar students was Ryan. He listened attentively to group discussions but spoke only when interrogated. After our public presentation Ryan's year, I chatted with him and one of his friends. "I'm glad I finally saw what this group paper is all about," the friend remarked. "Ryan won't stop talking about it!" Several factors explain the collaborative research seminar's rare capacity to engage students such as Ryan. Most students enjoy the unusual format, which takes them well outside of conventional academic boxes. Most like the course's hands-on features. ("We learned how to do history, rather than [just] read it--that made this a great class," one course evaluation stated.) Many appreciate the "extraordinary amount of responsibility and input" demanded of each class member. And all agree, "It was really cool to work as a group." You too will enjoy working with a group, especially when you see how much your students teach and learn from each other. "Alison helped me a whole lot individually," wrote an appreciative Beth in an end-of-term peer review, "especially with my forum [public presentation] draft--she sat with me for a couple of hours reworking and clarifying it--HUGE help!" Andy's glowing peer evaluations included praise for "help[ing] me with concepts, with the case, with footnotes, with random computer tricks. . . . He took time out to work with me whenever I asked him to."

Last spring Carrie visited my office to discuss her section of the group paper. Seeing that I was with another student, she waited in the hall. Minutes later, after recognizing that the other student was David, another member of our seminar, she came in to join our conversation. "I didn't realize that it was family," she explained. Even if my course never succeeds in publishing another article, comments like Carrie's will make it worth teaching, again and again.

John Wertheimer is an associate professor of history at Davidson College.

Readers may contact Wertheimer at <>.

1 I have submitted three of my seminar's four papers for publication consideration (the fourth remains a work in progress).  The first paper, written by the 1997 seminar, has been published; see Brian Luskey et al., "'Escape of the Match-Strikers': Disorderly North Carolina Women, the Legal System, and the Samarcand Arson Case of 1931," North Carolina Historical Review, 75 (Oct. 1998), 435-60.  The second paper is part of a collection of essays currently under consideration at an academic press; the third paper has been accepted conditionally by a state historical journal.  Publication has been possible thanks to the generosity of Davidson College and the George Lawrence Abernethy Endowment.

2 State v. Darnell, 166 N.C. 300 (1914); State v. Ross, 76 N.C. 242 (1877); Carpenter v. Boyles, 213 N.C. 432 (1938).

3 According to my evaluative checklist, a promising case is one that raises interesting legal issues, touches on interesting historical issues, suggests compelling human stories, and appears amenable to research.

4 I ask each student to submit fifteen titles, including at least 3 books, 3 history articles, and 3 law review articles.