Teaching Writing Efficiently: Strategies for the Early-career Historian

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Early-career historians are acutely aware that they need to protect their writing time, develop consistent writing habits, and collaborate with other writers for support. Precious writing time can easily evaporate due to teaching responsibilities, especially because teaching undergraduates about history involves teaching them to write. This requires a significant investment of time and energy in reading, revising, and grading student work. Despite the easy instant gratification that comes from shepherding students through the writing process, no amount of deeply satisfying class sessions will turn my dissertation into a book—and early-career historians need to publish to get jobs and satisfy tenure requirements. Like many history instructors who may be balancing the demands of creating new courses, satisfying research demands, and navigating contingent positions and a competitive job market, I have noticed that efficiency is central to survival.

I have found that teaching writing helps me write more, and more efficiently. I honed the following tactics while teaching writing-intensive courses across disciplines, and they can be applied in community college, R1 or SLAC classroom settings. They force me to identify the effective writing strategies from the received wisdom of my mentors and my own writing experience and articulate in plain terms what works (and what doesn’t) and why. In conveying best practices to students, I make writing a centerpiece of my teaching. As a result, time spent preparing for class functions in service of, rather than in competition with, my own writing projects.

Use rubrics. My university uses Canvas, which offers a user-friendly customizable rubric for each assignment. Rubrics can be adapted across classes and modified to fit each assignment. They satisfy students’ need for clear criteria and preference for numerical scoring. Rubrics can also can be chock full of explanation that demystifies the difference between an A-level thesis statement and a B-level one.  Canvas allows instructors to click on the appropriate box, tying a score and comments together and calculating an overall grade. This prevents me from having to issue individualized explanations for minor point deductions, which saves time. Explore the Learning Management System your school uses and see how you might be able to incorporate assignment rubrics.

This is one section is from a 50-point rubric for an argumentative essay assignment. All parts of this are completely customizable, so you can tailor them to your learning objectives and grading scale. The far left column indicates the graded category of “Purpose” which I explain with some description. When grading, I select the box that describes the student’s work, and the corresponding point value is totaled in the column at the right and added to the overall assignment grade.
This is an example of a full rubric. It shows students point values tied to three aspects of a discussion board assignment for a History through Film course. Since this is a type of writing assignments my students do 12-15 times per semester, I can easily replicate this rubric each time and students can chart their improvement over the course of the semester. This reduces the time I spend repeating feedback from student-to student or over the course of a semester.

Create a Master List of Paper Comments. Of all the suggestions in this this article, the Master List of Paper Comments provides the greatest return on my effort and energy. First, type up or consolidate the feedback you frequently give to students into a single document. The Styles tool in Microsoft Office or Google Docs allows you to organize the comments, and while you’re grading, you can scan the navigation pane to easily locate the comment on “missing thesis” or “paragraph structure.” Then, paste the comment and its explanation into the comment box on the student’s assignment.

This ensures students get substantive feedback that is 1) tailored to their work, 2) in the voice of their professor, 3) comprehensive for the student without drowning the professor.  For writing mechanics errors, you can link students to a specific page of Mignon’ Fogarty’s Grammar Girl site, where they can access podcasts, examples, and accessible explanations tailored to their specific writing needs. 

The Word document I keep has evolved only slightly in my twelve years in higher ed; student writing challenges have not changed much, and there is no need to say “move the thesis from the last paragraph to the first” in a new way for each paper. 

Concentrate your feedback labor on the draft, when students can actually use it to improve their work. Often, students skim or altogether skip the comments on a graded final essay in favor of the final score, bypassing the opportunity to internalize the feedback their instructor took so much time to provide. By front loading your efforts at the draft stage, comments become action items that students are incentivized to read and implement.

Use the Master List of Paper Comments to provide substantive, critical, and solutions-based feedback on the draft. Assign it a low-stakes completion grade worth just enough to motivate students to turn it in. Use the rubric to score the final paper submission, limiting comments to any major issues that remain and affirming the improvement over the draft.  

Bonus: this strategy reduces grading-related procrastination. For those of us who can easily succumb to the temptation to postpone grading until “tomorrow,” this approach ties my grading efficiency to student success. I find that I’m motivated to return drafts with comments quickly to ensure students have proper time to revise their work; and grading the final paper becomes less laborious because I have already provided substantial feedback to each student. Procrastination—and feeling bad about it–sucks up a lot of time and energy. I confine draft comments to a 24-48 hour period, which frees up the rest of the week for my own work. 

Ask students to select their Feedback Tier.  I invite students to select among three tiers of feedback. I explain that I love helping students improve their thinking and writing, and that my feedback is intended to benefit their process. Tiers empower students to identify their interest in improvement and have a say in the of response they wish to receive. This approach also preemptively softens the blow of critical commentary by framing it as an opportunity for growth rather than a punishment for poor performance.

This is an example of instructions and tier descriptions I used recently. Students typically choose the appropriate feedback tier for the stage of their draft. The rare student who strung together a few sentences simply to meet the deadline chooses Tier 1. The rest are usually split evenly between Tier 2 and 3. Some even chime in with eager asides about “needing all the help I can get,” which indicates to me that they are ready to hear direct instructions about how to improve, and I can reduce the time I may otherwise have spent cushioning the feedback in affirming language.

Curb the likelihood of plagiarism. The old tricks of writing new prompts each semester and tailoring them to specific aspects of a class can no longer obstruct pathways to plagiarism. Online paper mills such as BestCustomWriting and Academized. are among many services promising unique essays to paying customers. Plagiarism checker tools like Turnitin (which I no longer use for these reasons), only scan for unoriginal writing and will not flag this type of infraction. Finally, sites like Quillbot and Rewriter Tools offer to scramble and paraphrase work to evade Turnitin and appear to be original work. 

For the instructor, plagiarism cases consume time and emotional energy.  A few adjustments can dissuade would-be offenders from paying a peer or an avatar to write their paper. At the very least, these strategies are good practice for improving a student’s writing.

  • For argumentative essays, even short ones, require a proposal.
  • Require a draft. If possible, ask students to submit all assignments tied to the paper via your LMS so the student faces accountability throughout the semester.
  • Discourage students from going through the motions of submitting a proposal and draft only to submit a final paper on a completely different topic: include a policy in your syllabus or assignment description telling students that once their proposal has been approved, they may not change it. 
  • Pair research papers with in-class presentations. Students must master their material to present it, and a Q&A session compels them to defend their argument.

The extra effort investment in reviewing proposals and drafts will not only decrease the number of plagiarism cases (and thus the hours spent documenting them), it will scaffold the writing process and result in better essays. 

Rejoice in the fact that editing others’ work is ultimately a selfish enterprise. Let’s be honest, faculty struggle with the same writing hiccups that students do; we’re simply better at resolving them. So as you become more efficient at distilling arguments from messy piles of evidence, inserting topic sentences into aimless paragraphs, and eliminating passive voice from student drafts, you’ll be able to turn these editorial skills onto your own work as well. 

Good teaching, like writing, is a community effort. Please feel free to share your advice on writing, writing while teaching, and teaching efficiently below. I owe my strategies to the insights of my mentors and colleagues, particularly Trysh Travis, Bonnie Moradi, Andrew Welton, David Tegeder, and Creed Greer, who have generously shared their own pathways toward efficient, effective academic careers with me. 

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