Teaching Thursday: Reflective Writing

The great philosopher of history, R.G. Collingwood, famously argued that all history is the history of thought. In Collingwood’s estimation, the historian re-enacts that past in his (for Collingwood, the historian was always a “he”) own mind when he reads a historical text or studies objects from the past. While rethinking the thoughts of the actors who participated in a past event, the historian is aware and critical of his own thinking about the past. This critical practice distinguished “the best kind of historian” from other people who make it a habit of merely assembling evidence into an orderly presentation and passing it off as some kind of objective or impartial truth. Collingwood saw the ability and responsibility of historians to think past thoughts as key to the role history plays in the production of human knowledge. In fact, he argued that history was the only discipline that produced human self-knowledge.

While his arguments for the autonomy of history have not received universal acceptance, Collingwood has contributed to how I think about reflective writing in the classroom. Over the course of expounding his larger argument, Collingwood noted in an offhand way that when he reads something he wrote days before, he acts the part of the historian by reflecting on his own writing and using it to reconstruct a past thought.

This was a helpful idea to me as I sat down to struggle with constructing assignments for my graduate historiography seminar. Graduate historiography is a required course for all M.A., D.A., and Ph.D. students in history in our department. Generally, the course elicits a kind of exaggerated dread because it is designed to force students to examine their assumptions and practices as historians. In general, historians regard an ability to recognize one’s own disciplinary, historical, and social assumptions about the past as a crucial step in a student’s development in the profession. The course, then, insists that students reflect and own up to their own position in relation to the process and methods of historical thinking.

Reflective writing has become an important part of encouraging students to write and think about a text, situation, or body of material. Generally, the practice has allowed students a certain amount of latitude in how they approach a subject and has sought to instill confidence in students by recognizing the authenticity of their own engagement with material.  This goals of reflective writing are particularly suitable for my graduate historiography class where I introduce the students to any number of challenging texts and push them to embrace often uncomfortable critiques leveled against longstanding academic practices. This can be, as you might imagine, a difficult task as the students tend to resist the most critical challenges to traditional historical practices. To allow students to engage these critiques in a safe place, I require reflective essays each week that respond to the readings assigned. These then become, to some extent, the basis for our discussion in the seminar.

Traditionally, graduate historiography seminars require students to, say, write a few critical book reviews and perhaps write a longer paper on a particular aspect of historical practice (e.g. women’s history, microhistory, Marxist history, et c.). These are boring things to read and largely reproduce the kind of exercises that students write in their other graduate history courses. On the one hand, historical works tend to be boring, so having students write boring assignments does not make them less useful. And, using an assignment in a graduate historiography class to reinforce skills developed elsewhere in the program can be a good thing. Increasingly, however, I want my graduate historiography seminar to encourage students to engage critically and reflectively with difficult ideas.

So, in the spirit of Collingwood, I ask my students to take their reflective writing, compile it into an archive, and to write a historical paper based that uses these reflective texts as “primary sources”. The goal is, of course, to get the students to think about how they thought about writing history. In Collingwoodian terms, I am asking the students to re-enact, critically, their own learning process.

In other words, it’s an effort to close the loop.

Crossposted to Teaching Thursday.

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