Writer’s Handbook for Amst/Hist/Wmst 139W

Want to Do Well in this Class?

This is What You Need to Know

A User’s Guide to:

Amst/Hist/Wmst 139W

US Women’s History to Reconstruction

US Women’s History to Reconstruction is organized around the following learning goals:

  • Students will develop an understanding of the variety of women’s experiences from pre-contact to Reconstruction. They will also develop an understanding of the ways in which gender has been used to structure relations of power.
  • Students will learn to read scholarly articles about women’s history for argument as well as content.
  • Students will learn to analyze important scholarly debates about the history of women in the United States and to intervene in those debates with their own independent interpretations.
  • Students will learn to express their critiques of scholarship and their own interpretations of women’s history in clearly written essays.

The writing you learn to do in this class will provide the primary means for assessing whether or not you are achieving these learning goals. Thus, writing is a key component of how you will study women’s history and how we will know whether or not you are learning the things you need to know. If you are worried that you are not a good writer, stop worrying. The point of this course is to teach you how to become an effective writer who can analyze scholarly arguments not only in women’s history, but in other courses as well. That is why US Women’s History to Reconstruction is a WID (Writing in the Disciplines) class.

One of the most important assumptions underlying the work you do in this class is that your ability to write is fundamentally related to your ability to analyze. I expect that all students in this class know the fundamentals of grammar as well as how to write a basic essay with topic sentences. What I have found in many upper division courses is that as students encounter more difficult work, their writing skills crumble. They might write a beautiful essay on a rather simple topic and an absolutely wretched essay on a more difficult one. This has convinced me that good writing cannot be separated from good thinking. I actually think that Writing in the Disciplines should be renamed Critical Thinking in the Disciplines, but that is a decision that has to be made way above my pay grade. Because writing is so intimately related with your ability to analyze, however, there is something else you need to think about:

Your ability to write a strong essay is dependent on your ability to critically read the essays that are being assigned, not just for content, but for argument. For each class, we will be reading and discussing the scholarly arguments of particular authors. Often, students at GW read scholarly books and articles for content. In a history class, this means that students read materials to find out what happened in the past: how women participated in the American Revolution, what they did in various reform movements, or how the lives of Native American women were different from the lives of African American slaves or mill girls. That is part of what you need to know (and that’s why we use a text book.) But in order to operate successfully in an upper division course, you need to recognize that when scholars write about these topics, they are making arguments. They disagree with each other about why and how women participated in the American Revolution and whether that participation made any difference. They disagree with more mainstream scholars about the significance of women in the larger political order. They argue that the construction of race cannot be understood without attention to gender. One of the most important skills you will develop in this class is the ability to identify these arguments in a scholarly article and to decide if the author presents sufficient evidence to convince you.

Usually an author will clearly articulate his or her argument in the first several pages of an article, if not in the first paragraph. But sometimes the argument is not stated until the end and occasionally it is never overtly stated.  Try to locate the argument before reading the entire article. If that is not possible, read the article quickly to get the “gist” – trying to determine what the author’s perspective is. Once you think you have a sense of the argument, then go back to look at the examples in the article to see if you are convinced of the argument.  You don’t need to read every example, but you do need to read enough to decide if the examples are convincing. That might involve looking at the footnotes as well as the examples to see if the evidence is convincing.

As you are reading, you may begin to develop your own ideas about the topic as well. That’s great. Just make sure to keep your ideas separate from the author’s.

These are not easy reading skills to acquire, but they are absolutely essential if you are going to make the next analytical leap in this class of constructing your own ideas.

Informal written responses, which are required for each class, will help you to focus your reading and to begin formulating your own ideas about them. Because these responses are considered informal writing, we will not look at issues of grammar too closely, but we do need to be able to understand what you are saying. You will be given a question to answer about the reading that will be formulated to help you understand a key point in the article. Keep in mind that these ungraded assignments are meant to help you move quickly through the reading by focusing on the most important issues you will be reading about.

Each formal essay you write must not only demonstrate your understanding of the arguments being advanced by different scholars, but your own original argument as well. Every few weeks you will be asked to write an essay in which you not only assess the arguments advanced by scholars we are studying, but in which you also advance your own argument about the topic. This is an exercise that demands that you not only understand the arguments of different authors, but that you think critically about what they are saying and formulate your own independent argument based on your readings and discussions in this class. It is not acceptable to say simply that you agree with the argument advanced by one of the authors. That is considered a “descriptive” argument rather than an analytical one because you are restating what someone else said rather than inventing your own argument. Once you have come up with the thesis statement, you have to prove it through a discussion of the articles you have been reading.

Your essay must coherently develop the argument laid out in your thesis statement through an analytical discussion of the scholarly articles you are reviewing. The argument you make will determine how you analyze and discuss those articles. Rather than simply summarizing each article, discuss each of them in relationship to your argument. Do the articles make points that contribute to what you want to say? Are there limitations in their approaches that become clear in light of your argument? Does your argument put these articles in conversation with one another in a new way?

Each paragraph you write you will develop a new point of your argument. A clear topic sentence at the beginning of a paragraph will make it clear to your reader what you plan to prove in that paragraph. A clear transition sentence at the end of each paragraph will make it clear to the reader why another point needs to be made.

This is not an easy skill to learn, which is why revision is such an important part of the writing you will do in this class.

Each essay you write must undergo multiple revisions.

Discussion sections will be  “labs” where you bring rough drafts of your papers and try out your arguments. If you have carefully read the scholarly articles, discussed and debated them in class, and thought about your own responses to those articles, you will be in good shape to develop a convincing and original thesis statement. Inventing a convincing and original thesis statement, however, is really, really hard! Do not expect it to happen in a flash.  It takes time to develop even the vague outlines of something acceptable, as well as discussion with classmates and teachers in class. Do not expect to show up for a discussion section and wing it with some off the wall comment or uninspired description of what you have read. We cannot give you helpful feedback on your ideas if you fail to invest some time in coming up with something promising.

In addition to writing a draft before you hand in your essays, you will be expected to re-write each of your essays after they have been graded instead of taking a final exam. This has been a very successful assignment for students. Most students become skilled at writing a sharp analytical essay by the third or fourth assignment. By returning to essays they wrote earlier in the semester, they develop a stronger critical understanding of the earlier material and demonstrate their mastery of the analysis demanded by their writing assignments.

Final Comments:

In order to succeed in this course, you must come to class and you must come prepared. I don’t expect you to fully understand the reading that you do. That is why I provide a brief reading guide for each article you read and it is also why I ask you to write a response paper for each class: these will help to focus your attention on a key issue. The reading guides and response papers provide a basis for class discussion so that by the end of each class, you should have a strong grasp of the argument being advanced.

Time management is essential. Students often make the mistake of spending too much time reading a particular article in preparation for class. That is why the reading guides have suggestions for the amount of time you should spend reading. Stick to those guidelines. We will go over the articles in class, so you will have a chance to fill in points you missed when you were reading.

Do not fall behind in assignments! Every year, a few students put off some or all of the papers until the end of the semester. And every year, those students fail the class. It simply is not possible to pull a few all-nighters and crank out the work. If you are struggling to write a paper, see us immediately for help. Do not hide! We know that life can get in the way and we want to work with you to help you succeed.

If you do the work, you will do well. Students who stay on schedule and prepare for class do very well. Students in this class are much more likely to get A’s than are students in my regular classes. If you do the work and ask for help when you need it, you will learn how to write a strong essay. And by the way, that’s a great skill to take into any classroom. The standards that we demand here: 1) understanding argument rather than simply content and 2) advancing an original argument; are the same standards that exist in most college courses. This is a really valuable analytical skill that will carry you to success in your other college courses.

What about grammar? Since this is a writing course, you may be asking yourself why I haven’t said anything about grammar. Do I care? Yes I do! I expect the essays you turn in to be grammatically correct. But here’s what I know from many years of experience:

If you don’t understand the articles you are reading and/or if you don’t have a clear idea of what you want to say, your grammar will be bad. So make sure you understand the articles, make sure you have an original thesis, and make sure you have a clear plan to develop your argument. If you have those three elements, good grammar will follow.

Write a rough draft. Part of the process of revision involves the correction of grammar. A paper that is written directly on to your computer two hours before it is due will be filled with grammatical mistakes.


Where are the readings?

Most of the materials you will read are either posted on Blackboard or available on the e-journals in Gelman Library.  In order to access the articles in e-journals:

  • Go to the Gelman homepage and look in the upper right hand corner.
  • Click on “e-journals” and then type in the name of the journal you are looking for.
  • The journals are usually available at many of the consortium schools; be sure to click on the GW entries. Your ID won’t work for any of the other schools.
  • Once your electronic journal pops up, work through the menu to find the right issue and article.

Need help structuring your essay?

The University Writing Program has some great resources that explain the mechanics of writing a paper.  If you go to this URL, you will find lots of information about how to organize an essay, what constitutes a strong thesis statement, and how to properly footnote your sources: http://www.gwu.edu/~gwriter/links.html.

What sort of citations are required for papers in this class?

You can use endnotes or footnotes for your citations. However, you must use the Chicago Manual of Style Humanities form for your citations. This is the format that historical writing usually uses. If you are not familiar with this form (or need a quick refresher), everything you need to know is online. Visit this URL and check out their “Quick Guide: www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/home.html. The “Quick Guide” shows you several different types of citation style; you should follow the Humanities style (which is coded as “N.”)

How should I use quotes?

Only use direct quotations when absolutely necessary to prove your point. Never let the quote “speak” for you.  Try to use your own words to describe another author’s argument whenever possible. If you do use a quotation, make sure you explain and analyze it in your own words as well.

When you summarize another author’s work in your own words, however, you should still footnote it. That way your reader will know where to read it in the original should he or she decide to do so. And that way, you will also make sure that you are giving credit to the author for his or her ideas.

What does a good essay look like?

A good essay begins with a strong introductory paragraph that focuses the reader on the issue you want to address in your essay. It may include pertinent background information (i.e., “There have been competing interpretations about the way in which gender structured colonial relations in British America….”) But somewhere in that first paragraph (usually, but not necessarily in the last sentence of that paragraph) you need to lay out a focused, original, analytical thesis statement.

The following paragraphs in your essay should support your argument. Remember that each paragraph should make a point that supports your argument at the same time that it allows you to analyze the work of the scholars you are discussing. You should count on having about three or four solidly developed paragraphs that both analyze the scholarship and support your argument.

Your essay should end with a concluding paragraph that summarizes your argument and the points you have made. You should not introduce new material in your conclusion; however, a strong conclusion usually pulls the points of the essay together in a way that moves beyond simply restating the thesis statement and the main points of the essay. The best conclusions are not merely summaries, but insightful and thoughtful commentaries on the argument you have advanced.

Rubric for Grading:


A paper that demonstrates the student

  • understands the arguments being made by scholars
  • has developed a compelling and convincing thesis/argument distinct from that being made by the authors under consideration
  • advances evidence in an original manner (ie does not simply replicate the argument of one of the authors being critiqued) to make a convincing point.


A paper that demonstrates the student

  • understands most aspects of the arguments being made by scholars
  • attempts to advance an argument distinct from the authors, though the argument is not as convincing or fully developed as would be found in an “A” paper
  • advances evidence that supports the thesis statement with some (but not complete) success.


A paper that demonstrates the student

  • understands the arguments being made by scholars
  • does not advance a thesis/argument distinct from the authors
  • by and large repeats the evidence used by authors to draw the same conclusions as authors. This is a descriptive rather than argumentative essay, even if it recapitulates the arguments of the author.


A paper that demonstrates the student

  • does not really grasp significant aspects of the arguments being made by scholars
  • makes some points, but the points are not necessarily part of a larger, coherent argument.


  • A paper that is not turned in, and/or shows no knowledge of the material studied.


Papers that are poorly written will be marked down to a “-“ grade. Papers that are well written will be marked up to a “+” grade.

Grammar includes: following conventions of writing, inclusion of title, full title page, numbering pages, proper footnote citation, etc.

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