300-Level History: High Middle Ages (Writing-Intensive)


My goal in the writing tasks is to foster critical thinking skills; then there are the content objectives. Students should come away with a fairly clear sense of the Middle Ages and that world view, and how that is the foundation of Western society and culture. Critical thinking is intimately intertwined with this content, because students have to struggle with the content to understand it. If they wrestle with this and they come to the conclusions, it will stick with them when they leave the course.-- Professor Karen Jolly

The writing caused me to really analyze all aspects of medieval history. Trying to look at a medieval text through a medieval point of view really taught me a lot about scratching beneath the surface.--Student


Students are encouraged to practice critical thinking, since critical thinking is necessary to write, and writing is necessary to think critically. Acquiring these analytical skills leads to the ability to perform historical analysis on primary sources, distinguishing a document's time period from the contemporary period and interpreting what the document means in, and reveals about, its own time period. Students will also have a clear sense of the Middle Ages, the perspectives of that period, and the contribution of the Middle Ages to Western society and culture.


The instructor assigns a sequence of seven short papers that move students from personal response to critical analysis of primary and secondary sources. The overall goal of the writing assignments is to provide students a number of strategies to develop analytical skills to approach texts as historians. The instructor first aims to have students deal with their own reactions and biases toward the texts, which are products of another historical era and embody perspectives alien to the students' own perspectives. The personal responses are then used to direct students to develop historical analyses of the texts, identifying the "other's" perspectives as distinct from their own, and interpreting what the texts meant to the people of that time period and what they reveal about that period and culture. "I realized that my opinions are important. I could write what I felt, even if I didn't like a book or a well-known author."--Student
The writing serves many purposes. It provides frequent opportunities for students to practice writing their ideas; the writing stimulates and sustains class discussion. Some of the writing provides a way for the instructor to check on content comprehension and to give students immediate feedback on their learning.

All of the assignments in the sequence described below begin with personal responses to different historical texts then shift to varying strategies—developing thesis statements, outlines, investigating a point of view—that emphasize analysis.

"I liked the freedom to take the paper in the direction you wanted it to go. The guidelines are broad enough to take the topic in any way, but they are also narrow enough to give a focus. The freedom allows the writer to express her thoughts freely."--Student
Each student reads an assigned text — a primary historical document written during the Middle Ages (The Song of Roland, for example) — and writes a personal response to it. To help students discover what they think about a subject and to stimulate discussion, students are asked, "What do you think of Roland’s actions?" and freewrite their responses. The instructor acknowledges their personal reactions to a text, a necessary first step before moving into various levels of analysis. Students expose their own personal bias and in the sequence of assignments use their personal reactions as a tool to explore and develop an analysis. "I liked the personal response papers. These papers allowed us to express our response to the book. They also made us think about our response and why we have this response."--Student
Once students have openly shared their initial reactions to a text, the instructor poses questions that are more focused on the historical context of a document. Students write responses to two questions:

"If medieval people were reading it, what would they get out of it? What does it show us about their environment?"

Students bring their written responses to class, where the instructor organizes the students into small groups in which they discuss their written responses. After small-group discussions, the class as a whole discusses how to refine a response into a thesis for an analytic essay about the medieval text.

"The assignments taught me how people might actually react to a situation. They also showed the difference or similarities of my opinion to the person during the time we studied."--Student
For homework, students read another historical text and write their personal responses to it. From their open-ended responses, students develop thesis statements that begin to analyze the text. In class, students meet in small groups, then as a whole class; they discuss how to refine and organize their responses into an outline of an analytic essay.

The following excerpt illustrates the development of a student’s personal response to Caroline Walker’s Jesus as Mother: Studies in the Spirituality of the High Middle Ages (1982) to thesis statement. After the student completes her response, she rereads her writing to find a possible thesis. The statement in brackets is identified by the student as her thesis.

"I don’t know if I will ever stop being amazed at the extent to which one’s idea of truth is influenced by one’s command of language. I remember hearing before that some sagacious philosopher once declared that there is no thought without language or something to that extent. [Assuming this is true, if thought can only be expressed in words, and one’s ideas of truth can only be expressed in thought, then it follows, at least to me, that my image of truth and theirs too, is depended on our abilities to translate that image into words that we can understand.] This isn’t as simple as it sounds!

When I say "theirs," I am referring to the "they" of Jesus as Mother: the monks and mystics, the Christians of the 12th century. When I try to comprehend the correlation of language to perception of truth in Christianity, which ceaselessly speaks in unabashed metaphor and oxymoron, simile and symbol, I get all caught up in confusion and excitement at the same time. This is because figurative language will compress a world of thought into a word; poets know this, and apparently so did 12th century Christians . . . ."

Students read a third text. In class, they discuss and write down the point of view of the primary medieval text. For homework, they begin initial work on anm analytic essay by writing a personal response and thesis statement and by outlining their essays. Students bring their writings to class to work on in small groups. They read the essays to each other, identify the theses, and discuss whether they understand each other's essays. The class as a whole discusses their responses which the teacher uses to lead into a discussion about the text and its relevance in medieval history.
In class, students develop a paragraph analyzing a fourth text. At home, they organize a personal response to their own analysis—a dialectic response—as a strategy for probing their own thinking about a text. Using the organizational techniques practiced in the earlier assignments (developing a thesis statement and constructing an essay outline), they draft an essay. Their essays are discussed in small groups and more generally as a class to focus further discussion about history.
In class, students write briefly the point of view of a fifth text. Explaining a document’s/author’s point of view forces students to set aside their own biases and to consider, possibly incorporate, other perspectives. Their quickwrites serve as the basis for class discussion. For homework, they write a short essay analyzing the text and its point of view, then discuss their essays in small groups and as a class at the next session. The following is an excerpt from a student’s essay that analyzes The Song of Roland and its point of view. "I liked the challenge of trying to get the point of view of the author of the Song of Roland as realistic as possible."--Student

". . . The Song of Roland has far greater significance than is to be seen on first glance. It is not only an enveloping story of a war that is based on a true historical event, it is also a parable to reinforce Christianity and the proper view of Christ.

On the surface, the Song of Roland is a delightful tale of legendary Emperor Charlemagne and of the French battles with the Saracen infidels, guts and gore and hacking about, and a bit of treachery thrown in for effect. But underneath this glossy veneer is the figure of Christ portrayed in the character of Roland and the story of his valor in the battle against Satan and his minions on earth."

The essay continues an allegorical analysis of the poem related to the medieval social world.

The culminating assignment — the analytical review of a different medieval primary text — requires students to apply the strategies learned through the semester in an historical analytical review. Once again, students discuss their thinking about the text, the various perspectives analyzed in their reviews, and their interpretations about the significance of the primary text in its historical context. "I don't really dislike anything about this assignment, maybe just that the analysis is so involved that it needs to be thought out carefully, and sometimes it is time-consuming and difficult."--Student


When students bring writing assignments to class, the instructor organizes the students into pairs or small groups. The students read each other's papers, identify each other's thesis, explain the other's thesis to the rest of the class, and explain how their own thesis relates to their personal response.

The small group discussions always contribute to class discussions.

PURPOSE: Collaborative learning helps students focus on their topics and hone their analytical skills. Other students' responses help students gauge whether they are expressing themselves clearly. Discussing how one's thesis is related to one's personal response illustrates to students how personal response and bias must be recognized before one can contribute to historical analysis. Small group discussions also alleviate student fears about speaking in larger groups by familiarizing the student with the rest of the students in class.
Every week, students write in class a paragraph related to each of the assigned primary and secondary texts. Many of the in-class writings deal with the issue of the medieval author and audience, and what author, audience, and text reveal about the culture and environment of that time. Students discuss what they wrote in pairs, small and large groups. The instructor collects all the paragraphs and returns them with extensive comments.
The variants of these activities are described by the instructor as:

1. Clustering — "designed to get your thoughts concerning a topic on paper without worrying about writing structure."

2. Personal Response Paragraph — "allows you to express your immediate reaction to a reading, with the aim of helping you discover what you think about that subject."

3. Point of View Paragraph — "forces you to try to explain the document's point of view by setting aside your own."

4. Analysis Paragraph — "the culmination of the previous exercises, developing the ability to make concrete generalizations about a subject based on your thoughts about the reading."

5. Review paragraph—"analyzes what the main point of a text was and how well it was communicated."

These writing exercises are sometimes incorporated into the process of writing short papers.

PURPOSE: The in-class paragraphs give students the opportunity to work on writing skills and get feedback from the instructor on a weekly basis. The instructor begins the semester by assigning several of personal-response paragraphs, then points out the aspect of the audience to whom the paragraphs are written. In-class writings help students get started on their essays, build their writing skills, and contribute to class discussion. Since they don't know what day in-class paragraphs will be done, students are encouraged to keep up with the reading.

Professor Jolly comments on her class (excerpts from an interview):

Two things distinguish history writing. One is primary sources. When we're reading primary sources, we're talking about a very different "other" that's the subject matter, and we're trying to understand that thing. The second is that history as a discipline wants to interpret and analyze, which is hard for undergraduates in particular because they're used to having someone tell them "this is what it all means" and "these are the facts." History's not like that. It's "What do you choose and how do you choose factors?, How are you going to interpret and put it together?" That's a very hard skill to learn. I think that it comes by a lot of writing, and that's why I like to keep the course writing-intensive. That kind of analysis of primary sources distinguishes the writing of history from other writing.

Students themselves become practicing historians by reading primary sources and interpreting them, so they're constantly exploring what it is that a historian does to reconstruct the past.

One objective reached through writing is that it helps me find out how well they're doing; and I can grade them so they'll know how well they're doing. It's also part of the way they learn. Unless you write things down or say something out loud, you don't really know what you're learning. Writing is part of what's going on in the classroom. I have them write in the class and use their writing to form the basis for discussion. I've discovered in most places, particularly in Hawai‘i, there is a reticence in the classroom, and if they're allowed to write their ideas down first, they're a little more comfortable in expressing what they think. They're learning in the process of writing and they ARE able to express themselves better orally. They become much more verbal over the semester.

I assume that no matter how good they are or how poor they are at writing, they can all benefit from starting at square one and breaking the writing task down to its stages. Some of the graduate students initially resent that because they can jump straight to analysis. Nonetheless, even I benefit from stopping and asking myself "How did I get there? By what four or five stages did I get from reading this thing to analyzing it?" So I try to encourage even the "expert writers" in the course to go along with this, because it will always be a benefit to any writer to break the task down into its component parts. So it's not that I'm going for the lowest common denominator; it's just that I think writing is a hard process for anybody, and it behooves us to stop and take a look at it. Initially I always get a couple of students who start out saying, "Well, I don't have anything to say, I don't have a thesis, I don't have a personal response." Well, they do; and once they find it, and they see that it can be useful, I've gotten some excellent analysis from them. But it took the first three papers to find that.

I want them to think on their own and to do that I'm teaching them a writing strategy.