For the five-page paper, students will write a book review of one of the books we are reading in class. A book review should accomplish three things: first, it should summarize the author's main argument and narrative structure; second, it should place this work within the literature on this subject; and third, it should offer some critical assessment of the book's strengths and weaknesses. As part of your learning experience, you should be reading book reviews in the main historical journals on a regular basis. That will help keep you current on the literature and also familiarize you with this form of writing. It is important to learn how to write a good book review not only because you will be asked to do this regularly throughout your career, but also it is essential that you can readily summarize, place, and critique a book. While we all strive to be original in our research, the process of writing history is a collaborative undertaking in that we build on the scholarship that has come before ours. Thus it is important to learn how to think critically about the work that other historians have done. The list of recommended readings gives you a good starting place on each topic we cover.
For the assignment comparing two books, students will pick two of the readings from two classes. The goal is this paper is largely the same as in the book review. But by comparing two books, you will need to be even more explicit in your thinking about where these works fit into larger historiographic trends. Given that the books are likely to be on different topics, the trick is to write about the way in which each author is doing history as much as, if not more so, than what he is writing about. Since the syllabus requires you to read books from many historiographic traditions, it should not be hard to compare books on that level. Quickly summarize each book and then talk about its significance and contribution to the larger field of American history. Think about when, why, and how the books were written.
For the historiographic paper, you will choose your own theme (consumer culture, gender, race, immigration, industrialization, etc.) and write a fifteen-page paper along with an extensive bibliography on your chosen topic. You will build on your skills developed in the previous two papers and extend your discussion to include many books on a specific topic. The goal here is to have you think critically how the field and thinking on a subject has changed. Once again, your attention should be as much to the specifics of your topic as it is to broader shifts in the writing of American history. At a minimum, you must read closely 8-10 books and be familiar with many more (that is the purpose of the bibliography). In these kinds of papers, you should spend less time summarizing in great detail each book's argument and instead emphasize the book's contribution to the field. You should organize the paper around a broader theme, explaining how and why historians thinking has changed over time.