At the first meeting of my legal history seminar at Davidson College,
I tell my ten students that our goal for the semester is simple:
to produce a collaborative research paper that is so well conceived,
so thoroughly researched, and so finely written that it gets published.
Publication, of course, will not always be possible, though I will
thank you not to mention this to my students. But whether or not
my seminar accomplishes its stated goal of publication, I am confident
that it will always achieve its unstated goal: to teach students--and
remind me--how to research, write, and love history.1
Davidson College is a "highly selective" liberal arts
school in North Carolina. It has been a good home to my collaborative research
seminar. All of the school's 1,650 students are full-time; almost all live
on campus. History is a popular major here, and law a popular career choice.
Attracting good, hardworking students to my legal history seminar has not
I originally conceived the collaborative research project as
a mere training exercise to prepare students for what I thought would be the
seminar's capstone: individual research papers. Walking--and talking--through
a single research project in the term's first half, I thought, would prepare
students to write papers of their own thereafter. Teach the flock to fly together,
then watch them disperse and soar.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the individual term
paper: the flock became so fond of their collaborative project--and each other--that
they refused to separate. They pleaded with me to drop the individual assignment
so that they might continue collaborating. I feigned reluctance but was inwardly
delighted. I had already noticed that collaboration had ignited a passion
for history usually restricted to honors students and departmental groupies.
What is more, I too had unexpectedly fallen for our topic (a 1931 arson case
involving a group of young, white, female inmates who torched their state-run
"training school" to escape its horrors) and did not fancy saying
goodbye to it just yet. I agreed to stick with the group project and have
never looked back.
I have now taught my seminar four times. Each year my students
and I explore a different episode from North Carolina's legal history. In
addition to the arson case described above, we have studied a 1914 challenge
to a Winston, North Carolina, city ordinance mandating racial residential
segregation; the Reconstruction-era prosecution of a black man and a white
woman for "fornication," even though the couple was legally married;
and a depression-era community's female-led efforts to shut down Greenwich
Village, a bawdy roadhouse that had opened in its midst.2 I am
already looking forward to next year.
In what follows, I will discuss organizational detail, wherein
lies the devil of the collaborative research seminar or of any effort to teach
outside the box. To start, I offer three general suggestions. First, trust
your students. Motivate, coordinate, but do not dominate their efforts. Second,
be flexible. No matter how well-crafted your syllabus is (and craft it as
well as you can), be prepared to make midstream modifications. Third, be as
committed to the group project as you expect your students to be. They will
make the course a top priority only if they see you doing so.
On the first day of class, following the usual pleasantries and a stirring
peptalk, I move directly to topic selection. Because this is a make-or-break
point, it sparks immediate student engagement. There are multiple ways of
selecting topics. Once I handpicked a topic and fed it to my students on day
one. That tactic had several advantages: I knew that the topic was good, I
was able to prepare relevant assigned readings in advance, and my class hit
the ground sprinting.
I now believe, however, that it is pedagogically preferable for
students to generate their own topics--even if it means slower starts and,
possibly (though not necessarily), weaker papers. The topic proposal is now
my students' first research-and-writing assignment. Since my course deals
with legal history, each student proposes a law case that could serve as the
centerpiece of our collaborative paper. I limit the dates within which the
cases must fall, mandate that the cases come from North Carolina to facilitate
off-campus research, and provide an evaluative checklist to help students
identify cases that would make good topics.3
Each student then explores our library's law books, nominates
a case, and writes a short paper explaining the nomination. As with all written
assignments in the seminar, students submit their topic proposals electronically,
and I post them online for the entire class to see. Students read each other's
proposals and come to the next session prepared for deliberation and topic
selection. Once a consensus emerges, I celebrate the selection, congratulate
all on their good proposals, and paraphrase Thomas Jefferson's first inaugural
address on the need to forgive past differences and join together for a common
purpose. The semester is short. We have much to do. Let's get to it.
Research begins when each student submits a list of promising secondary sources.
I compile them into a master bibliography, which I post online.4
Students select and read works from the list, jotting down notes on three-by-five
index cards. When done, they prepare one-page write-ups, summarizing the works'
main points and evaluating their usefulness to the group project. The write-ups
go online, so that students can use them when preparing the term's first major
writing assignment, the historiographical essay. That assignment asks each
student to do two things: analyze the current state of historical understanding
of the group topic and describe the original historiographical contributions
that the group paper might make. It is a challenging but important assignment.
Although secondary sources are essential, it is the primary source
research--especially the off-campus variety--that provides the seminar's magic.
After topic selection, I use class discussion to generate a list of research
questions. Although many answers will be available right on campus, others
will require travel. I work the phones, the Web, and reference librarians
to learn about promising holdings in the area. I then send student researchers
out with clear travel orders. ("Go snoop around and see what's there,"
incidentally, is an acceptable travel order.) Student researchers should take
good notes, photocopy relevant material, keep their eyes open for unanticipated
leads, and prepare thorough research write-ups. Believe it or not, students
love the research trips. Anonymous course evaluations describe them as: "very
helpful and lots of fun," "extremely helpful," "good,
fun experience," "a great learning experience," "very
productive," "very beneficial," "hugely helpful--learned
how to do research and learned a lot about history," and "central
to my learning in the course; I loved them."
Here are four keys to primary-research success: (1) Make off-campus
research a requirement, not an option. Students will travel more happily knowing
that there are no slackers back on campus, laughing. (2) Tell students that
you are well aware that archival research is a hit-or-miss proposition. You
will not hold it against them if, despite their best efforts, they return
empty-handed. (3) Solicit money from your chair or dean to reimburse student
expenses. Even a small amount will have large symbolic value. (4) Insist that
students carpool. In transit my students have, as one put it, "bonded."
In the archives they have divided unpleasant tasks, celebrated finds with
high fives, and learned tremendously from each other. "I remember when
we went on our first research trip," wrote Stan, a senior history major,
in a peer review of his classmate Mike. "We didn't find much that day
besides a good Italian restaurant. Still, I remember being impressed with
Mike's resourcefulness. Having researched for four years, I figured there
was nothing else I could learn. Mike proved me wrong. As we worked together,
we were able to teach one another some of the tricks of the trade. It was
a pleasure to get to know him and work with him." Magic.
The writing for the group paper will be different from any writing students
have previously done. It will be collaborative, not individual. It will be
made from scratch, not slice-and-bake. And it will be a long-term commitment,
not a one-night stand. I begin the process by having each student prepare
a tentative outline. In seminar, we consolidate student ideas on the chalkboard.
Besides providing for clean narrative flow and clear argumentation, the master
outline should divide the material into roughly equal segments whose number
matches the seminar's enrollment. Students then decide who will write which
section of the paper. Some matches will be obvious. Only Robin, the lone student
to explore the Heriot Clarkson papers, wants the Clarkson section. Only Ed,
a genealogy buff (honest), volunteers to write about the Spake family's background.
Other choices will be less clear. You should be part traffic cop, part auctioneer,
and part shepherd. When every slot is filled, have your students distribute
all research photocopies and three-by-five cards among themselves according
to subject matter.
Allow a couple of weeks for the preparation of a first draft.
Prior to the deadline, ask seminar members to bring tentative section outlines
to class. Talking through these, in order, will remind students of how their
individual parts relate to the whole.
Once students have written and electronically submitted their
first drafts, compile and distribute copies of the whole paper. If you like
bloated, disjointed, aimless prose, you will love the first draft. If not,
you will find it dreadful. Do not despair. Think of it as a teaching opportunity,
for so it is. Have each student edit and comment on the draft. In seminar,
discuss what needs to be done, section by section. This will be time-consuming
but valuable. The second draft will surpass the first; the third will be better
To enliven and sharpen the repeated rewriting, seek the comments
and guest appearance of an outside reader. I have been blessed with four wonderful
outside readers: Nancy Hewitt, Martha Hodes, Steve Kantrowitz, and Brian Luskey.
For weeks in advance I invoked their pending visits as a spur to hard work.
Our visitors invariably reassured us that there was hope, after all. They
also suggested productive ways of rethinking our material, leading us back
to old sources with new questions.
After your group paper attains some polish, consider a public
presentation. The discipline required to reduce a fifty-page paper to a forty-five-minute
presentation is of immeasurable value. Prepare students to present their sections
in turn. Prior to the show, have at least one full run-through in which
students time each other's presentations and you take notes like a theater
director. While some of your remarks will involve delivery ("Melvin,
lose the gum"), the important ones will involve content. If your pen
runs out of ink, feel free to borrow the following remarks, since they will
apply: "We need better transitions." "We need to identify the
essential points of each section and communicate them more clearly."
"We need to explain what we are going to say, say it, and then say what
we have said." Although such remarks are putatively aimed at the presentation,
their ultimate target is the final draft.
Students blossom at the public presentation. They invite friends,
professors, and parents. They prepare overhead projections. They dress up
and comb their hair. Unaccountably, no matter how crummy the rough drafts
and dress rehearsals, the public presentations are always wonderful. My favorite
part might be the question-and-answer session at the end, when students stand
shoulder to shoulder and field questions as one.
There remains only the paper's final revision. Students should
strive to re-create the clarity achieved at the public presentation. They
should also attach brief remarks that begin with the phrase, "If I had
unlimited time to research and rework this section, I would improve it in
the following ways: . . . " With the submission of final drafts--and
an end-of-term party--the collaborative research seminar concludes.
Assigning individual grades in a collaborative research seminar is not as
difficult as it might seem. Indeed, since students submit written work just
about every week, grading options abound. The major writing assignments--historiographical
essays and rough draft sections--can be graded, as can less formal assignments
such as research reports and rough-draft critiques. Assigned readings can
be quizzed. A take-home final can be added. Professors who like distributing
frequent letter grades may easily (and perhaps profitably) do so.
It is also possible, however, to go through an entire semester
without assigning a single formal grade. I did so last spring and saw no decline
in student effort. Students received, in one's words, "critique after
critique" of written work during the term, but no letter grades. Every
week I wrote notes in my grade book regarding each student's performance,
both in class and on outside work. By semester's end--especially after reading
my students' candid performance reviews of themselves and each other--I had
no difficulty calculating final grades that seemed no more arbitrary than
usual. Students did not complain. (Only one student last spring took me up
on my offer to hold personal "evaluation conferences" upon request.)
One student remarked that the unorthodox system "allowed for greater
intensity of research and less stress." Whatever grading scheme you adopt,
leave plenty of wiggle room to reward intangible contributions and hold free
riders accountable. If the project goes well, grading will be but a pleasant
One of my quietest seminar students was Ryan. He listened attentively to
group discussions but spoke only when interrogated. After our public presentation
Ryan's year, I chatted with him and one of his friends. "I'm glad I finally
saw what this group paper is all about," the friend remarked. "Ryan
won't stop talking about it!" Several factors explain the collaborative
research seminar's rare capacity to engage students such as Ryan. Most students
enjoy the unusual format, which takes them well outside of conventional academic
boxes. Most like the course's hands-on features. ("We learned how to
do history, rather than [just] read it--that made this a great class,"
one course evaluation stated.) Many appreciate the "extraordinary amount
of responsibility and input" demanded of each class member. And all agree,
"It was really cool to work as a group." You too will enjoy working
with a group, especially when you see how much your students teach and learn
from each other. "Alison helped me a whole lot individually," wrote
an appreciative Beth in an end-of-term peer review, "especially with
my forum [public presentation] draft--she sat with me for a couple of hours
reworking and clarifying it--HUGE help!" Andy's glowing peer evaluations
included praise for "help[ing] me with concepts, with the case, with
footnotes, with random computer tricks. . . . He took time out to work with
me whenever I asked him to."
Last spring Carrie visited my office to discuss her section of
the group paper. Seeing that I was with another student, she waited in the
hall. Minutes later, after recognizing that the other student was David, another
member of our seminar, she came in to join our conversation. "I didn't
realize that it was family," she explained. Even if my course never succeeds
in publishing another article, comments like Carrie's will make it worth teaching,
again and again.
John Wertheimer is an associate professor of history at Davidson
1 I have submitted three of my seminar's four papers for publication
consideration (the fourth remains a work in progress). The first paper, written
by the 1997 seminar, has been published; see Brian Luskey et al., "'Escape
of the Match-Strikers': Disorderly North Carolina Women, the Legal System,
and the Samarcand Arson Case of 1931," North Carolina Historical Review,
75 (Oct. 1998), 435-60. The second paper is part of a collection of essays
currently under consideration at an academic press; the third paper has been
accepted conditionally by a state historical journal. Publication has been
possible thanks to the generosity of Davidson College and the George Lawrence
2State v. Darnell, 166 N.C. 300 (1914); State v. Ross,
76 N.C. 242 (1877); Carpenter v. Boyles, 213 N.C. 432 (1938).
3 According to my evaluative checklist, a promising case is one
that raises interesting legal issues, touches on interesting historical issues,
suggests compelling human stories, and appears amenable to research.
4 I ask each student to submit fifteen titles, including at least
3 books, 3 history articles, and 3 law review articles.