Integrating Writing Across Courses: The American Studies Model

Integrated Writing in the American Studies Program: A Bookends Approach

Erika B. Seamon, Ph.D.
American Studies Program
Georgetown University

I have the pleasure of teaching the introductory core courses for American Studies majors in their sophomore year (AMST203/204), and directing the senior thesis process for majors in their final year in the program (AMST304/305). Getting to know students at the beginning and end of their college journey (i.e., the bookends), enables me to introduce, practice, and reinforce certain writing best-practices as they move through the American Studies Program. I persistently and systematically strive to give students opportunities to learn and practice making research and text-based analytical arguments in their writing. This practice helps students read more critically, move away from summary and towards interpretation, apply strategies to their writing in other courses, and prepare for making a substantive and well-supported analytical argument in their senior thesis project.

In this overview, I articulate some of the key pedagogical approaches I use to help students build skills and practice making analytical arguments in their writing.

Asking Genuine Research Questions

Students are eager to jump to answers. They often resist asking genuine questions about texts they have read or about primary and secondary sources. There is something comforting in having an answer before they begin a research project or paper. If they don’t have the answer, fear they won’t know what to write about, or risk embarking on a project that will lead them to dead ends.

To help students learn not to jump to answers right away, I steer them towards thinking like scholars. Rather than jumping to an answer, scholars let competing observations, questions, and hypotheses guide their research. They pay attention to competing observations — contradictions, complexities, aspects of what they’ve read that make them curious – and then ask questions and shape hypotheses. They don’t hunt for evidence to suit a preconceived answer; rather, they pose a genuine question then go on a “detective mission” to see what surfaces. Pivoting students from answers to questions is a crucial initial step in giving them permission to discover and learn.

Sophomore Year

AMST203 (American Origins & Identities) – Ask any American Studies major and they will probably smile and cringe when you ask them about Reading Questions (RQs). In the syllabus, for each class meeting, I pose a specific question for students to investigate as they do the reading. They submit a paragraph before each class tied to the RQ. My aim is to reinforce that we read and research to address questions, not simply to gather evidence for our pre-conceived ideas. I also give them examples of what scholarly questions about texts look like.

AMST204 (American Memory, Power, & Culture) – In this second semester sophomore core course, two assignments build on the RQ exercise in AMST203. First, I ask students to write their own RQ for the assigned reading that class. This is a higher-order task as it requires them to read the material and then identify competing observations, questions, and hypotheses. They then return to the material to investigate potential answers. In this iterative exercise, students read, think, ask, then re-read more critically. Second, I assign a semester-long research paper where students develop and investigate their own RQ based on a topic and texts of their choice. Before they write the final ten-page essay, students complete several interim assignments. In the first worksheet, the student offers an initial explanation for their topic and the types of sources they will use. They also begin to articulate competing observations, questions, and hypotheses. This feeds into their second worksheet which asks them to articulate their RQ and give examples of that they’ve discovered in their research. The final worksheet is an “Analysis Map” (discussed below) in which they answer their RQ before writing their final essay.

Senior Year

AMST304/305 (American Studies Senior Thesis Capstone) – In their senior thesis projects, students have wide leeway to shape a project that builds on their strengths and interests. Their first major assignment is a detailed Thesis Proposal justifying their RQ. Before writing this, they spend a couple months doing research, so that they are prepared to shape a good question. When I meet with students about their thesis ideas before the semester begins, they often say something like, “I’m really interested in xyz topic. What I want to argue is . . .” At that point, I gently remind them about competing observations, questions, and hypotheses. Leading up to the Proposal, students do a literature review to help shape a RQ that complements and contributes to related scholarly work. They also propose a research methodology and timeline to ensure that have been thoughtful about necessary approaches, resources, skills, and time to investigate their question.

Doing the Reading and the Research

After shaping a Research Question, students embark on reading and investigative work around their question. This involves finding relevant sources, critical reading of different types of texts, gathering evidence, strong note-taking abilities, and iterative analysis. I want to keep my focus here on writing, not research, but it is crucial for students to do the bulk of their reading and research before they begin developing an Analysis Map.

Developing an Analysis Map

When I began teaching and grading papers, I was shocked that I often had no idea what students were trying to say. I would spend an hour trying to decipher a single 10-page paper. I then realized that I did not know what the student was trying to say because the student didn’t know what they were trying to say. Often the paper was a creatively crafted presentation of what they found in the class texts and/or their research, sometimes interesting and informative, but without a point. Especially for students who have done well by using fanciful language and strong transitions, it is possible to avoid working through the mind-bending process of shaping a strong and coherent argument. Regardless of the style or form of writing our students ultimately pursue, I’ve found that requiring them to outline their analytical argument helps students think more deeply about what they have to say.

I use an “Analysis Map” in the sophomore courses and the senior thesis process to help students think more deeply about their arguments. I developed the “Analysis Map” structure based on Kate L. Turabian’s model in A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations (8th edition). In her chapter on developing your argument, Turabian discusses making a central claim and supporting it with reasons and evidence. Reasons come from one’s own interpretation of the evidence. Evidence comes from sources, which must be documented.

I adapted Turabian’s basic structure to give students practice making analytical arguments to address their RQs. Over the years, I have honed criteria, expectations, and best practices for each aspect of the Analysis Map, which allows me to give consistent and pointed feedback to students. While the Analysis Map might initially feel formulaic to students, it pushes them to think more deeply and critically about the content and structure of their arguments. (Click here to see a basic analysis map in the form an an outline.) (new window)

The Analysis Map format I use is as follows (examples attached). It should fit on one page.

Research Question (state the question in one sentence)

Thesis Statement or Central Claim (state the answer in one sentence)

First Reason Why Central Claim is So (state this reason in one sentence)

Example of evidence to support this Reason Why (write out one sentence and then be sure to have a footnote indicating where this information came from)

Example of evidence

Example of evidence

Second Reason Why Central Claim is So (state this reason in one sentence)

Example of evidence to support this Reason Why (write out one sentence and then be sure to have a footnote indicating where this information came from)

Example of evidence

Example of evidence

Third Reason . . . etc.

I’ve already explained how I teach students about RQs. Below are notes on how I guide students through the other elements of the Analysis Map.

Thesis Statement or Central Claim

The thesis statement (TS) is a work-in-progress attempt to answer the Research Question. The problem for students is that they have a lot of idea they want to share from their reading or research. Synthesizing what they’ve learned into a singularly-focused central claim is extremely difficult and can even feel risky for students. They tend to play it safe, initially offering thesis statements that look like umbrellas – big, all encompassing, and vague. Articulating a single central claim that is also specific enough to be discussion-worthy takes practice and confidence.

I give students four criteria to evaluate the strength of a thesis statement:

  • There is one, just one, identifiable main point or central claim
  • It is specific, not lofty and vague
  • It is discussion-worthy, provoking conversation versus being obvious
  • It takes a stand, instead of being wishy washy and safe.[1]

I require that the thesis statement be ONE sentence. While scholars often elaborate beyond one sentence to clarify their central argument, limiting students to one sentence forces them to narrow their point and choose words carefully to communicate something substantive in a clear and concise manner.

For my students (as for many scholars), thesis statements are under constant revision. The very process of attempting to craft a one sentence thesis statement at different points in project is means of interpreting, synthesizing, and analyzing the material. As a student develops the Analysis Map, they can and should revise their TS again and again. As they draft their papers, students can continue to revise their TS. Learning and analysis are fluid processes; our understanding moves and changes as we integrate new material.

Sometimes students are too close to their own research and papers to be able to hone in on a singularly-focused TS. They benefit from identifying the thesis statement or central claim in their peers’ papers and in books and articles we read in class. Reading texts in which a thesis is not clear can reinforce how important it is for a reader to understand the point the author is trying to make.

Reasons

Students tend to support their thesis statement with descriptions of how it is so, often based on the evidence they have found. For example, a student might want to support the thesis statement is that Frederick Douglass and Martin Delany differ in their views of Black Americans by noting examples of how they differ, drawing on their actions and writings and comparing them. This is fine, but it misses the opportunity for students to bring their own analytical thinking to the table. By asking students to explain why, not just how, we can encourage them to more deeply interpret and analyze what they discover in their reading and research and to struggle to develop their own point of view.

If I ask a student why Douglas and Delaney differ, they will need to pause and consider not just their disagreements but other variables, like upbringing, relation to Africa, political agenda, etc. Primary sources may not reveal these things, so the student would need to do additional research to develop their own explanation.

That kind of thinking generates a crucial component of the Analysis Map: 3 or4 sentences that offer reasons why the central claim is so, which in turn form the basis of the author’s argument. They also reinforce why the central claim is credible, and they can be supported with examples and evidence from research. Like the TS, reasons are continually under construction. The very act of trying to articulate reasons forces students to examine what they are trying to say and where there are gaps. If students change direction in a project, discover new information, and/or start getting lost in the weeds, I’ll suggest they revisit and possibly revise their TS and reasons.

Evidence (with Footnotes)

As students develop their Analysis Maps, they typically start with a working Thesis Statement, play with reasons why, and then populate each reason with evidence for support. This “top down” approach is appropriate if the student has done thorough “bottom up” work of collecting ideas and evidence that address their Reading/Research Question. They should collect lots of evidence related to their question and then sort and analyze it by dominant themes and messages in order to see what organically emerges. This gives them a better sense of whether their initial hypotheses were valid. In many cases, they learn something they didn’t expect. This “bottom up” analysis is important to the integrity of their work, as it is all too easy for students to go hunting for quotations and evidence to support a pre-conceived argument.

Asking students to provide evidence from their research in the form of examples offers crucial support for their reasons in the Analysis Map. By having them list a few examples from their research in support of each of their reasons, it helps them organize their evidence and identify gaps or weak areas in their analysis. Requiring them to provide a footnote for each example in the Map makes them accountable for identifying a tangible source. It reinforces that they are part of a scholarly conversation and other scholars should be able to find the information they cite. This exercise also highlights over-reliance on one or two sources.

Sophomore Year

AMST203 (American Origins & Identities) – Students first encounter a version of the Analysis Map in writing their responses to the daily RQs in this course. For every class meeting, students craft a one sentence thesis statement to answer that day’s RQ and write out reasons and evidence. I give periodic feedback and integrate peer-review and workshopping of these into some class meetings. This lets students practice elements of the Analysis Map and learn to evaluate the strength of the TS and reasons.

I reinforce this as they prepare three short papers and in my grading rubric, which emphasizes the criteria for a good TS and the quality of their reasons and evidence.

AMST204 (American Memory, Power, & Culture) – In this course, as part of the development of their research papers, students create an Analysis Map, which I use to provide feedback before they draft the paper. This helps students learn that their TS and reasons are under constant revision as they learn about and analyze their topics. The simplicity of the Analysis Map format helps them navigate this challenging process.

Senior Year

AMST304/305 (American Studies Senior Thesis Capstone) – After seniors turn in a Thesis Proposal in the Fall semester, they dive into their research with the goal of completing the bulk of it (~80%) by Thanksgiving. Before the end of the Fall semester, I ask students take a stab at creating a full Analysis Map. While students argue that it’s too soon for them to jump to conclusions from their research. I emphasize that this Analysis Map is not meant to limit their flexibility in adapting their argument as they learn and write. On the contrary, it can highlight opportunities and liabilities in their project while there is still time to make adjustments. In the Spring, as students work on articulating their research argument in whatever form they choose (written or other), they refine their analysis as their thoughts sharpen.

While some American Studies majors produce films, podcasts, and other non-traditional theses, they all must have a research-based, substantive, and clear Analysis Map to undergird their projects. Because alternative formats may rely on the audience to interpret and intuit their insights, it is crucial that the student knows what they are trying to argue and how they will foster that argument through this particular form. 
(An example of an analysis map with evidence.
How the analysis map appears when students write their “blueprint” papers at the end of the fall semester of the thesis course.)

Integrating Narrative into the Analysis

While the work I do in my courses related to writing is primarily focused on helping students learn to make strong research-reading-based analytical arguments, a key aspect of writing in the field of American Studies is integrating narrative into analysis. In other words, once a student has a research or text-based argument in place (i.e., an Analysis Map), they have the opportunity to develop stories, illustrations, and detailed examples to help a reader (or listener or viewer) engage with the material in a way that just citing analytical points cannot.

Sophomore Year

AMST203/204 (American Origins & Identities / Memory, Power, & Culture) – The focus in these courses is on making analytical arguments, not necessarily integrating narrative.

AMST304/305 (American Studies Senior Thesis Capstone) – While students are doing their thesis research, and before they turn in an Analysis Map at the end of the Fall semester, I have them do short papers to begin synthesizing what they are learning. In these short papers, I encourage them to play with narrative – to take moments in their research that feel particularly salient and tell stories about them. These stories become the seedbed of evidence that will later help students build their analytical argument. Also, in the process of writing these stories, students begin to find their voice. This is a crucial part of the senior thesis experience, one that both encourages students to integrate different methods for writing that they’ve learned in their time at Georgetown, as well as choose a writing voice (and form) that they feel is most appropriate for their thesis work. This furthers their sense of ownership in their projects.

[1] This is adapted from Indiana University Bloomington writing program website — https://wts.indiana.edu/writing-guides/how-to-write-a-thesis-statement.html (new window), accessed June 2012.