History 2055 -- Ancient Civilizations


Journal Writing Guidelines

I've proposed a grading scheme for this year's Ancient Civilizations class that replaces the usual research essays with a journal writing requirement. Under this scheme a critical journal (submitted in four different sections) would be worth half the course grade. Here are some questions you might have and my answers.

1. Why write a journal instead of essays?

The most common type of writing assigned by university history instructors is the essay. A well-done essay requires you to investigate a historical question, come up with an answer to that question, and explain and justify that answer with arguments and evidence. It is good for mental discipline, and requires you, the writer, to use language carefully.

There are some disadvantages to the essay, especially in a survey course like this one. In particular, writing one may make you an expert in a narrow corner of the subject without encouraging or helping you to understand bigger issues. You might end up knowing everything about Cleopatra, without understanding much else about ancient history.

The journal is a much more flexible form. It gives you, the student, much more choice of subject. It gives you the opportunity to look at bigger issues, and make connections between ideas and facts over the course of the year. It allows you to write about your own opinions and feelings.

3. What is a critical journal?

Here are some things a critical journal is not:

Instead, a journal is a collection of thoughtful pieces of writing on various aspects of the course. I am setting some requirements (see below), but within them you have the freedom -- and the necessity -- to find aspects of ancient history that are important, interesting, or puzzling to you. When you find one, you will write a piece of appropriate length expressing why you find it interesting. A number of such pieces taken together will form your journal.

Vague? Keep reading.

4. What are the requirements for journals in Ancient Civilizations?

Here they are:

That is the minimum. To get a good grade, I want you to do the following:

5. How on earth am I going to do this?

It's simpler than you think, as long as you are willing to work systematically.

First, remember that your main raw materials are the lectures (and lecture notes on the NU web site), the source readings, and the textbook. Come to class, listen to the lectures, and read. Ask questions about the lectures and readings. Find something you are interested in reacting to. Read more about it. Ask more questions.

Second, when you stumble across interesting material, write something down immediately. Get that idea or reaction in black and white.

Third, sit down later and develop the idea. More reading, in the course materials, in the library, on the net, may help.

Fourth, before you submit the journal, take what you have written, select the pieces you think are best, and rewrite. Give yourself enough time to do it.

That's all there is to it, but it does require you to be thinking about and working on the course on a regular basis. The more you read and write and think on a week-by-week basis, the more raw material you will have to work with. The more carefully you re-write, the better the final product will be.

6. Remind me why we are doing this!

Steve Muhlberger