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Skidmore College
American Studies Department

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Writing Concerns Specific to the Discipline

Writing in American Studies is as diverse as the many subject fields that make up American Studies as a discipline. In the course of their careers as American Studies majors, minors or concentrators, students might find themselves writing primary document analyses, discursive essays, journal entries, oral histories, object studies, film critiques or honors theses. Each of these assignments requires different writing skills that are usually clarified in the assignment sheets provided by individual instructors (see also samples of students papers). Professor Woodfork may have requirements for paper length and style that are different from those of Professor Nathan, while Professor Lynn may prefer an alternative footnoting technique to that of Professor Pfitzer. So always check with the individual instructors concerning writing questions related to specific course assignments. In addition, students in the American Studies program can receive credit for some courses taken outside the department, and, in such cases, they should turn first for guidance on writing to the rules established by the instructors and the disciplines involved.

Nearly all American Studies courses do share certain fundamental writing principles in common. Most courses in the discipline treat topics in historical context, so it is important to learn to write with accuracy and sensitivity about change over time. In papers for all instructors in the department, avoid the overuse of qualifying terms such as "maybe" or "perhaps" when explaining historical change; instead, try to ground your discussion in agreed upon facts and reliable sources to the extent that they can be found. Don't be content to write that the West was "probably" a different place in the early 19th century when Lewis and Clark explored it than it was by the 1890s when Frederick Jackson Turner announced the loss of a discernible frontier line. Marshall specific evidence from frontier diaries or demographic studies to establish the point with accuracy, and support your statements in accordance with the rules of historical proof established in your American Studies classes.

Despite commitments to accuracy in evidence and argument, many American Studies courses also pose a "contested past"--that is, they challenge students to recognize that beyond commonly agreed upon facts there are layers of explanation and judgment that make history an interpretive enterprise. In writing papers for American Studies courses, therefore, students should learn to weigh alternative points of view, to compare and contrast arguments based on sound but contradictory facts and to be sensitive to multiple perspectives conditioned by perspectives of class, race, gender and ethnicity. Unless a specific assignment calls for commitment to one point of view over others, be open to multiple interpretations and alternative readings of the same facts.

Most of your papers in American Studies will require some form of documentation or support for the historical arguments you advance and the judgments you make, usually footnotes or endnotes and a bibliography. Individual instructors have different preferences for footnoting technique, but in general students will be asked to provide full citations either at the bottom of the page or at the end of the paper rather than as in-text citations. Students should cite the full name of the author or authors of the sources they use, as well as the title, the place of publication, the date of publication and the page numbers they are referencing. Page numbers and the date of completion for any paper in American Studies should also be clearly indicated.

Some assignments in American Studies courses are collaborative and raise special issues associated with group writing. In working on collaborative projects, students should pay special attention to the specific rules outlined in paper assignments by individual instructors regarding how writing tasks will be apportioned and credited.