Having just completed my first semester as chair, I’d like to share some recent thoughts inspired by my students.
We learn by writing. There are, of course, other ways of learning: reading, listening, doing. But writing, I would argue, is an underappreciated path to knowledge. That we learn by writing is kind of counter-intuitive. I used to think–and when I meet my students, they almost universally think–that writing is simply the act of transcribing what one already knows, transmitting from brain to paper or keyboard the ideas one has fully formulated.
But I now realize there’s a reciprocal relationship between what we think we know and what emerges on a blank page. We generally have some idea of what we’re going to write before we start the physical process, but as we are forced to express ourselves clearly and logically, we find our ideas refined and sometimes altered dramatically. “Wait,” we’ll often think, “that doesn’t make sense. Let’s try it another way.”
I put this insight to work in every class I teach. All my colleagues do, even if they use different strategies. Lately I’ve become enamored with an assignment I learned about from a professional magazine. “Point Paragraphs” are one-page papers due in every single meeting of a seminar. The term “point” does double duty: each is worth one point toward the final grade (which students love because it allows them to build their grade on a daily basis) and each consists of one point or idea from the readings that the student can contribute to discussion. It means a lot of grading: with fifteen students and twenty-six class meetings, that’s 390 papers! But it’s worth it, because students find that they really understand a text only after being forced to write about it. From the writing comes the knowing.
That’s also why all of my colleagues and I continue to write history. The mission of a research university such as UB combines both the creation and the transmission of new knowledge. Writing does both. We create new knowledge through the process of writing. We transmit that knowledge to colleagues around the globe and to our students here in Buffalo.
Even if you’re a UB History alumnus, you may not get a chance to write much history these days. But I bet you write lots of other things–memos, reports, grant applications–and I’m certain your History classes helped you hone the skills that make you an effective writer today. Your support of the History Department allows us to continue doing the labor-intensive work of helping students with their writing. I’m even more convinced of it now that I’ve written these words.
Erik R. Seeman
This newsletter went to press in February, before we understood the disruptions of COVID-19. We hope everyone in the extended UB History community is safe. We will address the impact of the virus in the next issue; in the meantime, follow us on Facebook and Twitter for updates.