The main assignment for my graduate survey of modern Europe this summer was to write an essay that incorporated all of the assigned books and most of the assigned articles. I conceived of this assignment because of a similar one that I had had to do as a graduate student that I found especially productive, if difficult. (See “Learning to Synthesize History.”)
The essays my students wrote fulfilled or exceeded my expectations in some cases, but there were others that did not go as well as they could have. In part, this was due to the compressed nature of the summer term, but more than anything else, I think building a deliberate approach to teaching the process of synthesis into the course syllabus would have helped. Yes, these students were in an M.A. program and had taken many history courses in their lives, but few had ever had to do such an assignment.
Of course, we spoke about process both in class and in individual meetings, but the current senior research seminar I am teaching, which includes explicit work on process, suggests to me that I should formalize such efforts in graduate courses too, if I am going to require an unfamiliar writing task. That’s not how I learned as a graduate student, but so what?