Help! Designing a Writing Course: Model Texts and Topic Suggestions

By January 8, 2014

Next week, I am going to be attending a course on how to teach writing in preparation for teaching English 125, Writing and Academy Inquiry next fall. The goal of the course is to teach students how to write in a variety of genres and to create complex, analytic arguments. Although most of the graduate students teaching the course are English PhDs, every year they ask a few PhD candidates from other departments to teach a section. Hence – me! One of our first assignments is to bring in an example of excellent writing from our field. I am torn about what to bring in. My first thought was Linda King Newell and Valeen Avery’s Mormon Enigma, which has a tenderness to it rarely seen in academy writing. But then, I saw Robert Darnton’s The Great Cat Massacre in stack of books a friend was assigning to her undergraduates next fall. After talking with the JI folks on the backlist, I decided that it might be fun to turn to the bloggernacle for ideas. What do you think are the best written books in both Mormon history and history in general? Also, what should I teach? Part of me wants to do a course on witchcraft and religion but I’ve also thought having the students research and write histories of Mormonism in Michigan. The topic could be almost anything. A friend of mine who works on Catholicism in Italy taught his on “Death and Dying.” Morbid, I know!

I’m looking forward to any and all suggestions.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. sounds like a great teaching opportunity. some general resources to consider, though not having to do with topic: wayne booth’s the rhetorical stance, john trimble’s writing with style.

    Comment by g.wesley — January 8, 2014 @ 10:25 am

  2. Here are some favorite historians: W. H. Prescott (Conquest of Peru, Conquest of Mexico), David Hackett Fischer (Albion’s Seed, Champlain’s Dream), Susan Strasser (Never Done), Laurel Thatcher Ulrich (Midwife’s Tale), Charles Peterson (Take Up Your Mission).

    I may think of more later, but those are the ones I can think of off the top of my head that I would read for their prose alone, even if I weren’t interested in the topic.

    If you’re teaching a subject of particular interest to yourself, part of the trick to identifying a selection may be to identify a good, clear, compelling writer, not just someone who has done the most up-to-date or extensive work on the topic or is the most important historian in the field for some reason other than their writing.

    Comment by Amy T — January 8, 2014 @ 3:34 pm

  3. Weren’t there those fake Israelite relics in Michigan in the early 20th century? That could be an interesting place to discuss aspects of 19th and 20th century religion in America.

    I don’t know what to recommend for books though.

    Comment by J. Stapley — January 8, 2014 @ 10:57 pm

  4. It might be nice/useful to gather several pieces of writing on the same topic or event, to show students how a) interpretation is in the writing, not in the event itself, and b) how different scholars tackle things — often using precisely the same sources — with their own theoretical and stylistic approaches. It could lead to a good unit, maybe, on scholarly voice and argument/debate. One text you might look at or use parts of is They Say, I Say: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing and any number of topics in Mormonism (or witchcraft, or whatever) might lend themselves to comparative treatment. It helps for students to see good/bad/range of examples so that they can understand for themselves what makes something exemplary.

    Comment by Tona H — January 9, 2014 @ 6:08 am

  5. Dochuk’s From Bible Belt to Sunbelt to Sunbelt Is a personal favorite for style.

    Comment by J Stuart — January 10, 2014 @ 8:52 am

  6. Late to this, but I just remembered that Robert Richardson’s bio of Emerson, The Mind on Fire, is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever read. Seriously, I live in gloom knowing my prose can never touch that perfection.

    Comment by Ben P — January 10, 2014 @ 11:45 am

  7. Thanks everyone! These are really helpful suggestions. Ben, I have faith that one day your prose will approximate, if never reach, that perfection. I say this never having read Richardson.

    Comment by Amanda HK — January 10, 2014 @ 4:04 pm


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