History Survey Lab Notebooks

The Course:

Melissa Estes Blair

HIS 132: U.S. History since 1877

Warren Wilson College

Last Used: Spring 2015

The Audience:

The course fulfilled a general-education requirement and a major requirement for history & political science majors. Mostly first and second year students.

Purpose of Assignment:

This assignment was designed to make students engage more deeply with primary source assignments before in-class discussion, as well as to expose them to the idea of writing-to-learn and to give them opportunities to practice that kind of informal writing.

The Assignment:

The HIS 132 Lab Notebook

For each of our discussion days, you are required to write an entry in your lab notebook regarding the assigned document project. Each lab notebook entry consists of the following two sections:

  • Select ONE of the documents assigned and analyze it thoroughly. Who is the author (race/ethnicity, sex, and region of residence are categories to think of here), and who is her/his intended audience? What are the majors claims the author is making, or points she’s trying to convince her readers of? Briefly summarize the piece, and conclude by discussing how persuaded you were by the author’s arguments.
  • Write a paragraph connecting the entire set of documents to the course as a whole. How do these documents complement, challenge, or complicate what we’ve been talking about in lecture? How do they change your perspective on a historical event or concept?

You may purchase a small notebook to use as your lab notebook, or you may hand in individual typed & printed entries. Electronic submissions of lab notebook entries WILL NOT be accepted. You need to bring them to class to use them during discussion, and will turn them in at the end of discussion classes.


The “lab notebook” assignment for my introductory U.S. history classes was born out of a need and desire to incorporate more informal writing into those classes. My college was moving towards a writing across the curriculum model for writing instruction, and classes that wanted to fulfill the writing general education requirements were required to have informal as well as formal writing. More than simply wanting my classes to check a particular box for students, however, I had become convinced that I both needed to teach (not just assign) more writing in my classes, and that informal writing was a powerful tool for students to use in processing and analyzing their thoughts about primary sources. I was hopeful that the assignment would not only improve students’ writing but also, just as importantly, improve the quality of our in-class discussions by ensuring that students had thought about the readings before coming to class.

The textbook I use, Exploring American Histories by Nancy Hewitt and Steve Lawson, ends each chapter with what the authors call a “document project,” a collection of several primary sources about a single event or issue that the chapter covered. My students were required to pick one document from the project and analyze it in detail. They were instructed to break the piece down in terms of author, audience, and argument, laying out each of those three pieces in a total of about a paragraph of writing. The second half of the assignment asked them to reflect on the document project as a whole, exploring how reading primary sources on a particular event or issues altered their understanding of the topic. Many students also chose to discuss how reading in more depth about the issues altered their understanding of related issues in contemporary U.S. society, although that was not a requirement of the assignment. They completed about a dozen notebooks over the course of the semester.

Overall, the assignment achieved my goals quite well. The quality of the in-class discussion was much better in the two semesters I used this assignment than it had been in previous sections of the survey. Students’ writing was also improved over previous years. Not only did the quality of the lab notebooks improve over the months, but the two longer, traditional papers that I require were also, on average, better than previous classes. Both of those papers also involve analysis of primary sources, and I believe the practice that students got through their lab notebooks helped them on those longer papers, whether they realized it or not.

I think the most important choice I made in the entire process of designing this assignment was the name, which I stole from my friend Erik Alexander, a history professor at Southern Illinois University–Edwardsville. His department has a very different assignment which they call “lab notebooks.” I had always shied away from reading logs or journals—which is essentially what this is, in a more directed form—for fear that students would not understand what I was looking for. I feared that they would treat a “reading journal” as I had at age 20 and write to me about their personal lives. I knew that this had happened to other faculty at my institution. By calling it a lab notebook, I placed the assignment completely in an academic context and also, for many students, communicated a level of seriousness that they associate with science classes. I am convinced that, had I called it a reading log or journal, the results would not have been as good.

About the Contributor:

Melissa Estes Blair spent six years as a member of the history & political science and gender & women’s studies faculties at Warren Wilson College, a small liberal arts college in Asheville NC. She is now an assistant professor of history at Auburn University, and may be reached at melissa.blair@auburn.edu. Examples of lab notebooks, and the entire syllabus for HIS 132 (and 131, the first half of the survey which also used this assignment) will be shared upon request.


The Historian’s Code

The course:

Amanda I. Seligman

Seminar on Historical Method: Research Techniques

Advanced undergraduates, history majors

University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM)

Last used: Spring 2015

The purpose of this assignment is to compel students think through what skills, mindsets, work habits, and ethics they need to be successful in the capstone sequence of the undergraduate history major.

The assignment:

On the first day of class, I provided students a copy of a Richard W. Stewart, “Historians and a Historian’s Code,” Army History (Fall 2010): 46-47. On the last day of class, the syllabus instructs, “Write your own historian’s code (250-500 words).” The assignment is worth 5% of the total course grade.


This assignment came into existence because of a former student who kept thinking about what she had learned in my class. Danielle Eyre, who took this undergraduate research methods seminar with me several years ago, went on to George Mason University’s MA program in history and a job at the Army Historical Foundation after graduating from UWM in 2014. Eyre ran across Stewart’s column and messaged me that it reminded her of my class. Reading Stewart’s code, I realized that it had several characteristics that made it ideal for classroom use: it is short enough to have students read and respond to in class; it is funny; its ideas are contestable; and it is inspirational. As an added bonus, a military-based reading works well with the UWM student body, which currently includes more than 1,000 veterans.

Stewart’s code is compact and well written. It begins with a discussion of professional codes of ethics and quotes the US military’s Code of Conduct, the Army’s Rangers’ creed, the Soldier’s Creed, and Civilian Creed. Stewart’s “Historian’s Code” consists of nine points that balance our serious work with a subtle sense of humor. He begins, “I will footnote (or endnote) all of my sources (none of this MLA or social science parenthetical referencing business),” promises “I will not be ashamed to say ‘I do not know’ or to change my narrative of historical events when new sources point to my errors,” and concludes, “Life may be short, but history is forever. I am a servant of forever.”

My hope was that reading it on the first day of class would provoke discussion and that revisiting it at the end of the semester would serve as an opportunity to synthesize the class. The course as a whole is designed to introduce students to a wide variety of history research techniques and practical and ethical issues they may face in their future classes. A key text is Peter Charles Hoffer’s Past Imperfect: Facts, Fictions, Fraud American History from Bancroft and Parkman to Ambrose, Bellesiles, Ellis, and Goodwin (New York: PublicAffairs, 2007). History majors must take this or another methods course before they enroll in the capstone course, which requires them to write a research paper based on primary sources. In addition to attracting history majors, the course routinely draws students from UWM’s School of Education.

My students received the charge to write their own historian’s code well. One student, a fledgling member of the military herself, confided in me that she had been looking forward to the assignment since she saw it on the syllabus on the first day of class. She clearly labored over her work: not only did her submission include her own personal code, she modeled the look of her page on the original from Stewart, right down to the personal photograph.

Most of the students’ codes incorporated the moral and pragmatic messages I wove throughout the course. They told me that historians should cite their sources, go into the archives with an open mind, consult with librarians, and be organized about their work. And they got the message that they should conduct their academic affairs with integrity. I was gratified to read the assignments, which told me they had been paying attention, and surprised when they articulated ideas that I shared but had not consciously taught.

Sadly, the assignment did not prove to inoculate them all against plagiarism. In the final course papers, I discovered a couple of instances of plagiarism. Writing a historian’s code, I learned, does not guarantee that a student will follow it.

About the contributor:

Amanda I. Seligman is Professor of History and Urban Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She is the author of Is Graduate School Really for You?: The Whos, Whats, Hows, and Whys of Pursuing a Master’s or Ph.D. (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012). She can be reached at seligman (at) uwm.edu.