William & Mary’s History Writing Resources Center has helped the university’s students fine-tune their history writing skills for more than 20 years. Now it will expand its impact to teachers and students throughout the Commonwealth of Virginia.
The writing center, staffed by history Ph.D. students, will provide its expertise to middle school and high school teachers and students in an upcoming Zoom workshop for Virginia History Day. David Marquis M.A. ’16, Ph.D. ’20 will instruct on the principles of effective history writing and answer questions from participants in an hour-long session scheduled for Dec. 8 at 4 p.m.
This will be the first time the center will participate in a public event like Virginia History Day.
"We are now able to contribute beyond the bounds of the campus," said History Professor Carol Sheriff, who started the writing center in 1999 with fellow history professor Jim Whittenburg.
Virginia History Day is held in conjunction with National History Day and supports a series of contests for students grades 4-12 at the regional and state level. The workshops are intended to inform teachers and students in five contest categories: historical paper, performance, documentary, website and exhibit board.
Top entries at the state level advance to the national competition.
“I believe the students and teachers will benefit greatly from the advice they’ll be getting from William & Mary,” said Sam Florer ’15, M.A. ’18, the Virginia History Day coordinator for the Virginia Museum of History & Culture who extended the workshop invitation to his alma mater.
“I think advice from a college-level writing center is going to help the students stand apart when they are competing at the state and national level.”
Not to be confused with William & Mary’s Writing Resources Center located in Swem Library, the History Writing Resources Center operates out of a third-floor office in Blair Hall and provides resources for any undergraduate or graduate student needing help with a history writing assignment.
At the time of its inception, the center was believed to be the only history-specific writing center in the country. There are others now, including one started by alumnus Kyle Zelner Ph.D. ’03 at University of Southern Mississippi.
The center was born from a need for guidance in the specific elements of history writing, which differ from those of other writing disciplines.
“Good engaging sentences are going to be the same in an English paper as a history paper. It’s really more about the nature of argumentation, the nature of the evidence that you’re using,” Sheriff said.
The staffers at the writing center, each of whom have taught classes independently, focus on helping students work on their arguments more than the content of their papers.
“When students visit professors during office hours, they can now spend most of their time talking about their ideas, as they can seek help for other issues, such as organization and substantiation, from the HWRC,” Sheriff said.
The HWRC is integral to the university, and its participation in Virginia History Day meets a need for pre-college teachers and students throughout the commonwealth, Florer said.
“I have personal experience with understanding the high standards and the quality of work that William & Mary representatives put out,” Florer said. “William & Mary was a natural choice. It’s a leader in the Hampton Roads community and the state in terms of institutions of higher learning.”
The center is not only beneficial to history professors and students. Marquis said being a writing consultant has helped him sharpen his teaching skills as well.
“The more experiences you can have helping your students, the better you become as a teacher,” Marquis said. “I’m not just there to help the students; I’m also learning to become a better teacher and to facilitate excellent work from my students.”
As the use of technology has evolved during the COVID-19 pandemic with the rise of online lectures and seminars, so have the opportunities of resource centers like the HWRC.
The HWRC has done only online consultations since the pandemic began in March. Its comfort level of working online made this Virginia History Day workshop possible.
“We moved entirely to online consultations in the fall, which has taught us that while it’s not the same as one-on-one, it’s an opportunity to be able to reach people more broadly in a quite effective way,” Sheriff said. “We haven’t felt it has diminished the overall quality of writing assistance we can give, although we are looking forward to getting back into our recently refurbished center in Blair Hall.
“I don’t think we could help with Virginia History Day in such a way if we didn’t already have this experience with remote consultation.”
Sheriff said the growth of the HWRC, including new outreach opportunities and improvements to its Blair Hall office, wouldn’t have been possible without the support of benefactors Mike Clem ’82 and Kathleen Clem.
And the center has ambitions to do even more.
“We’re in a changing society, and we have all these resources we need to take advantage of,” Marquis said. “For example, a number of students who use the History Writing Resources Center are international students, and some of these students aren’t in the country right now. They need access to these resources. It’s a hard thing for everything to be conducted online, and this is another resource students can really take advantage of.”