The Place Paper Assignment
(This same text appears in the course syllabus; it is excerpted here for ease of Web reference.)
Paper Length: 5-6 pages; 6-10 pages for Honors undergraduates and graduate students
The place paper is intended to give you an opportunity actually to do environmental history yourself as a way of synthesizing what you've learned from the entire course. In it, you are to choose some place--either located in Madison or somewhere you know well from your home or travels--and write a brief essay discussing your interpretation of some aspects of its environmental history, using materials we’ve studied in the class. Because this is a brief paper, you’ll need to think carefully about what parts of your chosen place you wish to explore in your essay: it is far better to discuss a few aspects well than many aspects superficially. Write a description or tell a story that will explain to the reader how this place came to have the shape and qualities it has today. You should think of this paper is an exercise in historical, geographical, and environmental interpretation, asking you to read a small patch of landscape as a historical document of past environmental change.
Since we'd like you to be thinking about this paper from the very start of the semester, we'd like to offer you some suggestions for the how best to approach it. Remember that the most important aspect of this assignment is for you to have an experience trying to “read” an actual landscape. We fully understand that you don’t know enough environmental history to construct a complete or fully accurate narrative of environmental changes that have shaped your chosen place. What we’re looking for instead is that you take a long, careful look at the place and try to see it with unfamiliar eyes, taking nothing for granted but looking at everything you see there as if you’d never seen it before. Then ask how the things you see might have come to be there. (This assignment may go better and be more fun if you imagine that you’re a visitor from outer space who’s just landed and is trying to make sense of all the strange things you see around you: why on earth do people live this way? How did the lives of earlier inhabitants leave traces that can still be seen?) As the first lecture of the course suggests, the trick is to ask as many questions as you can about landscapes you ordinarily take for granted. (Remember, you can go back and reread that first lecture, which is printed as an essay called "Kennecott Journey" in the book Under an Open Sky: Rethinking America’s Western Past, edited by myself; a PDF version of it is even more conveniently available on the course page of my website.) Use materials from the readings and from the lectures to help you think about the kinds of questions you want to ask, and do the best job you can answering these questions using the evidence you can find on the ground. Unless you have a background in field ecology, you’d probably do well not to worry too much about trying to identify individual species of plants and animals, though you should at least look closely at these just to see what you can figure out about the way they’re arranged on the land; more importantly, though, look at the broader patterns of boundaries, buildings, street patterns, fence lines, utility services, etc., instead.
Possible Places to Write About in Madison
If you’re having trouble choosing a place to write about, consider these suggestions right here in Madison; most can easily be applied to other locations as well:
Remember, the most important goal of this assignment is to look at a place, ask questions about it, and think about its past with reference to the historical and geographical phenomena you’ve learned about in this course. This is much harder when you’re worrying about it in the abstract than when you’re actually doing it. It really doesn’t matter what place you pick. You could literally go to anywhere in Madison or your hometown and take a random walk through a neighborhood, thinking about everything you see along the way.
Although this is not primarily a paper based on written documents--we really do want you primarily to have the experience of trying to read an actual landscape--we also expect you to track down at least a few documents that will help you understand the changing landscape of your chosen place. For instance, looking at old photographs can be wonderfully suggestive about how your place has changed in the past. If you’re writing about Madison, there are a couple excellent photographic histories of the city and the university which are on reserve at Helen C. White Library: David Mollenhoff’s Madison: The Formative Years, F589 M157 M64 1982; and Arthur Hove’s The University of Wisconsin: A Pictorial History, LD 6128 H68 1991; there should be copies not just on reserve but in the non-circulating reference collection to; multiple copies of Mollenhoff’s heavily illustrated book are in the Geography Library in Science Hall and the Wisconsin Historical Society Library as well. Even if you only spend half an hour looking through these, they could be extremely helpful to you, especially if you’re having trouble with the assignment.
Places to Find Sources about Your Place
There are a number of ways you could learn more about your chosen place. The suggestions I’ve listed below relate mainly to Wisconsin places, but most would be equally well suited to other parts of the country as well.
ADVICE ABOUT HOW TO WRITE YOUR PLACE PAPER (WITH THANKS TO ITS UNKNOWN AUTHOR)
Finally, here are some tips about how to approach the writing of your place paper, and also about how we'll be grading it. I've adopted these from the excellent writing standards that a colleague at the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies uses, and my colleague in turn adapted them from rubrics like this that have circulated widely on the Web. I would love to be able to give credit to their original author, but haven’t been able to determine who that that person might be (if anyone can figure this out, I’d be very grateful to know!). This text has been slightly modified to fit this course, but are otherwise borrowed pretty completely from my colleague’s version of the rubric.
Your goal in this Place Paper is to offer an original interpretation of your chosen landscape based on your own observations and research on the one hand, and on course readings and lectures on the other hand. We will evaluate your work using the following criteria:
STRUCTURE: Begin your paper by introducing the reader to your place, and by orienting the reader to the major questions and interpretive approaches you intend to use for understanding it. It's fine to start with an anecdote or a description of the place if you think that's the best way to proceed, but be sure to clarify early in the paper the main themes you'll be addressing. Following your introduction, build your essay as a series of well-structured paragraphs. Each paragraph should have a topic sentence, and usually 3 to 5 additional sentences that clearly support that topic sentence. Each paragraph should explain one major idea, not 3 or 4. Each paragraph should have a clear connection to the next. Pay attention to transitions! End with a strong conclusion that tells readers what they've learned about your place and why they should care about the interpretation you're offering of its history.
ANALYSIS: Why should the reader believe you? What arguments for and against your thesis make sense? How can you disprove counter-arguments, or account for evidence that seems to contradict your thesis? Your analysis should offer new ways to think of the material. All ideas in the paper should flow logically. Your argument should be identifiable, reasonable, and sound. Support your thesis with arguments based on evidence from your chosen landscape and from the primary and secondary sources you've researched. All sources should be clearly and accurately identified in footnotes or endnotes using a consistent citation format from a manual such as Kate L. Turabian's Manual for Writers of Term Papers, Theses, and Dissertations, itself based on the classic Chicago Manual of Style, which has recently been published in a new edition that pays much more attention to Internet resources and forms of citation.
STYLE: We will reward clear, active, powerful writing. PLEASE do not use the passive voice. Do not start sentences with "It is....", "There is..." or "There are...." Use active verbs. Revise your paper to remove wordiness, redundancy, passive voice, vagueness, and inactive verbs. Make sure that your grammar and spelling are correct. Careless errors, especially run-ons and comma splices, WILL lower your grade.
For example: This is an example of BAD writing: "It can be shown that farmland on the Great Plains was harmed by poor farming practices."
This is an example of BETTER writing: "Farmers on the Great Plains plowed on steep slopes, causing soil erosion."
What's the difference? In the first sentence, "It can be shown" is in the passive voice, starts with the word "It," and is wordy, redundant filler. The phrase doesn't wake up the reader, and it doesn't convey any meaning. Get rid of it.
The phrase "farmland was harmed" is an example of the passive voice. Do your absolute best to get rid of the passive voice. Your writing will be much more interesting and precise. The passive voice is usually a vague copout: you don't have to say who did what and why. Revising into active voice makes you think about who is responsible. For example, the second example tells us exactly who harmed the soil: "farmers plowed on steep slopes, causing soil erosion."
ORIGINALITY: Although you can get a good grade (a B) for presenting arguments developed in lecture and section, an A paper is one that develops original insights and arguments. We strongly encourage you to think for yourselves about the place you've chosen, giving evidence from course materials and readings, but pushing your insights based on your own observations and research.
Page revision date: 04-Jul-2012