HIST 491: Reading Reflections


Sometimes you will need to turn in a short reading response for a reading assignment as preparation for our discussion. The syllabus makes it very clear what you need to do and when. These encourage everyone to read carefully enough to absorb the main ideas of the readings and to stay on schedule.

In general, these are meant to be somewhat creative exercises to get you to compare and contrast different aspects of the reading and to give you a chance to riff on what you thought was most interesting about them (we all find different things interesting!). Sometimes I just ask you to restate a main point or answer a specific question or two.

Whatever the prompt, there are two motivations for these reflections: 1) encourage you to think critically about the readings 2) allow you to show me that you’re keeping up with the readings (and earn points!) 3) create your own archive of the course—something we will use at the end to reflect on the course as a whole.


  • ~400 words: Write more or less as you need/want to per assignment, but don’t be consistently too much above or below the target. The word count is less important than the depth of the content.
  • Posted ON TIME in our GitHub repository: ON TIME usually means by 10am on the due date unless otherwise specified. These are preparatory work for discussions, so late responses really defeat the point. Repeatedly late responses will negatively impact your grade.
  • Original thinking based on the readings: Avoid summarizing readings except to restate a point that you want to elaborate on. Your reflections should be obviously informed by the readings. This is easy to do if you actually read them, and impossible if you don’t.
  • Specificity: General statements are good ONLY when supported by examples from the readings. Otherwise it looks like you didn’t read much and/or very carefully.
  • Smart writing: Don’t try to sound like an academic, but your post shouldn’t read like a text message, either.
  • Ask Questions: As part of your response, include at least 2 questions (or more, if you have them) that will help guide discussion for that class. Don’t ask questions that actually have an obvious factual answer, but questions that help us think critically about the readings. Was there something that seemed to make no sense? Or something you totally disagreed with? Or a seemingly interesting point that wasn’t explained very well? A point that contradicted what we’ve read earlier? Coming up with good questions is much harder than it sounds, which is why we practice in a low-stakes classroom setting.

Kind of responses

To mix things up a little, we have different kinds of reflections that we use from time to time. The kind of reflection you should post should be clearly indicated on the syllabus, or is obvious by whether there are questions to answer.

Creative Reflection

Most reflections are creative reflections in that they ask you to provide a brief description of what you found most interesting about the readings AND WHY. Think about:

  • What ideas did you find most interesting or surprising?
  • What was most unclear or confusing?
  • What questions did they bring up, especially compared to other readings?

Prompt Reflection

If I have posted some questions in the red box where the assignment is listed, you should answer them. Really! (I emphasize this because too many students just write something with the expectation of getting credit for turning something in.) The questions are meant to focus your attention on ideas or themes that I think are especially powerful and important for the course.

Scoring and how these factor in your grade

These assignments do not get individually graded because I don’t want the reflections to become an opaque game of you trying to writing out what you think I want to hear so that you get the most points or highest grade. Most readings have way more cool stuff in them than can be absorbed in one reading so there really isn’t a “right” answer, but there are more or less thorough and interesting ones. So, I look for genuine engagement with and reflection on the course material. As explained above, the reflections should make clear that you’ve done the readings and formulated some informed opinions and questions about them.

At the end of the semester, your collective posts are evaluated as is class participation (start with a B…etc). Improvement over the semester definitely helps your grade! In class, I will highlight excellent reflections, as well as posts that are generally good but lacking in an easily fixable way. This is how I hold you accountable for your work. I will let you know privately if your posts are consistently falling short of expectations and negatively impacting your grade. If you’d like more feedback on them at any point in the course, I’d be happy to provide it! But you need to ask.