By: Alex Duh
This year saw a major change to Gilman’s approach to the Artifact Paper. The Artifact Paper, a signature assignment for the tenth grade since the early 2000’s, has been famous for being both long and challenging. To write the paper, students would pick three artifacts -one each of a literary, historical and artistic document- to write about the zeitgeist (spirit of the time) of a chosen era in history.
In previous years, the assignment was a 2500-3500 word paper that spanned much of the fourth quarter. This would usually result in a paper 10-15 pages in length. Students would pick virtually any topic spanning from Ancient Greece to modern times and were responsible for finding their own artifacts.
However, this January, the assignment was modified. The Class of 2019 was given just over two weeks to write a paper 5-7 pages in length. They picked from five possible topics: Byzantium, German Romanticism, Rome, the Enlightenment, and the Protestant Reformation/Northern Renaissance. From these, they chose one literary, artistic, and historical artifact from a list of 9-11 artifacts provided by their teachers.
Mr. Patrick Hastings, English Department Chair, discussed the length of time consumed by this project in years past: “the Artifact Paper had become this sprawling, two-month long process that would span pretty much all of April and all of May in the tenth grade English and Euro Civ courses.” This made it difficult for the teachers to plan their curriculum to fit in time periods beyond World War I. In addition to the massive amount of time dedicated to the paper, teachers also noted the sheer difficulty of the task. Mr. Kevin Hudson, History Teacher, explained, “Some of our students at Gilman were capable of writing college-level papers, and other students at Gilman struggled to even meet the minimum requirements of the assignment.”
The English and History departments decided to shorten the assignment this year. For the assignment, the teachers took advantage of changes in the midterm schedule and placed the assignment in the three-week period between winter break and second semester. Mr. Hastings elaborated, “We said, as a department, ‘That seems like a perfect opportunity for us to move this thing that had gotten too big and we wanted to make a more constrained time period – move [the assignment] into that window, and then it opens up the entire fourth quarter for our curriculum.” Mr. Hudson summarized the more circumscribed expectations of the new assignment stating, “we decided to restructure the assignments and do much of the legwork for the students, specifically give them a group of topics they had to work with, which eliminated a lot of time that had previously been wasted as students grappled with an appropriate topic as well as finding suitable primary sources for the students.”
With the long tradition of the Artifact Paper, making these changes was not an easy decision. One concern was that the students would lose the full experience of the previous Artifact Paper. The students do miss an opportunity to write a long paper on almost anything in history that they want, something that they may never have done before. “It’s a shame that this change takes away from the freedom and openness of the previous artifact paper model,” Mr. Hastings remarked. Mr. Hastings also commented, “The old Artifact Paper was really cool in that it allowed students to develop a unique and original interest into a formal, argumentative essay...Sustaining an argument for ten to twenty pages, that’s an experience that I would like for every student to have at some point. Whether or not the sophomore year is developmentally the appropriate age for that to occur is a question that we aren’t quite sure about.”
Ultimately, the teachers chose to save time for teaching material in the fourth quarter while still preserving its essence. “Its primary focus is judging students’ ability to practice their analytical skills in support of a thesis that is proven across discipline,” Mr. Hastings explained. Some students support this sentiment. Alex Soong (’17) said, “I did not like that we spent a whole quarter working on a research paper. I felt that this time could be better spent.”
Mr. Hudson believes that the change has had mostly positive effects on the students, saying, “Having had the opportunity to grade this year’s artifact papers with my English colleagues, I believe most if not all of the faculty would agree this iteration, although reduced in scope, is more developmentally appropriate for our sophomores. A higher course average and few Cs or below would support this conclusion. Finally, our students have really refined their primary source analysis without the distraction of extensive secondary source research.”