University of Wisconsin–Madison

Writing Assignments in History and Environmental Studies: Animals Making History

Professor Elizabeth Hennessy, History and Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies

Context: In Spring 2015, I taught a class on Animal Histories that was cross-listed in History (200) and Environmental Studies (404). This mid-semester assignment asked them to analyze course readings by writing a persuasive essay about how animals are important historical actors. The prompt draws from environmental historian J.R. McNeill’s Mosquito Empires, which students read and discussed in class. The class included students in all four years from a variety of majors across L&S and CALS; for many, this was the first analytical writing assignment they had encountered. Working with undergraduate fellows from the Writing Center, the students learned to use secondary sources to make a nuanced argument about the nature of historical agency. Having students write a formal cover letter, based on a template I supplied, allowed them to reflect on their experience working with peer editors and also taught them professional norms of correspondence. 

Assigned: March 24 (T)

Draft due: April 9 (R) (hardcopy)

Peer comments returned: April 16 (R)

Final due: April 28 (T) (11am, LearnUW Dropbox)

Prompt: In the Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, Karl Marx famously wrote that “Men [people] make their own history, but they do not make it under conditions of their own choosing.” In Mosquito Empires, J.R. McNeill modifies this maxim to incorporate mosquitoes as historical actors. He writes, “Humankind and nature make their own history together, but neither can make it as they please” (2010, p. 6). Your task for this writing project is to use McNeill’s reworking of Marx’s famous maxim—or write your own version—as the basis for a persuasive essay of 1,250 to 1,500 words about the role of animals in making history. Use examples from three class readings to explain what this statement means and why McNeill’s update (or your own) is necessary. You may also want to answer the following questions to help build your argument: How do animals make history? How are animal actors different from human actors? Why is it important to consider animals as historical actors?

Your audience for this essay is skeptical historians who are accustomed to thinking of humans as the quintessential historical actors; your job is to analyze examples from class readings to convince them that animals are also important historical actors. Rather than just retelling stories about particular historical events, you want to make an analytical argument for how and why animals have mattered historically. Be sure you have a clearly stated thesis and that you outline your argument in the introduction. Also be careful not to fall into a determinist argument; you want to pay careful attention to the nuances of how context shapes history.  (For example, arguing that because spermaceti oil makes great candles there had to be a sperm whaling industry would be determinist. It’s too simple a causal relationship and an argument that ignores a slew of contributing factors. Attention to the evolution of whale hunting and the changing context of industrial demand for whale oil would provide context and nuance to counter determinism.)

Be sure to include a title and byline (your name). Use the following convention to name your file: LASTNAME_Final_Paper2.docx

Writing Fellow Meeting: A polished draft of your paper is due at the beginning of class, in hard copy, Thursday, April 9. I will get these drafts to your peer editor, who will contact you to set up a meeting. On Thursday, April 16, I will return your drafts with peer editors’ comments in class. After that, you will have a week to complete your peer meeting.

Cover Letter: To get credit for the draft (which I will not grade) and the peer meeting, you need to write a 1-page cover letter (single spaced, about 300 words, using professional letter template) explaining how you used (or not) your peer editor’s suggestions and what you have learned through the writing and editing process. Turn this in with your final draft. Use the following convention to name your file: LASTNAME_CoverLetter2.docx

Details: Papers should be 1,250 to 1,500 words (4-5 double-spaced pages; 12pt Times New Roman; 1-inch margins). They should be polished according to Chicago Manual style. Include a properly formatted bibliography, using inline citations when you directly quote a source OR when you paraphrase an idea taken from another source. [I’ll go over the formatting for this in class.]

Grading Rubric


  • Fresh, creative, nuanced understanding of McNeill’s maxim, or student’s own update
  • Clearly articulated analytical thesis statement
  • 3 well-chosen examples convincingly illustrate thesis
  • Effectively uses historical detail to make point
  • Makes nuanced argument to avoid determinism
  • Cover letter reflects thoughtful engagement with peer comments & reflections on the writing process
  • Free of grammatical and punctuation errors
  • Correctly formatted bibliography and citations


  • Insightful understanding of McNeill’s maxim, or student’s own update
  • Straightforward thesis statement, shows some analytical depth
  • 3 examples adequately illustrate thesis
  • Uses some historical detail to support main point
  • Uses some detail to avoid determinism
  • Cover letter demonstrates consideration of peer comments & writing process
  • Few grammatical and/or punctuation errors
  • Few formatting errors in bibliography and citations


  • Satisfactory understanding of McNeill’s maxim, or student’s own update
  • Thesis statement lacks analytical depth
  • 3 examples related to thesis but do not strongly support
  • Uses little detail to illustrate main point
  • Lack of nuance leans toward deterministic argument
  • Cover letter rushed, offers little reflection on editing process
  • Some grammatical and/or punctuation errors
  • Some formatting errors in bibliography and citations


  • Unclear articulation of maxim, little evidence of understanding
  • Thesis statement vague, unclear, or missing
  • 3 examples poorly chosen
  • Detail missing or detracts from story
  • Argument deterministic
  • Cover letter missing or does not reflect engagement with peer editor’s comments
  • Contains several grammatical and/or punctuation errors
  • Contains several formatting errors