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Home » 2013 - 14 Academic Year » Notes from a History Research Paper Purist

Notes from a History Research Paper Purist

By Caitlin Jones, History Faculty

Lately, I have been giving a lot of thought to the value of the traditional history research paper. Has the shift towards instantaneous, accessible information made historical research skills obsolete or has it made the role of the historian that much more important in wading through the sea of information that is readily available at our fingertips? In all of this discussion about global citizenship and twenty-first-century skills, is the history research process relevant and valuable?

When I was a student in high school I used to dread the research paper. While history was one of my favorite subjects, I foolishly convinced myself in ninth grade that I was all about the content, not the research side of the subject. I liked structure, lectures, and class discussions, but I fiercely resisted the other, darker side of studying history – the research paper. Not surprisingly, I was, and still very much am, a type A learner. I learn best when information is presented in an organized, logical, and progressive narrative with a clear start and end point. In my adolescent mind, the historical research process threatened my learning comfort zone. Looking back on these experiences, I now realize that I struggled with independent, self-guided projects in part because I was a terrible procrastinator, but also because they involved taking intellectual risks, being creative, and putting my ideas out there for the world to judge (really it was just my teacher, but at sixteen it definitely felt like the world).

Why did my teacher let me pick the topic? What if really smart, professional historians have already said everything that is worth saying on my topic? How was I supposed to come up with an argument that said something new and thought provoking on a topic? What do you mean I have to footnote every piece of information beyond common knowledge? And how on earth am I going to produce ten to twelve pages of research and writing in a month? Why won’t my teacher tell me exactly what to write about? These were just some of my reactions to the research paper every time it was assigned in my high school history courses. Did I mention that I went to a boarding school where students had to take four years of history and every history course required a research paper? Clearly I had to get over my issues with the research paper and find relevance and value in the “darker side” of my favorite subject.

When I got to college, the research paper did not go away. In fact, it became the central focus of my undergraduate coursework. I was forced to spend hours upon hours in the basement book stacks of my college library, searching for obscure primary sources that I was certain did not exist and getting overwhelmed when I found a source that made the exact same argument that I had planned on making. The historical research process was a lonely, hair-pulling, never-ending experience, and I often found myself questioning whether or not history was the right academic discipline for me. Despite my continued resistance, I managed to power through my undergraduate courses. I grudgingly completed each paper and even convinced myself to write a senior thesis on the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) during World War II.

Then, I hit graduate school. Historical content was no longer taught but was assumed knowledge in the classroom. If a reading mentioned the My Lai massacre and I was unfamiliar with the topic, I had to research it on my own and was responsible for filling in the gaps in my history background. Class time was no longer dedicated to walking everyone through the material but rather to evaluating, debating, challenging, and critiquing the scholarly argument of a source. I was no longer the history student who could get away with absorbing content and avoiding the research paper like the Plague. Now I actually had to do something with all of the information I had been gathering throughout the years. I had to poke holes in the very scholarship that I had worshipped throughout my undergraduate career. I had to consider counter-arguments, debate with my tenured, published professors, and embrace intellectual conflict. Agreement and consensus, the cornerstones of my young career as a historian, went out the window when I entered the graduate classroom. This was what the study of history was all about. This was what the job of a professional historian was really like. It was my scholarly duty to question the past, to challenge accepted views, and to contribute my own intervention in the evolving field of history.

While I enjoyed talking the talk in the classroom and debating great works with my peers, I knew eventually that my time would come and I would have to walk the walk. The research paper was more important in my studies than it had ever been. I spent my graduate school days studying how great minds “did” history, and now I had to make a serious go at it, too. After ten years of resistant and with a newfound appreciation for the well-crafted argument, I finally was ready to lower my defenses and embrace the research paper.

I learned a great deal about myself as a student and a teacher of history when I finally embraced the research process. When it comes to writing the history research paper, I am a purist. I believe in learning a topic from the ground up, in starting from scratch and becoming an expert on a topic, in letting the sources guide the development of an argument, and in giving scholarly credit when credit is due. I know that I am in the minority on this one, but there is nothing like the satisfying feeling of putting the last period on a perfectly formatted footnote. Not only have you demonstrated to your reader that yes, in fact, you have read all of these amazing sources, but you also are building off of great scholarship in your own work. I also value the experience of being so deep in a research topic that everything you are currently studying, reading, and discussing in your life seems connected to obscure topics such as the All-American Girls Baseball League or Abraham Lincoln’s views on slavery. Others around you will absolutely think that you are a nerd and a bit crazy, but isn’t that what being an expert is all about?

For those who are just staring out on their intellectual journey and are resistant to the research paper, let me share a few discoveries that I wish I had been aware of when I was grudgingly writing my history research papers in ninth grade. The most important lesson that I learned was that you have to be thoughtful in your topic selection. You are going to spend a lot of time learning about this topic, and picking one that you are unsure about or are not really interested in is a recipe for disaster. Think about topics that peaked your interest in class discussions or course readings. Spend time conducting initial research, get to know the background of your topic, and then make an informed decision on what to study. Unfortunately, what you are interested in does not always result in a feasible, successful research project. It is important to consider the amount of time you have to work on this project, the number of sources that exist within the library and online, and the various constraints that the topic presents. For example, if you choose to study the impact of the Inquisition on Spanish exploration in the New World, you might run into the issue of needing to be able to read fifteenth-century Spanish in order to understand your primary sources. Other common challenges include the size and scope of a topic. If you are studying the historical roots of racism in the United States, you will need more than a month and ten to twelve pages to even make a dent in the topic. Picking a research topic that is feasible given the time, length, and source constraints is crucial to your success.

Next, you need to develop a focused research question. Your research question should be about a specific aspect of your topic and it should help narrow down your research. The answer to this question will ultimately lead you to your argument, so it is important that you develop a research question that allows you to create a debatable, thought-provoking, and analytical thesis. When I was writing my Master’s thesis on the All-American Girls Baseball League, my initial research question was “Why did the AAGPBL reaffirm traditional feminine values and conceptions of beauty while simultaneously challenging gender norms by welcoming women into the historically masculine game of baseball?” This was not a question that magically appeared at the start of the research process. It took time to comb through secondary sources and background history before I could identify what aspect of my topic I wanted to focus on. With this question as my guiding research filter, I was able to develop a focused, debatable argument that forced my reader to consider not only what the AAGPBL was, but also how it significantly impacted gender norms in the 1940s and 1950s. Without the focused question, I probably would have spent hours aimlessly researching my topic until I was so overwhelmed by the amount of information that I could not make sense of it all.

My final pieces of advice would be to manage your time effectively and to start early. These lessons are easier said than done, and I fully admit to being a procrastinator in my own work at times. However, the research paper is a marathon, not a sprint. The more you put it off, the less valuable and fulfilling the process and final product will be. If you wait until the last week to work on the project, your research will only skim the surface of the topic and your argument will be obvious to your reader. You have to research in layers and phases, allowing yourself time to track down random sources and develop one, two, or three arguments before you decide on your hook. Even the best and the brightest historians cannot fake a well-researched, creative, and thought-provoking paper. The sooner you identify and tackle the hiccups in your research, the earlier it will all come together for you in your paper. Be organized, be reflective, and just keep going. Oh, and always cite your sources as you go (including page numbers!). The more effort you put into your citations during the process, the less time you will have to spend at the end hunting down sources. I could scare you with a story of how I forgot to write down the page number for the perfect quote on femininity in the AAGPBL, but I will spare you the details. Speaking from experience, if you do not have a page number, you cannot use that quote.

For some, studying history is all about the great events, people, and dates of the past. There is nothing wrong with loving history because you love a great story. But, you will never shift from being a student of history to a historian if you refuse to make an argument and take a position on the past. The historical research process forces you to challenge the dominant historical narrative, to consider alternatives, counter-factuals, and detours, and to be creative in a field that is often thought of as straight forward and unimaginative. Historians are investigators, negotiators, interpreters, writers, inventors, arbiters, and revisionists, and the research paper is their mode of communication.

Caitlin Jones is a History and Social Sciences teacher and is new to the St. Mark’s community this year. She holds a B.A. in History from Colgate University and an M.A. in Social Sciences with a focus on American history and gender studies from the University of Chicago. 

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