1. How do I pick a topic?
2. But I can't find any material...
3. Help! How do I put this together? Research Guide and Writing Guide
See also Robert Pearce's How to Write a Good History Essay
1. How do I pick a topic?
Picking a topic is perhaps the most important step in writing a research paper. To do it well requires several steps of refinement. First you have to determine a general area in which you have an interest (if you aren't interested, your readers won't be either). You do not write a paper "about the Civil War," however, for that is such a large and vague concept that the paper will be too shallow or you will be swamped with information. The next step is to narrow your topic. Are you interested in comparison? battles? social change? politics? causes? biography? Once you reach this stage try to formulate your research topic as a question. For example, suppose that you decide to write a paper on the use of the films of the 1930's and what they can tell historians about the Great Depression. You might turn that into the following question: "What are the primary values expressed in films of the 1930's?" Or you might ask a quite different question, "What is the standard of living portrayed in films of the 1930's?" There are other questions, of course, which you could have asked, but these two clearly illustrate how different two papers on the same general subject might be. By asking yourself a question as a means of starting research on a topic you will help yourself find the answers. You also open the door to loading the evidence one way or another. It will help you decide what kinds of evidence might be pertinent to your question, and it can also twist perceptions of a topic. For example, if you ask a question about economics as motivation, you are not likely to learn much about ideals, and vice versa.
2. But I can't find any material...
No one should pick a topic without trying to figure out how one could discover pertinent information, nor should anyone settle on a topic before getting some background information about the general area. These two checks should make sure your paper is in the realm of the possible. The trick of good research is detective work and imaginative thinking on how one can find information. First try to figure out what kinds of things you should know about a topic to answer your research question. Are there statistics? Do you need personal letters? What background information should be included? Then if you do not know how to find that particular kind of information, ASK. A reference librarian or professor is much more likely to be able to steer you to the right sources if you can ask a specific question such as "Where can I find statistics on the number of interracial marriages?" than if you say "What can you find on racial attitudes?"
Use the footnotes and bibliographies of general background books as well as reference aids to lead you to special studies. If Carleton does not have the books or sources you need, try ordering through the library minitex. Many sources are also available on-line.
As your research paper takes shape you will find that you need background on people, places, events, etc. Do not just rely on some general survey for all of your background. Check the several good dictionaries of biography for background on people, or see if there is a standard book-length biography. If you are dealing with a legal matter check into the background of the judges who make the court decision and the circumstances surrounding the original incident or law. Try looking for public opinions in newspapers of the time. In other words, each bit of information you find should open the possibility of other research paths.
Learn to use several research techniques. You cannot count on a good research paper coming from browsing on one shelf at the library. A really pertinent book may be hidden in another section of the library due to classification quirks. The Readers' Guide (Ref. A13 .R4) is not the only source for magazine articles, nor the card catalog for books. There are whole books which are listings of other books on particular topics. There are specialized indexes of magazine articles. Modern History Journals are indexed in the Social Studies and Humanities Index (Ref. A13 .R282) before 1976 After 1976 use the Social Sciences Index (REF A13 .S62) and the Humanities Index (Ref. A13 .H85). See also Historical Abstracts (Ref. D1 .H5). Reference Librarians would love to help you learn to use these research tools. It pays to browse in the reference room at the library and poke into the guides which are on the shelves. It also pays to browse the Internet.
3. Help! How do I put this together?
A. Research Guide
B. Writing Guide
A. Preliminary Research:
If you do not already have a general background on your topic, get the most recent good general source on the topic and read it for general orientation. On the basis of that reading formulate as clearly focused question as you can. You should generally discuss with your professor at that point whether your question is a feasible one.
B. Building a Basic Bibliography:
Use the bibliography/notes in your first general source, MUSE, and especially Historical Abstracts on cd-rom in the Library Reading Room (the computer farthest to the left in the front row as you walk past the Reference Desk - or ask there). If there is a specialized bibliography on your topic, you will certainly want to consult that as well, but these are often a bit dated.
C. Building a Full Bibliography:
Read the recent articles or chapters that seem to focus on your topic best. This will allow you to focus your research question quite a bit. Use the sources cited and/or discussed in this reading to build a full bibliography. Use such tools as Historical Abstracts (or, depending on your topic, the abstracts from a different field) and a large, convenient computer-based national library catalog (e.g. the University of California system from the "Libs" command in your VAX account or the smaller University of Minnesota library through MUSE) to check out your sources fully. For specific article searches "Uncover" (press returns for the "open access") or possibly (less likely for history) "First Search" through "Connect to Other Resources" in MUSE can also be useful.
D. Major Research:
Now do the bulk of your research. But do not overdo it. Do not fall into the trap of reading and reading to avoid getting started on the writing. After you have the bulk of information you might need, start writing. You can fill in the smaller gaps of your research more effectively later.
Write a preliminary thesis statement, expressing what you believe your major argument(s) will be. Sketch out a broad outline that indicates the structure - main points and subpoints or your argument as it seems at this time. Do not get too detailed at this point.
B. The First Draft:
On the basis of this thesis statement and outline, start writing, even pieces, as soon as you have enough information to start. Do not wait until you have filled all the research gaps. Keep on writing. If you run into smaller research questions just mark the text with a searchable symbol. It is important that you try to get to the end point of this writing as soon as possible, even if you leave pieces still in outline form at first and then fill the gaps after you get to the end.
Critical advice for larger papers:
It is often more effective not to start at the point where the beginning of your paper will be. Especially the introductory paragraph is often best left until later, when you feel ready and inspired.
C. The Second Draft:
The "second draft" is a fully re-thought and rewritten version of your paper. It is at the heart of the writing process.
First, lay your first draft aside for a day or so to gain distance from it. After that break, read it over with a critical eye as you would somebody else's paper (well, almost!). You will probably find that your first draft is still quite descriptive, rather than argumentative. It is likely to wander; your perspective and usually even the thesis seemed to change/develop as you wrote. Don't despair. That is perfectly normal even for experienced writers (even after 40 years and a good deal of published work!). You will be frustrated. But keep questioning your paper along the following lines: What precisely are my key questions? What parts of my evidence here are really pertinent to those questions (that is, does it help me answer them)? How or in what order can I structure my paper most effectively to answer those questions most clearly and efficiently for my reader?
At this point you must outline your paper freshly. Mark up your first draft, ask tough questions whether your argument is clear and whether the order in which you present your points is effective! You must write conceptually a new paper at this point, even if you can use paragraphs and especially quotes, factual data in the new draft.
It is critical that in your new draft your paragraphs start with topic sentences that identify the argument you will be making in the particular paragraph (sometimes this can be strings of two or three paragraphs). The individual steps in your argument must be clearly reflected in the topic sentences of your paragraphs (or a couple of them linked).
D. The Third or Final Draft:
You are now ready to check for basic rules of good writing. This is when you need to check the diction, that is, the accuracy and suitability of words. Eliminate unnecessary passive or awkward noun constructions (active-voice, verbal constructions are usually more effective); improve the flow of your transitions; avoid repetitions or split infinitives; correct apostrophes in possessives and such. Make the style clear and smooth. Check that the start of your paper is interesting for the reader. Last but not least, cut out unnecessary verbiage and wordiness. Spell-check and proof-read.
--Diethelm Prowe, 1998
The samples below represent the five highest scoring samples submitted to the selection committee for the ninth annual graduate student history conference, 2012-2013. Two of the samples below were subsequently selected for publication in the NC State Graduate Journal of History. Outstanding papers presented at the graduate student history conference are recommended for publication by panel commentators. Papers go through a peer review process before publication.
Sample 1: “Asserting Rights, Reclaiming Space: District of Marshpee v. Phineas Fish, 1833-1843”
From May of 1833 to March of 1834, the Mashpee Wampancag tribe of Cape Cod Massachusetts waged an aggressive campaign to gain political and religious autonomy from the state. In March of 1834, the Massachusetts legislature passed an act disbanding the white guardians appointed to conduct affairs for the Mashpee tribe and incorporated Mashpee as an Indian district. The Mashpee tribe's fight to restore self-government and control over land and resources represents a significant "recover of Native space." Equally significant is what happened once that space was recovered.
The topic of this paper addresses an understudied and essential period in the history of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe. Despite a growing body of literature on the Mashpee, scholars largely neglect the period between 1834 and 1869. This paper looks as the Mashpee tribe's campaign to dismiss Harvard appointed minister Phineas Fish; the fight to regain the parsonage he occupied, its resources, and the community meetinghouse. This paper will argue the tribe asserted its power within the political and physical landscape to reclaim their meetinghouse and the parsonage land. Ultimately, this assertion contributed to shaping, strengthening, and remaking Mashpee community identity. This study examines legislative reports, petitions, letters, and legal documents to construct a narrative of Native agency in the antebellum period. [Note: This is part of my larger thesis project (in progress0 "Mashpee Wampanoag Government Formation and the Evolving Community Identity in the District of Marshpee, 1834-1849."]
Note: This paper, entitled "Testing Rights in Contested Space: The District of Marshpee versus Reverend Phineas Fish, 1833-1839" was subsequently selected for publication in the NC State Graduate Journal of History.
Sample 2: “Private Paths to Public Places: Local Actors and the Creation of National Parklands in the American South”
This paper explores the connections between private individuals, government entities, and non-governmental organizations in the creation of parklands throughout the American South. While current historiography primarily credits the federal government with the creation of parks and protection of natural wonders, an investigation of parklands in the Southern United States reveals a reoccurring connection between private initiative and park creation. Secondary literature occasionally reflects the importance of local and non-government sources for the preservation of land, yet these works still emphasize the importance of a national bureaucracy setting the tone fore the parks movement. Some works, including Jacoby's Crimes Against Nature examine local actors, but focus on opposition to the imposition of new rules governing land in the face of some outside threat. In spite of scholarly recognition of non-government agencies and local initiative, the importance of local individuals in the creation of parklands remains and understudies aspect of American environmental history. Several examples in the American South raise concerns about the traditional narrative pitting governmental hegemony against local resistance. This paper argues for widespread, sustained interest in both nature preservation and in creating spaces for public recreation at the local level, and finds that the "private path to public parks" merits further investigation.
Note: This paper, entitled "Private Paths to Public Parks in the American South" was subsequently selected for publication in the NC State Graduate Journal of History.
Sample 3: Untitled
Previous generations of English Historians have produced a rich literature about the Levellers and their role in the English Civil Wars (1642-1649), primarily focused on the Putney Debates and their contributions to Anglophone legal and political thought. Typically, their push to extend the franchise and espousal of a theory of popular sovereignty has been central to accounts of Civil War radicalism. Other revisionist accounts depict them as a fragmented sect of millenarian radicals whose religious bent marginalized and possibility that they could make lasting contributions to English politics or society. This paper seeks to locate a Leveller theory of religious toleration, while explaining how their conception of political activity overlapped their religious ideas. Rather than focusing on John Lilburne, often taken as the public face of the Leveller movement, this paper will focus on the equally interesting and far more consistent thinker, William Walwyn. Surveying his personal background, published writings, popular involvement in the Leveller movement, and attacks launched by his critics, I hope to suggest that Walwyn's unique contribution to Anglophone political thought was his defense of religious pluralism in the face of violent sectarians who sought to wield control of the Church of England. Although the Levellers were ultimately suppressed, Walwyn's commitment to a tolerant society and a secular state should not be minimized but rather recognized as part of a larger debate about Church-State relations across early modern Europe. Ultimately this paper aims to contribute to the rich historiography of religious toleration and popular politics more broadly.
Sample 4: “Establishing a National Memory of Citizen Slaughter: A Case Study of the First Memory Site to Mass Murder in United States History - Edmond, Oklahoma, 1986-1989”
Since 1989, memory sites to events of mass murder have not only proliferated rapidly--they have become the normative expectation within American society. For the vast majority of American history, however, events commonly labeled as "mass murder" have resulted in no permanent memory sites and the sites of perpetration themselves have traditionally been either obliterated or rectified so that both the community and the nation could forget the tragedy and move on. This all changed on May 29, 1989 when the community of Edmond, Oklahoma officially dedicated the "Golden Ribbon" memorial to the thirteen people killed in the infamous "post office shooting" of 1986. In this paper I investigate the case of Edmond in order to understand why it became the first memory site of this kind in United States history. I argue that the small town of Edmond's unique political abnormalities on the day of the shooting, coupled with the near total community involvement established ideal conditions for the emergence of this unique type of memory site. I also conduct a historiography of the usage of "the ribbon" in order to illustrate how it has become the symbol of memories of violence and death in American society in the late 20th century. Lastly, I illustrate how the notable lack of communication between people involved in the Edmond and Oklahoma City cases after the 1995 Murrah Federal Building bombing--despite the close geographic and temporal proximity of these cases--illustrates this routinely isolated nature of commemorating mass murder and starkly renders the surprising number of aesthetic similarities that these memory sites share.
Sample 5: “Roman Urns and Sarcophagi: The Quest for Postmortem Identity during the Pax Romana”
"If you want to know who I am, the answer is ash and burnt embers;" thus read an anonymous early Roman's burial inscription. The Romans dealt with death in a variety of ways which incorporated a range of cultural conventions and beliefs--or non-beliefs as in the case of the "ash and embers." By the turn of the first century of this era, the Romans practiced cremation almost exclusively--as the laconic eloquence of the anonymous Roman also succinctly explained. Cremation vanished by the third century, replaced by the practice of the distant past by the fifth century. Burial first began to take hold in the western Roman Empire during the early second century, with the appearance of finely-crafted sarcophagi, but elites from the Roman world did not discuss the practices of cremation and burial in detail. Therefore archaeological evidence, primarily in form of burial vessels such as urns and sarcophagi represented the only place to turn to investigate the transitional to inhumation in the Roman world. This paper analyzed a small corpus of such vessels in order to identify symbolic elements which demarcate individual identities in death, comparing the patterns of these symbols to the fragments of text available relating to death in the Roman world. The analysis concluded that the transition to inhumantion was a movement caused by an increased desire on the part of Romans to preserve identity in death during and following the Pax Romana.