For all who have taken history courses in college, the experience of writing a research paper is etched indelibly in memory: late nights before the paper is due, sitting in pale light in front of a computer monitor or typewriter, a huge stack of books (most of them all-too-recently acquired) propped next to the desk, drinking endless cups of coffee or bottles of Jolt cola. Most of all, we remember the endless, panicked wondering: how on earth was something coherent going to wind up on the page – let alone fill eight, or ten, or twelve of them? After wrestling with material for days, the pressure of the deadline and level of caffeine in the body rise enough, and pen is finally put to paper. Many hours later, a paper is born – all too often something students are not proud to hand in, and something professors dread grading. “Whatever does not kill us makes us stronger.” While Nietzsche may sometimes have been right, he likely did not have writing history papers in mind. On the contrary, I sometimes wonder if students’ bad experiences writing papers does not drive some them away from history. How can we make this process less traumatic, more educational, and ultimately more rewarding for all concerned?
The assignment of preparing a research paper for a college-level history course is an important one which should not be neglected. In no other endeavor are so many history-related skills required of students. Just think of the steps required:
First, students must find a historical problem worth addressing. This is done most often by reading and comparing secondary history sources, such as monographs and journal articles. Simply finding relevant secondary materials requires its own particular set of skills in using the library: searching catalogs, accessing on-line databases, using interlibrary loan, and even knowing how to pose questions to reference librarians. Reading these sources, determining their arguments, and putting them in conversation with each other constitute another broad set of skills which are enormously difficult to master.
Second, having developed a historical problem, students must find a set of primary historical sources which can actually address the question they have formulated. Once again, this is no easy task. It requires another array of skills in using the library. Students must know how to message the on-line library catalog, and perhaps even (gasp!) use the card catalog. They must be willing to explore the stacks, learn to use special collections, travel off-campus to new libraries, or interview informants. This kind of primary source research demands a diligence and persistence rare in these days of easy Internet access.
Finally, students must put all this information together and actually produce knowledge. They must craft a paper wherein they pose a clear historical problem and then offer a thesis addressing it. In a well-structured, grammatically correct essay, they must work their way through an argument without falling into common historical fallacies. They must match evidence to argument, subordinate little ideas to big ones, and anticipate and pre-empt challenges to their argument.
Phew! It is little wonder that college history students, especially first-years and non-majors, can find the research paper assignment so traumatic. It doesn’t help that history professors often have trouble teaching the essay-preparation process. This is understandable. History professors often represent that portion of the undergraduate population that “got it”; we are the students who somehow, often in spite of our professors, learned how to “do history.” Having received the information virtually through osmosis, we often do not understand how we think about the history-writing process, let alone how to teach it. By and large, we follow the advice of shoe companies and “just do it.”
Most students do not have it so easy. Many do not have the innate passion for the past which propelled history teachers over their steep learning curve. Many do not have learning styles which make them likely candidates for the “osmosis” technique many of us used. These students deserve every opportunity to succeed, and it is important that they do. Even those with little apparent interest in the past need to approach what they read with a critical, analytical eye. In this age of information overload, they need to know how to pose critical questions, uncover the data which can answer their queries, and present their findings to themselves, their employers, and to the world at large.
This set of guides was prepared with these thoughts in mind. In it, I have compiled a wide-ranging set of materials I share with my students at Bowdoin. Not all of the ideas here are my own: some are fairly standard bits of wisdom, others were offered by a very talented and generous group of colleagues, including Betty Dessants, Nicola Denzey, Liz Hutchison, and Susan Tananbaum. I have divided the material into several categories: there are chapters on reading primary and secondary historical sources, the nature of historical arguments, the research process, structuring history papers, writing papers, working with sources, and editing and evaluating our own historical writing. The last chapter includes handouts to accompany a presentation I give on the writing process. You’ll find many of the ideas repeated in several sections – such as what makes a good thesis. The more I teach, the more it seems that good reading, writing, and evaluating and are deeply linked. I hope that this holistic approach comes through.
Please incorporate these guides into your own teaching or writing as you see fit. You may freely reproduce any part of this website for your students – I ask only that you properly cite the source. For those who wish to share parts of this guide with students, you can create .pdf versions of each handout, which may be printed out and xeroxed free of charge. And please let me know how the guides could be more useful. I would be happy to know what works for you.