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
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, I have provided links to .pdf versions of each handout, which may
be printed out and xeroxed free of charge. I have also provided a .pdf version
of the guides as a whole. ("PDF" stands for "portable document
format"; .pdf files can be easily read using Adobe's Acrobat Reader, which
can be downloaded for free by clicking
here.) And please let me know how the guides could be more useful. I would
be happy to know what works for you.