History Research Paper Series, Part One: Topic Exploration

As a liberal arts institution, Centre is well known for shaping well-rounded students with its broad-reaching curriculum. As a part of that experience, every student at Centre is expected to take a survey course in World or United States history, classes that typically require a research paper due at the end of the term.

History research papers in these classes and upper-level classes within the major seem to generate an interesting mixture of feelings among Centre students. For those for whom writing is more a chore than a delight, history  papers can create a sense of anxiety or frustration—but it doesn’t have to be this way! Certainly, they do require the consultation of a variety of sources, the ups and downs of articulating the perfect thesis, and a few (or more) drafts of revision to finish them just right.

I am biased, perhaps, but I have found the process of history research paper writing to be among the most meaningful projects I have undertaken at Centre. With a bit of grit and regular check-ins with one’s professor, I think anyone can find these papers to be a valuable experience—whether a history major or not.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be speaking to different facets of the paper writing experience in a generally chronological order. This week, we’ll discuss topic selection, the very first step of the process. A good topic is essential to writing a paper you can enjoy (because you’ll be spending a lot of time with it!).

History research papers at Centre allow for a special amount of flexibility that other disciplines may not be able to allow in the same way. In history survey classes, for example, students can write about the topic they choose (within reason), so long as it falls within the time period of the class. That can allow for, quite literally, hundreds of years of people and happenings from which to choose! These papers allow you to focus in on a particular niche that the writer can find deeply interesting, and professors are happy to help target what that could be for the individual. The expectation is not that one will write a summary of what happened in a particular war or event or person’s life. Rather, these papers require writers to focus in, critically assess, and craft an effective argument.

For example, my Colonial America class’s largest paper was a biography paper, which allowed us to work with a figure of our choice from the time period. I chose to write about John Adams, and instead of attempting to assess his entire life in an eight to twelve page paper (impossible, and ineffective), I zoomed in on the final years of his life and argued how I felt he may have grappled with his complex legacy. I felt I had the opportunity to get to know President Adams in a specific yet detailed way, and it was truly interesting.

Topic selection can be a meaningful chance to broadly assess a topic and to pull out the threads that the writer personally finds most interesting. As the writer will be spending a lot of time with the topic they choose, it is important to look for the pieces that catch the individual’s eye and interests.

With this in mind, we’ll look forward to jumping into the research process and the building of the argument/thesis next time. Happy writing!

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