History Research Paper Series, Part Two: Reading and Research

This post serves as part two of our miniseries on the experience of tackling a history research paper at Centre. Last time (available here), I spoke to the process of choosing a research paper topic that best suits the writer. This time, we’ll discuss how this idea moves into research, and how the writer’s interests should continue to shape and guide the research.

Once a topic idea is in place, the real work begins! Research involves many an evening working through books in the library, JSTOR academic articles, old newspapers, and the like. I personally find that handwriting notes and quotes from each source (with page numbers for easy re-access) can be an effective way to physically hold all of the information in my hands. The process can feel daunting at first, but by approaching the sources with a careful eye to what catches your (the writer’s) interest, the argument can begin to shape up quite nicely.

For example, in my Popular Sport and the Modern World class last spring, I chose to research the Kentucky Derby within the context of the Great Depression. As I began to work through sources with the broad idea of tackling sport during the Depression era, I quickly discovered that studying the economic history of the era did not interest or excite me in the least bit.

However, I found that I was more drawn to the behaviors and culture of the people living through this fascinating era and how sport managed to play into that. As I perused books, the Kentucky Derby caught my attention, because I felt the Derby would provided a unique chance to look into a defining state tradition that I had not examined. The traditions around the Kentucky Derby are so established and identifiable, and I knew that it would provide me to examine the culture surrounding it–a point of interest I discovered in preliminary research. I wanted to know: how did the Kentucky Derby outlast the Great Depression?

In my paper, I had the opportunity to argue that the Derby created a specific sense of place, a distinct Kentucky-ness that appealed directly to the turmoils and uncertainties of the time. I also looked into the rise of Derby fashion and the physical divide of social class in the stadium—all components that caught my eye as I read through sources.

In short, the process of research can and should guide the writer more than the writer should guide the research. By looking critically into the areas that catch one’s interest, research can feel more like a meaningful exploration than a burden. It is time-consuming work, but finding what speaks to the individual will make a significant difference.

Next week, we’ll discuss the importance of professor communication throughout the process of writing the paper, as well as general takeaways at the completion of paper writing. Professor-student relationships make Centre a dynamic place to learn, especially when tackling tasks like research papers.


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