On this final installment of the three part miniseries on the process and experience of tackling history research papers at Centre College (the other components of the series touch on topic exploration and the research process). This week, we’ll be touching on the importance of turning to your professor for support during the duration of the paper writing experience. As Centre is a small liberal arts college with an eye toward positive, constructive professor-student relationships, research paper writing can prove a very navigable process if one is willing to take initiative.
Whether the writer considers the paper a painful chore or a unique opportunity for focused analysis and argumentation, all can find comfort in Centre history professors’ willingness to help during every step of the process (I certainly do!).
I found my very first paper within the history program–for Development of the Modern World II–to be the most challenging. It was my first semester of college, and I was still adjusting to college-level work expectations while learning the ins and outs of effectively researching and sustaining an argument through the expected paper length. I had written papers, sure, but their length and scope paled in comparison. I wasn’t even sure how to insert a footnote–much less how to craft a vibrant thesis statement that could sustain ten pages of writing, or to build an effective historiography.
Luckily, my professor was willing to work with me page by page (in fact, even line by line), assisting with questions about format and bibliography to argument and thesis polishing. We started an interactive Word document so that I could submit drafts and he could specifically make note of weak points in the argument, in structural mishaps in the positioning of primary source photographs to the page (something I had never done before), and provide a myriad of other pointers and pieces of advice. When I gathered possible source options or broad ideas for the paper topic, he listened and sharpened and challenged my ideas. I felt free to ask both macro and micro questions–and, as you may find, you’ll have a mixture of both as you go along.
I have found that there is no question too broad or too specific. The more I ask, the more I learn about effectively and efficiently completing the process. With time and experience, research papers do grow easier, and even then professors continue to serve as vital resources for tweaking and mastering the product. For example, I completed my second historiography (for Dr. Harney’s Popular Sport and the Modern World class, as a matter of fact!) in at least one third of the time it took to write the first one. It gets easier!
Faculty are also an immensely helpful resource when selecting useful sources for the paper. They can suggest secondary sources they have worked with in the past, suggest helpful databases, and even scour the library holdings for possible options. Effective source material is key to writing a strong paper, and history faculty do not intend to keep students in the dark about where and how to look.
For example, when I wrote my term paper for Dr. Strauch’s Development of the United States class, she pushed me to avoid older secondary source books and scholarship. By working within the most modern scholarship possible, I learned the value of seeing my own voice and my own argument as a part (even if small) in the modern dialogue around the topic. History studies the past, sure, but our assessment of it is always changing and moving forward.
With all of this in mind, it is absolutely essential to begin researching, writing, and questioning early. Regular office hour drop-ins/appointments allow you, as the writer, to get to know the professor better and learn from their expertise. This time investment also virtually guarantees a boost to the quality of the final product. You may be surprised by how much faculty are willing to help you—you just have to ask! By waiting until the end of the term to start the paper, frustration and disappointment are guaranteed to ensue. It is essential to take initiative.
And when the process does end (whether it was a process one loved or one hated), I find that it is deeply rewarding to reflect on the final paper product. I remember what I learned from history research papers long after the due date passes because of the intense way we are expected to work with the material. It is hard work, to be sure, but with proper planning and regular check-ins with the instructor, research papers can arguably prove a positive (even pleasant!) task, even for homework. However, it is most rewarding when the paper is treated as a multi-part process. I feel confident submitting my paper when I know my professor has actively assisted and guided it. I know then that I have truly learned.
Regardless, the due date does come and go; no paper lasts forever!
Good luck, and happy writing!