420: Research Project '23

Library Project: Uncovering the National Conversation 

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As we’ve learned this year, historians draw from many different kinds of historical materials, including primary sources (contemporary with your subject) and secondary sources (written long after the fact, with the benefit of historical perspective).  As we’ll explore in this project, period magazines and newspapers are particularly valuable primary sources, reflecting how historical personas, phenomena, and events were discussed and understood during their day.

For this assignment, you will use primary source periodicals to research an event, idea, episode or individual we’ve encountered this term.  Your task is to bring to life how nation experienced an event while it was happening: how was the event represented in the presses of their day--how it was discussed and aired in the court of public opinion.

You will NOT be determining the cause of the even, or it's impact.  You won't be writing about the event itself, really, but about the reaction to the event. 

In addition to using periodical sources, you will also use secondary sources like reference sources, overviews, and monographs to understand the event, provide background, context, and perhaps to see how the presses distorted reality. You may also be able to use the primary sources to provide some of this context as well.  But make sure you provide enough background and context so that the story makes sense to your reader.  You can often pack this contextual information into the cracks of your essay, or into footnotes, rather than in long (often tedious) background paragraphs at the  start of the essay.

The assignment focuses on research and writing skills, so it’s okay to write an interpretive narrative, an explanatory piece, or a study of a personality (but not a biography!); this is not a standard persuasive essay.  Instead, think of it this way: these newspaper and magazine authors have spent years trapped in PEA library databases, and your job is to let their vivid, compelling voices speak to us, and to interpret what they show us about our national conversation.  Your own voice will be used for explanation, summary, introduction, context, and occasional commentary; you will frame and contextualize those voices, putting them in dialogue with each other, and then commenting on what they had to say, and on what we can learn from what they had to say. Think of yourself as an informed guide to these voices and sources from the past.

Given that the substance of your paper will be vivid, descriptive quotes from the newspapers and magazines of the era, you will want to quote extensively, probably more than you would in a more typical historical essay.  Good papers will show a command of newspaper and magazine sources, and excellent papers will also draw connections between your sources and the larger history of the period, showing, for example, how the sinking of the Lusitania propelled the U.S. toward war, or how Hemingway’s fiction conveyed the postwar era’s disillusionment with American ideals.  But despite its focus and direction, this essay is freer in form than you may have written this year.  While your interpretive voice will frame and organize the essay, you might not necessarily need the kind of formal, directive thesis you’ve perfected in earlier papers.

Paper Length: 5-7 pages.  Note: longer is not better and in a research paper, it's often worse.  For example, if you only use the minumum of 6 sources you can't possibly write a decent 7-page paper because you will end up making claims that are supported by too-little evidence. If you want to impress me with extra work, do extra research, not extra writing.

Process: Begin by making a plan. Note the schedule as outlined on the syllabus and the deadlines you will have to meet.  How many days are allotted for the project? How will you manage to write 5 decent (not perfect) pages by the due date of the ROUGH DRAFT. Make a timeline for yourself and create your own intermediate deadline for the following milestones: Choosing a topic; gathering secondary sources; reading at least six periodical articles; beginning to write your draft.  

Choosing a topic: When you walk into the library on the first day, you should already have your topic selected and done some basic research on it in reference sources. You may choose from lists of key terms I've given you, or things mentioned in the readings. I have a long list of topic ideas here.  A good way to look for a topic is to browse through the reference books in the History Alcove of the library.  As always, the narrower the topic, the richer and better the essay is likely to be (this is a monograph, not an overview or a text book).  A list of prospective topics (in no particular order) from the late 19th and early 20th centuries follows at the end of this assignment. Once you've nailed it down tell me your topic. 

Refining the topic: fill in the blanks in this sentence to help yourself understand what you paper is really about. 

Citations: You will use FULL FORM footnotes in the Chicago/Turabian format, and submit a bibliography as well.  I will give you a handout with guidance on citation formatting. The Libguide also has a tab with citation information.

Rough draft: By the time we get to the rough draft conference you should have produced a full draft of a paper, nearly complete, needing only revision. that's all you will have time left to do.  By this time you will have used up most of your release time so you should be far along in your research and writing.  Some tips:

Minimum Source Requirements

1-2 Reference Sources

1-2 Overviews. Use a volume from the Oxford History of the United States series if there's one on your period or topic, e.g., Richard White, The Republic for Which it Stands, which is a chronological overview. Other overviews are listed on the libguide books tab) or Sara Evans, Born for Liberty, is a thematic overview.  Thematic surveys follow one theme through all of American history. Here are a few: From Colony to Superpower (foreign policy), The Way we Never Were (families), Intimate Matters (sexuality), There is Power in a Union (labor), Children of Fire (African American history), People's History of the Supreme Court, Different Mirror (immigrants), Strangers in the Land (nativism). The Right to Vote (voting rights). 

3 Monographs: Books or scholarly journal articles (use JSTOR to find them) narrowly focused on your topic.

6 -   primary sources: Use the library databases to conduct your research: https://libguides.exeter.edu/subjects. Six useful articles is the minimum number, but you may need more depending on what you find and what is in them. You can't base a paper on six articles that don't  give you anything to write about.  And know that 6 sources, or 16 or even 60 will not support a claim about the state of American "public opinion" or "what America thought."  If you are writing a paper longer than five pages you will certainly need MORE than six. 

Researching the topic

It's always advisable to begin your research with a reference source or two. For example, if you choose George Creel and the Committee on Public Information but know little or nothing about either, read the Creel entry in American National Biography and the CPI entry in the Encyclopedia of American History. You should then consult a monograph on your specific subject, or a more general history (overview/survey) covering the period you’re investigating.  Then, when you are clear about the big picture, go to the periodicals.  You must use at least four primary sources, although if your primary sources aren’t lengthy, you might well need more to paint a full picture. It is critical that you choose a topic for which you can find good sources.  Before committing to a topic, make sure the sources will enable you to enjoy it! 

Links to other resources on this website: 

Link to links about research

Citation Formatting Guide

How to cite sources

Topic Ideas

Formulating a research question

Elsewhere: Libguides

Sources to consider:

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