Academic Papers

I. The Structure and Content of a Paper

(1) question and thesis (2) argument (3) conclusion

II. Sources

The sources for a research paper may be primary (original), secondary (interpretations by scholars), or a combination of both. You will need to conduct bibliographical searches as you define your topic and then at various other points as you refocus and refine you argument.

The number of sources you use will depend entirely on your topic, question, and approach. There is no set formula. If you concentrate on a single text, for example, the number of sources you use beyond that text may be relatively small. Other topics necessarily demand a breadth of reading. Often you will simply use chapters or portions of books or journal articles. You should read the materially carefully and thoughtfully, but recognize that you may save time by using table of contents and indices wisely. You may use textbooks, encyclopedias, and dictionaries for reference, but it is expected that the bulk of your argument will be based on either primary sources or scholarly articles and books.

III. Scope

The scope of your topic may be highly focused, very broad, or somewhere in between. The scope is not the principal measure of whether a topic is sufficiently open-ended or whether it is manageable. A paper on a single canto of Dante's Comedy may supply a wide-range of substantive questions leading to different interpretations. On the other hand, a paper topic of considerable breadth, like the decline of the Ming and triumph of the Ch'ing dynasties, may be focused and manageable. The key determinant for success in addressing a large questions is whether there are sources that directly address the question. A topic such as the decline of the Ming and triumph of the Ch'ing could not be done unless there are scholarly studies that have already directly tackled that issue. To delve into the mass of primary sources and smaller-scale secondary sources on the topic, even assuming knowledge of the language and availability of sources, would be an impossible task. If, however, there are secondary sources that treat the topic in a comprehensive manner, then the topic is manageable.

IV. Selecting a Topic

The goal is to select a topic that is both substantive and manageable. There are two general approaches to choosing a topic in history.

(1) The first is rather traditional. Select a general area or topic that interests you, read more about it, and then gradually develop a well-defined topic and question. The scope of the topic may remain quite broad, or it may become narrowly focused, to the point even of being based on primary sources. Again the availability of appropriate sources is of critical importance. Often, you will be faced with a number of viable options. Those interested in the witch hunts of Early Modern Europe, for example, will find several studies that offer comprehensive interpretations of the big picture--the rise, proliferation, and decline of the hunts. While a topic of such breadth is possible, further reading may suggest to you more focused, thematic topics dealing with the witch-hunts such as the relationship between women victims of the hunts and early modern perceptions of women or the debate among early modern intellectuals about the reality of witchcraft.

(2) The second is to focus on a single text (or perhaps two or three). When you pose questions of the text, you may concentrate primarily on questions whose answers are found either within the text itself or, alternatively, in the relationship between the text and context. Thus, a paper on John Locke's Second Treatise of Government, for example, could focus solely on questions derived from Locke's argument as developed in the text. Or it could explore the relationship between Locke's theory and previous theories against which Locke is responding (a key part of the intellectual context) or between Locke's theory and the political events of Locke's time (the political context).

If you choose to focus on a single text, you first need to master the text, developing a solid understanding of its purpose, structure, logic, and themes. You should also need to read secondary interpretations of the text, and you should at least familiarize yourself with the historical context using secondary sources since and understanding of context may hel you frame "internal" questions. If your are concentrating on the relationship between text and context, you will need to undertake a more systematic and comprehensive review of secondary literature examining the author's audience and purpose and the wider historical context.

V. Redefining and Refining

In the early stages of research, it is sufficient that you identify a topic that will lend itself to analysis and interpretation. It is generally helpful to identify an overarching question and a potential thesis, but typically questions and theses change as work progresses. Often it is only at the end, after your argument has been redefined and reworked many times, that the "right" formulation of the question and thesis becomes clear.

Effective writing takes work. You will always be rethinking, remodelling, and rewriting, and you will constantly need to find new sources and undertake more research. As your argument takes shape, however, your work becomes more focused. You may need to conduct more research, but you know exactly what kind of evidence or context you need. You may need to rework or clarify a section of your argument, but you can isolate the paragraph or sentences that need to be reworked.

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