Research and Writing Resources
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I've found an original issue to research on.  How can I make sure my topic is manageable?

How can I expand a too-narrow topic or one on which there isn't enough research?
What if I need to change my paper topic?
What is a question/controversy/problem of study and why is it useful?
How can I find a question/controversy/problem of study?
What is a hypothesis?

Choose a concise and contained topic to facilitate an enjoyable writing experience .” Matt Scalzi, J400 student, Spring 2005.

It is critical that your paper topic and problem are well focused.  It will make your research manageable and therefore allow for a more profound analysis of the problem you want to study.

Thus:

  1. If the topic that you have chosen is so huge that going over it in 20 pages would cover barely a summary of it, then this is not a topic that you want to pursue for a thoughtful essay.  See some examples below.
  2. Within the page limit imposed by the instructor, try to find a topic that is narrow enough and that has particular sources from which it can be studied.  Think about an issue that you can analyze in depth given the sources available and within the space available.

Too Broad

More manageable

Harriet Jacobs' life story

Is there a specific female-slave experience? This paper will compare the slave narratives by two female and two male slaves.

The condition of women during the Holocaust and slavery in Latin America

Daily forms of resistance by women during the Holocaust and Slavery in Latin America.

Slave laws in Latin America

A study of a treaty by runaway slaves in early 19th century Bahia, Brazil.

Slave and religion in Latin America

What role did voodoo play in the Haitian revolution?

The abolition of slavery in Latin America

A study of the historiography on abolition in Brazil

It is not difficult to narrow your topic especially if you have many sources for a particular topic.  Think about what are some issues that you enjoy learning about.  Is there a particular perspective you can take?  Are there sources from which you can study that topic from that particular perspective?  Go to the library, study your topic beginning with a more general book and then go to more specialized ones; talk to the subject librarian about sources, meet with the professor, and follow the leads suggested by all of them.  The most successful papers are usually those whose focus was well established early in the semester.

How can I expand a too-narrow topic or one on which there isn't enough research?

There can also be the situation in which the topic you selected is too narrow and/or there is not enough research.  In these cases, what can you do?

  1. Take a comparative approach.  See if you can expand your topic by comparing it to a similar one in another place or time. Comparative approaches are usually very interesting and can reveal a lot about a topic, but they need to be carefully crafted.  You need to make sure that you have used good logic in finding a strong common denominator for the comparisons that you want to make.
  2. If there are secondary sources (books written about a particular issue or event), see if these include primary sources or excerpts coming from primary sources (documents closer to the event/issue that is being studied) within them that you can interpret in a different light.  You may be able to use those in your paper.
  3. You need to assess the viability of your paper topic during the first weeks of the semester.  If after much consultation and research you arrive at a dead end, this may be a signal that you need to change your topic.

What if I need to change my paper topic?

That is usually fine, but do it early in the semester.  Most professors would rather have you change your topic than seeing you still struggling with the search for sources by the middle of the semester.  So the advice is that you do it early and in consultation with the instructor.

Once you have a topic that is narrow enough and particular sources to do that research you need to think about what specific issue/question/controversy or problem of study will guide your inquiry.

What is a question/controversy/problem of study and why is it useful?

Historians should not get lost in the mere recompilation of names, dates, numbers, and policies, but instead should formulate a problem that will give sense and structure to the facts and information.  Having a question/controversy/problem of study helps researchers to stay focused.

Examples:

Too Broad

More manageable

Possible Question/Problem of Study

Harriet Jacobs' life story

Is there a specific female-slave experience?  This paper will compare the slave narratives by two female and two male slaves.

Is Harriet Jacobs' account much different from male slaves' accounts?  Why? [1]

The condition of women during the Holocaust and slavery in Latin America

Daily forms of resistance by women during the Holocaust and Slavery in Latin America.

In which specific ways did women resist oppressive political, social and economic situations during the Holocaust and slavery in Latin America?

Slave laws in Latin America

A study of a treaty by runaway slaves in early 19th century Bahia, Brazil.

Did slaves in Bahia have a sense of rights? Why?

Slave and religion in Latin America

What role did voodoo play in the Haitian revolution?

How did voodoo contribute to the spark of the Haitian Revolution?

The Haitian Revolution

White planters' attitudes versus the ideals of the French Revolution

In a world where the wealthy white planters of Haiti were surrounded by the ideals of the French Revolution (fraternity, liberty and equality), what motivated them to hold steadfast to the institution of slavery and even give their lives for that control?

The abolition of slavery in Latin America

A study of the historiography on abolition in Brazil

What are the most important causes that explain the abolition of slavery in Brazil according to authors who published about this from the 1920s to the present?

How can I find a question/controversy/problem of study?

This is one of the most critical and difficult parts of doing research because you may know that your topic involves a problem or controversy and still have trouble identifying it.  Here are some possible strategies:

•  Write down on a paper all of the questions that interest you and that come to mind as you read the secondary and primary sources.  Then, try to group those that are similar.  For each group of similar questions, eliminate those that are repetitive and re-write others so that you can come up with one or two questions that can't be combined.  

•  Read historiographical essays (essays that critically evaluate the works that have been written about a particular subject) about the topic that you are interested.  These essays usually signal areas needed for further research. Give priority to essays that have been written fairly recently yet do not disregard old ones; they may provide some ideas, too. How do I find sources for my paper?

•  Bring those questions to the professor and discuss them with him/her.

Historians transform topics into questions/controversies/problems of study and seek out “solutions” that will be expressed in tentative answers, as hypotheses.

What is a hypothesis?

•  According to the Longman Dictionary of English , a hypothesis is “an idea which is suggested as a possible way of explaining facts, providing an argument, etc.”

•  Therefore, once you have your question or problem, you have to think, based on your sources, “what is the possible answer/solution to that problem?”  How can you explain the solution to your problem of study with your available sources?  Why?

•  With these questions, ideas, and possible hypotheses in mind, you can go to do your research.  It is very important to have these questions and hypotheses clear because they will help to keep you focused.  It may not be a bad idea to keep them with you on a piece of paper in front of you as you do your research.

•  Of course, you may find while doing research that you need to refine those questions and hypotheses, and this is just fine.  You may find yourself doing this quite often.  Do not fall in despair; this may just mean that your ideas are maturing, and evolving.

•  Examples: [2]

Possible Question/Problem of Study

Possible Hypothesis

Is Harriet Jacobs' account much different from other male slaves accounts?  Why?

There are major differences in the ways in which Jacobs writes her account when compared to males basically because of the double oppression that she lived as being both a woman and a slave.

In which specific ways did women resist oppressive political, social and economic situations during the Holocaust and slavery in Latin America?

Women in both the Holocaust and during slavery in Latin America resisted oppressive measures in covert ways.

Did slaves in Bahia have a sense of rights? Why?

Yes, slaves had an unfounded sense of rights.  They wanted to achieve freedom.

How did voodoo contribute to the spark of the Haitian Revolution?

Religion was pivotal in the planning and outcome of the Haitian Revolution.

In a world where the wealthy white planters of Haiti were surrounded by the ideals of the French Revolution (fraternity, liberty and equality), what motivated them to hold steadfast to the institution of slavery and even give their lives for that control?

The answer is money.  They were interested more in financial well being than in the ideals of the French Revolution.

What are the most important causes that explain the abolition of slavery in Brazil according to authors who published about this from the 1920s to the present?

The work done by the Brazilian and British abolitionists and the end of the slave trade are the most important reasons for most authors.

  Once you have identified what specifically you are researching on you can immerse yourself in the research.

I have my sources, my problem of study and hypothesis.  Where do I go from here?


[1] These examples are drawn from the following papers produced for the Spring J400, Slavery in Latin America : Abbey Torres, “Harriet Jacobs and Mary Prince: Their Narratives and Gender Issues”; Alissa Cohen,  “Women Slaves and Resistance: Latin America and Nazi Germany”; David White, “Brazilian Slave Rights:  Turn of the Late 18 th Century Bahia”;  Phillip R. Moeller, “Religion and Revolution: Understanding the Relationship of Voodoo and The Haitian Revolution of 1971-1804”; Amanda M Trost, “Fighting a Revolution: White Resistance to Slave Uprising and Emancipation in Sainte Domingue, 1791-1804”; Margot Gendreau, “Where the Historiography Falls Short: A Look at the Brazilian Abolitionist Movement and its Effect on Emancipation.”

[2] These examples are drawn from the following papers produced for the Spring J400, Slavery in Latin America : Abbey Torres, “Harriet Jacobs and Mary Prince: Their Narratives and Gender Issues”;  Alissa Cohen,  “Women Slaves and Resistance: Latin America and Nazi Germany;”  David White, “Brazilian Slave Rights:  Turn of the Late 18th Century Bahia”;  Phillip R. Moeller, “Religion and Revolution: Understanding the Relationship of Voodoo and The Haitian Revolution of 1971-1804”; Amanda M Trost, “Fighting a Revolution: White Resistance to Slave Uprising and Emancipation in Sainte Domingue, 1791-1804”; Margot Gendreau, “Where the Historiography Falls Short: A Look at the Brazilian Abolitionist Movement and its Effect on Emancipation.”