Second Paper: Research Paper

Dr. Holland, HIST 1493-030

Your second paper is a 2000-word research paper or seven to eight double-spaced pages. In the process of writing this paper you will learn and then demonstrate the essential skills of the historian: 1) defining a research question, 2) gathering evidence, 3) interpreting sources, and 4) presenting an argument about the significance of your findings.

You will have homework assignments throughout the second half of the semester that help you prepare for this paper, which will be a part of your final grade. You will turn in a hard copy of this final paper at the beginning of lecture on Tuesday November 27, and submit an electronic copy on Canvas.


Process and Deadlines:

Your TAs will guide you through the process of researching and writing these papers in discussion section, beginning with the process of defining your topic using the material on the course website. Each piece of the paper has assignments that count toward your grade. The process looks like this:

  • By your section meeting in Week 9 (Oct. 18-19) you must select a paper topic and develop a research plan. How will you find sources? How will you build knowledge around your topic?
  • In Week 11 (Nov. 1- 2) you will submit an annotated bibliography on the sources that you plan to use in your paper. The bibliography should include at least 5-7 primary sources and 2 secondary sources. You must “annotate” this list by providing one or two sentences summarizing each source, indicate how they relate to your topic, and suggest how you will use them. This is worth 50 points.
  • In Week 12 (Nov. 5-9) Turn in a first draft of your essay’s introductory paragraph and an outline for the paper. This is worth 50 points.
  • Your final paper is due November 27 (Week 15) in class. You will turn in a hard copy in class and a digital copy on Canvas. The final draft is worth 150 points.


There many ways to go about finding a topic. First, survey the possible sources from the ExploreHistory website of primary source collections. There is a LOT of material there so spend some time looking. It is organized by time period, so the most recent topics are at the end. These materials, produced by people living long ago, connect us directly to the past. What kinds of sources look intriguing and connect to you in a personal way? What grabs your interest in lectures or the reading? Explore these collections to find a topic that interests you and consult with me or with your TA about identifying good topics. As you get a feel for the sources in the collections that most interest you, identify a specific set of sources on a particular topic, theme, or event. Once you have narrowed down your area of focus, continue your research into secondary sources for historical background and context for your analysis.

Below are six different examples how you could develop a broad topic into research questions using primary materials available here. These are only a few examples and you can write about anything in U.S. History between 1865 and 2001. Answering your own research question using both materials from the past and scholarship from the present will form the argument of the paper you present.

The first four examples are taken directly from the collections of historical materials we have collected at the ExploreHistory website of primary source collections. I strongly encourage you to use a collection from the website.

Example A: I’m very interested in the history of public school education. I saw a collection of materials about Indian Boarding schools. What kinds of curriculums did those schools have? Did students at the Carlisle school learn different things from other students in other schools in the 1920s?


Example B: I’m very interested in World War 2. I’m curious about the effects it had on families at home. I saw a collection about advertising during WWII with newspapers and popular magazines. How did rationing and government controls on industry affect advertising? OR I saw a collection about the Battle of Midway. How did people at find out how battles in the Pacific War were going? Did newspapers do accurate reporting even when the news was bad?


Example C: I’m very interested in medicine and health. I saw collection about the American Eugenics Society and I’m curious how scientists in the U.S. could have believed the same racist ideas that led to Hitler’s effort to eliminate the Jews in Europe. Where did those ideas about genetics come from? How did scientists defend them?


Example D: I’m very interested in the issue of mass incarceration in the present. Michelle Alexander claims that this is a new form of racial segregation that came out of the 1970s and 1980s drug wars. Could the problem have begun sooner? Could the material around the 1931 case against the wrongly accused and hung Scottsboro boys explain what kinds of crime sent Black men to prison in the 1930s?


These next examples build out of personal interest and then consider how to use historical evidence available on various databases or at Special Collections at OU.


Example E. I’m interested in the student activism. Could I examine the African American Civil Rights Movement; the Native American Movement; the Gay Rights Movement; or the Vietnam War. Were these movements reported differently in student and local papers vs. the national newspapers?


Finally, you could use your own family history as a starting point for this paper. Family histories can provide historian with fascinating insights into the past and can add a personal element that brings the past to life in vivid ways. You can use family stories to add a personal dimension to materials you find on the website.


Example F: My grandfather served in Vietnam. I’d like to find out more about his experience as a soldier in the later years of the war. I would like to interview him and then look at some of the oral history collections on the website. I’m curious if his experiences are similar to others. Did soldiers who served later in the war feel less certain about their role in the war or less welcome when they came home?




You will need to build a base of knowledge around your subject as you begin to read historical materials about it. You need to know who, what, where, when, and eventually how and why. Start with online encyclopedias to get the first sense of what you need to find out. However, those are only very first steps. Use those sources to find other, better, more specific scholarly sources that are required for this essay. You’ll need two or three excellent scholarly books or articles to provide background and context for your research, but it may take you a while to find the right ones.


Collect and take notes on your primary materials. The number of primary sources you’ll need will vary a lot by subject, but 5-7 at a minimum that give you about 50 pages of material to work with. Make sure you have a system for keeping track of what you’ve looked at and that you make note of how to cite these sources in your paper. What sources seem persuasive? Which need back up and checking? You’ll likely gather far more than you actually use in the paper because not all of your sources will end up being useful to answering your specific question.



Thesis and Introduction: A strong thesis goes beyond simply reporting what you found; it uses the evidence to broaden, qualify, or even contradict our understanding of an important theme in U.S. history. Your thesis may emerge gradually as you wrestle with your documents in early drafts. In your finished paper, however, feature your thesis in the introduction. See Thesis Statement tutorial.

Using Quotations: Most of a history essay should consist of “evidence paragraphs,” which develop and support the thesis with quotations. Quote when you’ve made an assertion your reader is unlikely to accept without proof. After you quote, always explain: tell your reader what the implications are that might not be obvious and try to imagine how someone might not agree with your reading of the material and the quotation. See the online tutorial.

Structure: As your paragraphs begin to emerge from this process of working the evidence, unify each one with a topic sentence, and arrange them in a sequence that builds toward your strongest claims. Your finished essay should thus feature a clearly sign-posted order as it advances from the introduction through your body paragraphs and, finally, to your conclusion.

Citations should include properly formatted footnotes that use Chicago Style. The paper should be double-spaced and typed in 12-point font with one-inch margins and page numbers. Students should consult the Chicago Manual of Style as they compose footnotes. Helpful guidelines for Chicago-style citations can be found here:

The assignment is worth 25% of your total course grade. So take it seriously and begin early. Decide on a topic as early as you can. Meet with your TA or with your professor and do so early in the process. This project has the potential to be a foundational experience for you, one that will improve your critical thinking, research and writing skills and benefit your entire degree program.