In this course you get to write an original research paper, using primary source material, of approximately 2,000 words or seven to eight double-spaced pages. By writing this paper you will learn and 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. This paper is not a report, surveying what we know about a topic, it is a research paper, analyzing data from the past to answer a research question.

Each of the steps above has specific homework that will move your thinking and research along. Unlike the first paper when we provided you with a set of primary sources, the second paper requires you to define a topic of deep personal interest and to find sources to illuminate it. Choosing a topic and developing a research question that focuses that topic into a useful research question are big challenges.

Process and Deadlines:

Your GTAs 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.

  • Week 9 (Oct. 17-19) you must select a paper topic and develop a research plan. How will you find sources? How will you build knowledge around your topic?
  • Week 10 (Oct 24-26) you should meet with your GTA to discuss your research progress and to move from a topic of interest to a researchable question.
  • Week 11 (Oct. 31-Nov. 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.
  • Week 12 (Nov. 7- 9) you must submit a draft of your introductory paragraph (approximately 200-300 words), including your thesis statement.
  • Week 14 your final research paper must be submitted via the assignment link in Canvas on Wednesday November 21 by 12:30 PM.  No class that day. . . just turn in your paper .

The assignment is worth more than ¼ of your total course grade. So take it seriously and begin early. There are several assignments in section, worth a total of  60 points, and your research paper is worth 200 points of your final grade, so the entire assignment is worth 26%. Be sure to pick a topic that interests you and that you care enough about that you are willing to devote significant time.  Decide on a topic as early as you can.  Meet with your GTAs or with the appropriate Library Faculty member, and with me, too, if you wish, 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.


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 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 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 GTA 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 8 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 2010. 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.

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 1980’s 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 sports. Since I go to OU, I’m curious about the history of its football (or basketball or track or baseball) team and when those teams began. Alternatively, when did women’s sports begin? Were women’s sports and men’s sports funded differently? What is the history of Native American participation on OU’s teams?

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

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 G:  My family is from Oklahoma (or Texas or Kansas or Minnesota). I’m interested in why they stayed in Oklahoma after the 1930s or in the 1960s. They used to live on a farm, but moved to Oklahoma City. Is that a typical story? The American Life Stories has oral histories of 3000 different Americans done by government workers in the 1930s. 

Example H: 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 Wikipedia and online encyclopedias to get the first sense of what you need to find out. However, those are only a very first step. 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. We’ll ask you to keep an evidence log as you gather materials. 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 and Format: 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. Guidelines can be found here:  https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/717/01/