Introductions: Focus, Problem, Thesis
“A good essay sets the scene quickly, reveals a tension
to be resolved, and sets out in the direction of a solution”
—Marius and Page, A Short Guide to Writing about History
What makes the introduction of a research paper different from other essays you may have written is that you must identify the problem your thesis addresses. The question is not provided for you. So, how do you frame a good problem in your introduction?
The first few lines of an essay should hook the reader’s attention for the specific research question it will address. To avoid the common pitfall of “beating around the bush,” start with events or details from your research (not from a quotation website). Events, facts, or quotations provoke questions better than general statements, and they quickly orient your reader to the “who, what, where, and when” of your paper.
Too Broad: The struggle for racial equality has been an important theme throughout U.S. History.
Focused: The University of Oklahoma admitted its first African-American student, Ada Lois Sipuel, in 1948—six years before the Brown v. Board of Education decision.
Too Broad: Women have long and distinguished history of service in various branches of the United States armed forces.
Focused: “You and more than nine hundred of your sisters have shown that you can fly wingtip to wingtip with your brothers. If ever there was a doubt in anyone’s mind that women can become skillful pilots, the WASPs have dispelled that doubt.” These were the words of General Hap Arnold on December 7, 1944, the graduation day of the last Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) class.
Create a tension that needs resolved by considering interpretations of your topic that pull in opposite directions. You can create tension by highlighting apparent contradictions between your primary source accounts, by noting how your research calls into question a widespread assumption about U.S. history, or by posing a research question that is likely to engender debate.
- Expose tensions within your primary sources. Do your documents provide apparently conflicting evidence about the events they describe? Reveal the tension using “but” words like “although, however, nevertheless.”
Although some contemporary witnesses emphasized __________, others claimed that _____________________. [How do we explain this apparent contradiction in the evidence?]
- Correct the conventional wisdom. If you use this move, make sure what “they say” is believable—not just a straw dummy argument to make your own thesis look good.
Many Americans believe _______________, and _______________ might seem to support this interpretation. But a closer examination of the primary sources reveals a problem with this explanation: namely, ______________________________.
- Pose a tough question. You can focus the tension you’ve created in your introduction by posing it as a question. A good question is one you can imagine provoking some debate. “How” and “why” questions often work well since they can be answered more than one way. A bad question has a simple factual or “yes/no” answer.
Bad: Did Julius Rosenberg, who was put to death in 1953 for treason, really cooperate with the Soviet Union, as alleged? [The answer is “yes.”]
Good Question: Why was Julius Rosenberg’s cooperation with the Soviets judged to rise to the level of treason, punishable by death? (Or, Why was his wife Ethel Rosenberg also put to death, when evidence of her involvement was much flimsier?) 
If you make your focus specific and take the time to create genuine tension in your introduction, you have set the stage for your thesis. The thesis is your answer to the question you’ve raised—your take on a problem in the evidence which you’ve shown has more than one possible explanation. For more on the art of writing a bold and nuanced thesis, see the “Thesis Statement” tutorial.
Example One: Women with Wings: The Forgotten Female “Aces” of WWII
“You and more than nine hundred of your sisters have shown that you can fly wingtip to wingtip with your brothers. If ever there was a doubt in anyone’s mind that women can become skillful pilots, the WASPs have dispelled that doubt.” These were the words of General Hap Arnold on December 7, 1944, the graduation day of the last Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) class. The WASP program was a U.S. Army controlled and regulated operation during WWII designed to have female pilots fly military stateside missions, thus alleviating the need for male pilots on the home front. Although the WASP were highly successful, they were ultimately disbanded. Congress officially discontinued the WASP program in 1944, stating that the program was unnecessary because the U.S. had an abundance of qualified male pilots eager to support the war, and that the continuation of the program would cost too much money. While a quick look at the WASPs may lead one to believe that they were no longer beneficial to the war effort, a close examination of the U.S. army, as well as Congressional conversations, identifies this claim to be inaccurate. The U.S. decision to disband the WASP program was not based on military funding and pilots’ qualifications, but on sexism and gender inequality.
Example Two: The Long Road to the Integration of Oklahoma’s Education System
The University of Oklahoma admitted its first African-American student, Ada Lois Sipuel, in 1948, six years before the Brown v. Board of Education decision ordered school desegregation nationally. Unlike the 1954 decision, the Ada Lois Sipuel case did not produce dramatic scenes such as the Arkansas governor physically blocking the Little Rock Nine from attending the Little Rock Central High School or the Alabama Governor obstructing the door to prevent African American students from enrolling at the University of Alabama. How was Oklahoma able to accept this early step toward desegregation without provoking the violent backlash the world witnessed in 1954? One could answer this question by asserting that Oklahoma was less segregationist than more “Southern” states such as Alabama and Arkansas. This explanation, however, ignores the fact that Oklahoma was still struggling to integrate its public schools well into the 1960’s. A better explanation would place the Ada Lois Sipuel case in context of the broader politics of desegregation in Oklahoma. Taking this approach, I have concluded that desegregation in Oklahoma was primarily driven by legislative and financial reasons rather than by a genuine hope to achieve equality.
 These questions are adapted from Jim Cullen. Essaying the Past. Malden, Mass.: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009, 31.