HIST 1493, Professor Wrobel

Topics and Paper Types

Assignment: You are required to research and write a 7-page, (2000-word minimum) essay, typed in Times New Roman 12-point font, double-spaced, with endnotes and a bibliography (comprised of secondary works and a significant primary research base that includes archival sources). Papers must have a title that reflects the essay’s main theme. No separate title page, please. All sources must be properly cited (a citation handout is available on Canvas and at explorehistory.ou.edu) and citations must be in the form of endnotes. All topics should fall within the period from the end of the Civil War to the end of the Cold War, 1865-1991. (In certain circumstances, papers that cover the period up to the end of the twentieth century will be permitted). Many, many examples of paper topics are provided below, and you are welcome to choose one of them, or to develop one of your own design.

Purpose: History is a dynamic discipline shaped by changing perspectives and by continuing research into long established topics and the creation of new topics for study. In lectures you are being introduced to a wide range of highly contested issues. Discussion sections are exploring the complexities of those issues through secondary works (books and articles by scholars), and primary sources (documents from the past). The research paper enables you to build on the knowledge and understanding of the past that you have acquired in class and take your work as a student of history one step further, developing, researching, and writing on a topic, reinterpreting the past and thus becoming a historian yourself. The research paper is not merely another assignment in the course; it is the core assignment and serves as the capstone expression of the historical knowledge and understanding you have gained form the class and also of the critical thinking, research, and writing skills that you have developed. The assignment accounts for the largest portion of your course grade—25% (250 points).

You will be working on the assignment during March and April. You will turn in your paper topic before Spring Break, and then after the holiday will be responsible for turning in a Guiding Question and Annotated Bibliography, as well as an Abstract or Introduction. This is an assignment that we will all assist you with every step of the way.


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?


You will be surprised at how much you can learn about past events by talking to those who lived through them. Topics for oral history/archival research papers include:

  • “Women and WWII”–you could interview women about their experiences immediately prior to, during, and after WWII. (Interviewees in their mid-late-eighties and nineties).
  • The Decision to Drop the Atomic Bomb”–you could interview American servicemen about their reactions to the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. (Interviewees in their mid-late eighties and nineties).
  • “Student Protests in the 1960s and early 1970s”–There were few American college and university campuses that did not witness some form of student protest in this period. What motivated students to protest, and how did other students view them? Were there protests at the University of Oklahoma?
  • “American Servicemen and women and the Vietnam War”–how did American soldiers/doctors/nurses view the Vietnam War immediately prior to the beginning of their period of service, during that service, and after?
  • “Recollections of the Civil Rights Movement”–You could interview participants in Civil Rights marches, rallies, sit-ins, demonstrations, etc., and assess their perceptions of the movement’s successes and failures. The first African American sit-ins in the nation actually took place in Oklahoma City in 1958 and were organized by Clara Luper (1923-2011).
  • “Recollections of the American Indian Movement”—A number of Oklahomans played key roles in AIM in the late 1960s and early 1970s. There stories are vital to our understanding of the larger movement.

Please note that there are pertinent archival collections for many of the topics above at explorehistory.ou.edu

You will need to prepare a list of appropriate questions and will need to edit the responses into a coherent narrative. You should begin your paper with an introduction that demonstrates your familiarity with the topic and outlines your purposes. This familiarity will come from reading of secondary works on the topic, but also from conducting research in primary sources: newspapers, magazines, archival collections, including oral histories that have already been conducted and collected, etc. What are you seeking to determine from these interviews? This section should run about 250 words. The main section of the paper could consist of the edited interviews themselves (perhaps 3-4 interviews of around 400 words each). Or, the paper could be arranged topically or thematically, with parts of each interview inserted where appropriate. The paper should close with commentary on the interviews. What insight do they provide us with? How do they enrich our understanding of the topic? (This concluding section should be about 250-500 words long). You must take special care in preparing the questions for your interviewees. Please refer to the section below on Effective Interviewing Techniques.

If you choose the oral history option you will need to present all of your interviewees with a release form. Your release form should read as follows:

I _____________ agree to be interviewed by ______________ on the topic of _______________ and give my permission for this material to be filed in the University of Oklahoma Special Collections and used by scholars in the future. Signed ______________ , Date ______.

Effective Interviewing Techniques

  1. Be sure to find out the pertinent personal information from the subject—age, place of birth, place of residence and occupation during the time of the events in question.
  2. Make sure your subject signs a release form so that you have formal permission to use the information in your paper. A formal release form can be as simple as the following: I ________ grant permission on this date _________________ to ____________ to use material from an interview with me conducted on _________ on the topic _____________________________. This material may be housed in The University of Oklahoma Special Collections, or in the collections of the course instructor, Professor David M. Wrobel, for use by future scholars.
  3. Avoid leading questions–e.g. “you must have been so relieved when the U.S. dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and brought World War II to an end.” Instead you could ask, “how did you feel when you first learned about the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki?”
  4. If the interviewee is uncomfortable answering questions about sensitive issues, then avoid those questions and move to ones that the interviewee wishes to address.
  5. Give the interviewee time to answer—that person may not have reflected on these issues for some time and will need time to think about them; do not be disconcerted by long pauses, moments of silence.
  6. Do not cut off an interviewee when s/he goes off on a seemingly unimportant tangent. Tangents are often more important than they first appear, and even if the tangents do prove to be of little use, they can always be edited out of the final product. You should avoid interrupting your subject—let the person finish; this is their story to tell!
  7. Remember, you are trying to learn from your interviewees, not demonstrate to them how knowledgeable you are; they are the primary focus of the interview, not you.
  8. Ask your questions very clearly and make sure that your subject has understood them; be prepared to rephrase questions and have rephrased versions written out in case you need them.
  9. Make sure you have read the relevant sections of the readings and done additional research in secondary works and in primary sources (including archival sources) before you begin your interview. It makes no sense to interview someone on a topic that you have not familiarized yourself with. If you are not familiar with your topic then regardless of how good the interviewee is your paper will suffer as a consequence of your knowledge gap; also, you will not be able to develop new questions on the spot if you are not familiar with the historical landscape.
  10. Read transcripts of, or listen to audio recordings of, or view documentary film footage of oral histories that have been previously conducted on your topic, whether it is the Great Depression, World War II, Korean or Vietnam War, Civil Rights, Student Protests. You need to be able to compare the responses of your interviewee/s to those of other people who lived through and reflected on those same events.


Family histories can provide the historian with fascinating insights into the past and can add a personal element that brings the past to life in vivid ways. For example, when we read about living and working conditions in America’s urban/industrial centers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, we are often moved by the horrors and the dangers endured by ordinary working people, and by their hopefulness that things would get better. When we know of these severe conditions and then learn that past generations of our own family endured those conditions, faced those dangers, and cherished those hopes, the past becomes more immediately relevant. Or, as mostly metropolitan-based people today, we can learn an enormous amount about the hardships and pleasures of rural life in earlier eras, and sometimes from earlier generations of our own family.

You should attempt to reconstruct the story of your family’s experiences in the United States through interviews with relatives, family diaries, photographs, documents, and letters. In doing this you might wish to use some of the questions below:

  • For how many generations has your family been in the United States? Or, did your grandparents or great grandparents migrate to this region from another part of the country?
  • Where did they come from and why did they leave?

3)         What was their journey to America, or to a new part of the country like?

4)         Where did they set up residence (what town, or city, or village)?

5)         What jobs did they have?

6)         How many children did they have?

7)         What kind of living and working conditions did they experience?

  • Did they change jobs and residences?
  • How did they react to the major historical events of their time (e.g. World War One, the Great Depression, World War II, the Vietnam War)?
  • What were the main crises of their lives and how did they deal with them?
  • How did the next generation of the family fare?
  • Repeat questions 2-9 for each generation, or just focus on one generation, or even on a single relative if the story is rich and compelling enough.

Please note that there are pertinent archival collections for many of the topics above at explorehistory.ou.edu

You can present your family history through your own narrative voice–e.g. “My great, great grandfather and grandmother arrived in the United States (or in Oklahoma) in the spring of 1889.” Or, you can tell the story in the narrative voice of your family members themselves–e.g. “My name is _______. I arrived in America in the spring of 1880. Or, you could relate your family’s history less directly–e.g. Ivan and Maria Brezinski arrived at Ellis Island in the spring of 1880. Or, John and Mary Phillips arrived in Oklahoma during the first land rush in April 1889.

You do not have to bring your story up to the present. If the story of your great grandparents and grandparents is of special interest to you, then concentrate on that story. You should, however, probably try to focus on at least two generations of your family. Focusing on the experiences of a single generation may not provide you with a full understanding of how the family’s circumstances changed over time.

You should demonstrate a knowledge and understanding of the various eras you cover in your paper. You could demonstrate this historical understanding in footnotes. For example, if writing about your grandmother’s experiences in the work force during WWII, you could construct a footnote discussing the tremendous increase in the number of women in the workforce during the war years and the fact that many of those women worked in traditionally male jobs. This knowledge of the period should be acquired not just from secondary works, but also from primary source materials (newspapers, magazines, census records, immigration records, etc., from the period under study), including archival sources wherever possible—government documents, oral history collections, papers from other families that migrated to the region, or emigrated from the same country.

In a concluding paragraph or two you should comment on the experience of your family (whether that experience seems typical or unique) and on what we can learn from your family’s experiences in the United States. Make sure you place that experience into broader historical context. Make it clear to the reader that you are aware of the course themes and course content and how your family’s experience relates to those themes.

You should not attempt a family history unless your family has possession of, or easy access to the family records you will need. Please be aware that family history research projects might at first glance appear to be less demanding than other paper topics, generally prove to be the most time consuming of all the assignment options.


Scholarly periodicals and newspapers and “great” works of literature–novels, poems, essays, plays–and art can provide us with a good understanding of “highbrow” culture in any given era, but we need to turn to a range of other sources to construct a picture of “popular culture” in earlier periods. Magazines and music are among the sources that can tell us a great deal about American popular culture. Possible topics include:


1) The role of women in the workforce during WWII as presented in popular magazines (Ladies Home Journal, Time, Life, etc.).

2) Student Culture in the late 1960s and/or early 1970s (Rolling Stone

[began in 1967], Time).

3) An aspect of the Black Civil Rights Movement (Ebony, Time, Life).

4) Images of Asians during WWII (Time, Life, Saturday Evening Post).

5) Fear of Atomic War (Time, Life).


1) Music and World War II, or the Korean, or the Vietnam War

2) The Civil Rights Movement in Music

3) Music of the 1960s/1970s Counterculture/Vietnam War

4) Musical responses to the Reagan years.

When using magazines as historical sources you should pay special attention to photographs and cartoons and the responses these images were intended to invoke among readers. You should also try to determine the perspective of the author of a particular magazine article. For example, when analyzing a Time magazine story on youth culture in the 1960s, you should seek to determine whether the author/s are treating the subject in a positive or negative light—are they empathetic, laudatory, cynical, critical? Rolling Stone will prove a very useful source for research papers on music.

If you are examining the treatment of a topic in popular magazines, utilize at least two different magazines. How many issues of each magazine you use depends on the extent and depth of coverage of the topic in that magazine. If there are only five major articles on 1960s’ student culture in Time during that decade (highly unlikely) you should probably use them all in addition to finding a range of other magazine articles.

Please remember that the Popular Culture paper option must, like all the other paper options need to include an archival research component. For example, if you are writing on student culture in the late 1960s and/or early 1970s, you might draw on the underground newspapers in the Western History Collection (which houses many of the OU-related archival materials), or on the OU student newspaper, student government records, etc. In fact, for almost all of the topics above, providing some comparative analysis of developments at OU would give your paper distinctiveness and originality.

To that end, you may wish to consider one of the options in section E (below) on Oklahoma and OU history.

Option E: Oklahoma/OU History: Archival Research

The possibilities for archival Oklahoma and/or OU research topics are enormously rich and varied. I have listed just a small segment of these potential options below:

  1. Oklahoma’s response to the Fourteenth, or Fifteenth Amendment (1868-1870).
  2. The Oklahoma response to the Supreme Court’s Roe V Wade decision (1973).
  3. Nuclear shelters in Norman, or Oklahoma City, or in the state as a whole during the Kennedy years (1961-1963).
  4. Some aspect of University of Oklahoma sports history.
  5. Norman as a “sundown town” (an all white town with signs posted instructing all African Americans to leave the town each day by sundown).
  6. Clara Luper’s sit-in protests in Oklahoma City in 1958.
  7. An aspect of Oklahoma history that draws on the remarkable Indian-Pioneer Papers in the Western History Collection, which includes “typescripts of interviews conducted during the 1930s by government workers with thousands of Oklahomans regarding the settlement of Oklahoma and Indian territories, as well as the condition and conduct of life there” (quotation from collection description: http://digital.libraries.ou.edu/homehistory.php
  8. The history of the OU grading system (why there is no +/- scale); research for this project could be conducted in the student newspaper, records of the Faculty Council, Student Council, and other campus organizations.
  9. The evolution of Greek Life at OU.
  10. The development of a successful OU academic department or program.
  11. The Ku Klux Klan in Norman, or OKC, or the state as a whole in the 1920s.
  12. The impact of the Great Depression and New Deal on the OU campus.
  13. The African American Civil Rights Movement and OU.
  14. The Native American Movement and OU.
  15. The Equal Rights Amendment movement in Oklahoma.
  16. The Gay Rights Movement in Oklahoma.
  17. The Vietnam War and OU.
  18. The transformation of OU under a single university president.

A Final Note on the Research Paper Assignment

Be sure to pick a topic that interests you, one you care about and will be willing to devote a significant amount of time to. Decide upon a topic as early as you can. Meet with the course TA’s and 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 thus benefit you in your entire degree program. The benefit you gain from the research paper process will be directly proportional to the effort you invest in the process, and your grade for the assignment will reflect that level of effort quite clearly. Enjoy the research paper process and please talk to your section instructors about your topics, and to me as well, if you wish, so we can help. We are excited to work with you and learn from your research.