Conceptualizing a History Paper

A good history paper should have a clear and relatively sophisticated thesis or argument and support its main thesis logically and fully using the evidence.

Thesis

Successful essays need a clear focus (also called a thesis or a central point). The thesis should be introduced almost immediately—certainly no later than the end of your first paragraph. It is often a good idea to pair your thesis with a sentence suggesting the major lines of argument to be used in your essay to convince your reader of the validity of your thesis.

Example

Consider this introductory paragraph: During World War II, the POW labor program provided cotton planters in the lower Mississippi Valley with a temporary yet timely solution to an increasingly mobile local labor supply. While war prisoners worked in a variety of crops and non-agricultural industries, one of the greatest concentration of camps and captive workers devoted to a single crop occurred along the southern stretch of the Mississippi River. Cotton planters in Arkansas, Mississippi, and northern Louisiana secured over twelve thousand war prisoners from 1943 to 1946. German and Italian prisoners reinforced a labor system based on boundaries of color even as their presence in the fields revealed racial contradictions. Even as the inexperienced field hands undercut planter profits, exposed racial tensions, and undermined racialized notions of work, their presence helped to extend the life of an exploitative plantation economy. Despite the limited scope and dubious success rate of POW labor, cotton planters in the Deep South found a temporary workforce to hold a place on the plantation for African-American labor.

The thesis in this paragraph is the last sentence. The next to last sentence suggests how the paper will be organized: the writer will first discuss how POWs reduced profits for the plantation owners, then look at how the POWs’ presence demonstrated the racism in the region, next consider how having white people working the cotton fields dispelled ideas that only blacks could be field laborers, and finally argue that using POWs temporarily helped continue the exploitative labor system in the Delta.

The thesis statement and lines of argument outlined become the writer’s contract with the reader: You will discuss those topics and only material relevant to them. You must tackle these topics in the order in which you introduced them. If you decide you want to change the order or add a new topic, you must revise your introduction to reflect the new thesis and new order.

Argument

History papers require an argument. A strong historical argument will be:
  • Specific
  • Supportable
  • Not narrative

The Narrative vs. Argument Test: try articulating your proposed argument in the following way: “In this paper I argue that…” (Do not write this phrase in your paper itself, however!). If your proposed argument fits naturally after that opening, it is likely an argument rather than a narrative.

A good idea when coming up with an argument is to think why or how questions, and to focus on the so what rather than just what.

Sources

To persuade your reader that your argument is true, you need to support your claims with evidence. Most of this evidence should come from primary sources. In history, this means a source that gives direct evidence from the time studied. These could be texts (i.e., newspaper accounts, letters, chronicles, speeches, songs) or material evidence (i.e., photographs, clay pots, buildings). Primary sources offer immediacy and are the heart of any historical discussion.

You will also need secondary sources (scholarly works written by experts who have studied primary sources). While secondary sources lack firsthand knowledge, they offer breadth and hindsight. Quality secondary sources are by professional historians, and are usually published by academic presses, historical journals, or institutions. They usually have footnotes or endnotes.

While books and printed materials remain key to historical research, many useful sources are now accessible online. Always check where an online source comes from: sites with a .edu, .gov, or .org ending (meaning they are hosted by schools, governments, or other formal organizations) have greater credibility than those with a .com or .net ending (meaning anyone could have posted them). Pay attention to bibliographic information on the webpage; do not trust information unless you see and trust its origin.

Analysis

Successful history papers should demonstrate your thought process. You already know to provide support for your argument—but your professors care just as much about what you do with your evidence as about the evidence itself. This means you must analyze the evidence for us, to weigh how well it supports your argument.

When analyzing a piece of evidence from a primary source, you should consider not only what the source says but also show awareness of that source’s context: Who wrote that source? Why did they write it? What is the genre of the source, and how does that influence its tone or content? Did the author write it at the time of the event being discussed, or later on? What is the context for your quote within the larger source? The context adds nuance to your argument, and also shows that you understand the limits and the possibilities of your evidence. You can consider similar questions when analyzing evidence from a secondary source.

The best papers also address evidence that could contradict your argument. Do not simply cherry-pick all the best examples in support of your argument; show that you understand the larger picture, too. Simply analyze key contrary evidence the same way you would analyze favorable evidence, only make a case for why the contrary evidence should not undermine your argument after all.

The Writing Center

Department of History
Rollins College
Cornell Social Science Building
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