Research Essay

Apr 30

Primary Source Research Essay

Due midnight Friday, Apr 30—but I can be flexible

7 page (or more: minimum 2000 word) essay seeking to better understand a topic of the writer’s choosing by exploring its past. In essence, “How did we get here?” How did abortion come to dominate the ideology of feminism? How did gun control come to be one of the central divisions of American politics?

Consider focusing on the controversial issue you debated in Unit 2, taking this opportunity to delve deep into its past to better understand its present-day shape. But feel free to move on to fresh pastures: focus on something you care about and that you’d like to better understand.

The first phase of this unit will be to master prior scholarship on your topic. But that library research provides only the foundation for your primary source research. The principal business of this essay is the presentation and analysis of evidence. So while you should use prior scholars to establish (1) the prior understanding that your essay takes as its starting point and (2) background information that complicates your analysis of evidence, most of your body ¶s will focus on (3) describing and discussing primary sources that deepen our understanding of your topic.

Assemble one or more distinct bodies of evidence, each consisting of a group of closely related primary sources. Use these fragments of the past to complicate and enrich our understanding of the topic you’re writing on.

A body of evidence can be defined by reference to a single very rich source, like a novel or movie. Or it can involve assembling multiple fragments: minor sources like ads and articles. Developing two distinct bodies of evidence will allow your essay to approach its topic from two distinct angles. On the other hand, having just one will allow you to go deeper in considering a complex situation.

You will probably find that the evidence at hand determines what your essay can argue. This means you probably shouldn’t set out to argue anything too particular, since chances are good that you won’t find the sources you need to argue that particular claim. But this doesn’t mean you’re helpless. Canny historians frame research questions in terms of sources that they know lie ready to hand. Because it’s easy to get access to old magazine issues on Google, and full historical runs of five mainstream newspapers are available through the BU library portal, you should consider carefully what kinds of research questions these kinds of sources are good at answering.

Source Requirement: your essay should draw significantly upon at least two scholarly secondary sources (journal articles or books) and one or two bodies of evidence, each consisting of a collection of minor sources (pictures, speeches, policy memos, news articles, advertisements, etc.) OR possibly one major source like a novel or movie. If you want to make sweeping claims, you should collect statistically significant collections of primary sources (say 10 or 12) from a clearly delimited cache of available documents. For example, you may want to survey all the news articles published on a certain topic during a crucial 2 month period, or perhaps contrast ads from a popular magazine that depict a certain motif published in 1944 with ads with the same motif published in 1951.

Source citation: please use Chicago Style footnotes or endnotes. No Bibliography is necessary.

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