Table of Contents =
Sources are at the Center of Attention
Define Your Topic
Time Your Work
Cite Sources and Keep a Bibliography
Some Final Suggestions

You will write several brief draft essays in your journal. The exact number, nature and timing of these essays are described on the main electronic syllabus page.

Consult this electronic page on "Reading in the Academic Setting".

I say "draft essays" because I do not want you to devote energy or resources at this point to the production of a traditional, typed, formal "term paper". You will develop research skills as you work, but this is not a research paper so much as a "thought piece" focusing on certain sources identified on the course syllabus, in SAC and in other course materials.


In a draft essay, the accent is on the interpretation of primary documents and/or important secondary works identified in the course syllabus. In all cases, whether your sources are primary or secondary, sources will be at the center of your attention. For a discussion of primary and secondary historical sources, review this section of the essay "Ways of Seeing History" [TXT].

General accounts ("secondary works", including so-called textbooks and reference works) help illuminate the meaning of the primary documents. Secondary sources help define the most important persons, groups, institutions, and events mentioned in your primary sources. Inform yourself about the identities of important persons and the nature of the most important events. Develop the habit of studying tables of contents and indexes of published sources.

The course Academic Calendar and our main website, "The Student's Annotated Chronology and Systematic Bibliography" [SAC], are rich in reference to key "primary" and "secondary" sources [ID]. As you think about secondary sources, don't neglect the big survey studies in the Reserve Book Room [ID] and in the Reference Room of the Knight Library [ID], where you find the main encyclopedias and reference works that help bring primary documents to life as you prepare your draft essays.

The internet encyclopedia Wikipedia [ID] is a handy reference work always available when you are working "on-line". Here, as everywhere, be cautious about what you find. Never cite Wikipedia on any topic without comparing the Wikipedia account with edited and published reference sources and/or SAC.

With a few exceptions, you should concentrate your attentions on sources identified in course materials. If you find a title on your own and wish to make it a central component of your own reading, clear the title with me in order to avoid falling into some of the byways of historical literature. A simple email to me will do.


The syllabus lays out a broad definition of what topics you should consider for your draft essays. As you select a topic, also study SAC [ID] along with lectures. As we establish the "big picture" (the broad sweep of the whole course), be alert to points of personal interest. Survey SAC for key words or phrases that describe your interest. Use your computer's FIND [F/] function [ID].

You are given latitude in the choice of topics for your draft essays. A good general guide to defining your topic is this = How does the document (or documents) illustrate the larger course of the history we are studying here. What important issues do the document(s) of my choice illuminate? How does the document fit with what is written on the topic in the major reference and textbooks, or presented in lectures and SAC?

You must make clear reference in your essays to materials directly associated with our course. If you should wish to base your essay on materials not represented in the syllabus or found in SAC (especially internet sources not directly linked to our website), first please consult with me.

I will provide some thoughts on defining topics in lectures, and I am always available to discuss the matter individually during office hours or by appointment.


Devote two or three hours to a careful reading of your source(s). Measuring your selection in terms of time rather than length allows you to work with one or several related sources, but it also suggests that you should be efficient and focused in your reading.

After you have completed your reading and thinking, sit down and draft a one-hour essay in your journal (clearly entering it in your table of contents).


In your journal keep a list of the publications you are employing (your own "bibliography"). Don't worry about alphabetical order, just list your sources in the order of your first use of them. The bibliography should contain items consulted in your general course reading as well as the titles used specifically for writing your essay.

You may cite titles in your bibliography by using the abbreviations in the course GLOSSARY, or any clear and consistent abbreviation that suits you and can be understood by your reader.

In your draft essays, you might save time by referring the reader back to earlier pages of your journal where long quotes or other complicated materials have already been copied out. E.g., you might enter "[See Journal page 15]". Do not do this so often that the flow of your essay is broken, and clearly mark such references so that the reader can locate them with ease.

All this is a bit technical, but the course has as one of its purposes to make us all very conscious of SOURCES, very aware of the need to indicate "how we know what we know". Here are seven or so paragraphs that deal with this matter.


A good draft essay will have a title which epitomizes the main theme(s) of the essay. An essay should open with strong and clear introductions, explaining to your reader what your topic and intentions are. Close with good summaries or conclusions. Everything depends on your making yourself clear and persuasive. Inform and convince your reader. Don’t presume the reader can guess. "You know what I mean" won’t work.

Strive always for an interesting mix of fact and interpretation.

Do give some effort to penmanship. Always remember and pity your reader. You want your reader to be happy. As a rule, if you are happy, your reader will be happy. I know it is always true the other way around.