Unit 6 — Historical Thinking: identification of a research topic and question

“History isn’t an answer, it’s a process.”
— David Trowbridge

“The scientist is not a person who gives the right answers, he’s one who asks the right questions.”
— Claude Levi-Strauss

“I would rather have questions that can’t be answered than answers that can’t be questioned.”
— Richard Feynman

Photo by Rohan Makhecha on Unsplash

During this Unit, each one of us will focus on planning and outlining a historical research project that will require the evaluation of both primary and secondary sources. This Unit will contribute to your completion of the final research project. Click the Research Project tab to familiarize yourself with the requirements, if you haven’t already done so.

In other words, we’ll apply the Historical Thinking skills we’ve been developing in class to do the work that professional historians do.

Up to this point, we’ve observed, discussed, evaluated, and practiced specific Historical Thinking skills. Andrews and Burke’s 5 Cs model has provided a framework for thinking about the types of analysis that historical investigation requires. We’ve distinguished between primary and secondary sources, and thought about the ways that historians consider existing interpretations in the field in order to devise their own questions and contributions to the literature (historiography).

The first week of this Unit will involve readings and activities that will help us think more deeply about determining a topic for historical research that is neither too narrow nor too broad and that can be reasonably researched with digital tools and resources (including, but not limited to, the use of CNM Libraries materials). The second week will provide you with time to determine which historical topic you’ll research for the final project and you’ll create a strong, open-ended question to drive your project.

**Note: Although I’ve pointed you toward digital sources (mostly because the first time I taught this class was fall 2020 in the thick of pandemic restrictions on visiting libraries, etc), it’s more than fine to use physical books or other materials located at libraries or even archives. Digital sources will still be easier to access, and it’s also fine to work with only digital materials.**

Choosing a topic

Photo by 🇸🇮 Janko Ferlič on Unsplash

Before you work out your question or figure out the research path you’ll follow, you need to choose a topic of study. As I noted in the instructions for the research project, I’ve left the topic wide open so that you can focus on something that will be of interest to you.

I understand that this approach is at once liberating and daunting, especially if history hasn’t been one of your favorite subjects. If you already have a favorite historical topic, say Hatshepsut — the first female to rule as pharaoh in ancient Egypt, then you can do a bit more leg work to find contextual information on her reign that will help you focus your topic and devise a strong research question.

If you have no idea what historical topic you want to research, the research assignment may be a bit more daunting, but don’t worry. Remember that “everything has a history” (that’s become a mantra for AHA Executive Director Jim Gossman), so you can investigate almost any topic that is of interest to you for this project. You’ll just have to be sure to focus on your topic of interest from a historical perspective.

So, if your hobby is cooking, you could focus on the history of one of your favorite dishes or types of cuisine. If you enjoy working on cars, you could research the history of the auto industry (maybe even the story of the design, marketing, and cultural relevance of certain makes and/or models). If you want to explore your cultural heritage, you might choose to research the ways that holidays like Día de los Muertos or St. Patrick’s Day have been celebrated in certain times and places.

Those are just a few ideas, of course. The sky is the limit, as long as you’re able to locate and access a sufficient number of sources to research the topic. Some topics simply won’t offer enough digitally accessible sources, unfortunately. As you think about which topic to choose, then, you’ll need to do some preliminary research to decide whether or not you’ll have access to a sufficient number of relevant sources. (Read the source requirements for the project here, under the heading for Step 2).

Also, review this research guide from the library system at Sam Houston State University for more helpful hints about choosing a research topic. And, although the video below doesn’t apply to history research specifically, it contains many great pointers as well.

[If you’re still struggling to find a topic, browse through the categories provided here. And, if that still doesn’t do it, don’t hesitate to email or text me for help with brainstorming.]

Framing a strong research question

Research topics and questions are tightly intertwined — they build on each other to provide a guide to your research. Your question will determine which aspects of your topic you’ll identify as significant, which elements of the topic you’ll leave out, and what specific sources you’ll consult. The question frames the way you’ll interpret the documentation and provides limits to your research work.

It’s highly important, then, that you take your time to develop a strong research question.

Read this guide from the George Mason Univeristy Writing Center, and watch the short video below to consider three important steps to drafting a strong research question:

As noted in the video, your research question will reflect what you already know about the topic, ask about what you’d like to learn, and set the scope of the project. You may need to do a bit of preliminary research to ensure that you understand your topic well enough to make decisions about how to draft a question that will help you focus your investigation.

Be sure that you’ve asked an analytical rather than an explanatory question. If you ask an analytical question, you’ll set up your project in such a way that you’ll be prepared to make and support an argument. In general, the answer (with clearly interpreted and explained supporting evidence) to an analytical question will serve as a strong thesis statement.

Explanatory questions ask for descriptions or specific details. An example might be: When did the Pueblo Revolt take place? While it’s certainly important to know that detail if you’re researching the Pueblo Revolt, the answer to this question will not sustain a research project and doesn’t establish the foundation for an argument.

Analytical questions typically begin with *why* or *how.* Continuing with the above example, an analytical question for research on the Pueblo Revolt would be: Why did Pueblo peoples rise up against Spanish colonists in 1680 and what was the most lasting outcome of the Pueblo Revolt?

If you haven’t already done so, read the instructions for the final research project. Pay special attention to the instructions for Step 1, “Topic and Research Question.” Then, on Twitter, address these questions: what makes a research topic manageable? What are the steps you should follow to draft a strong research question? Why is the question such an important part of historical research projects? (Remember that our course hashtag is #CNM1103).

Now that we’ve thought a bit about the how and the why of finding a research topic and creating a strong question, complete the Google Form linked below. Your completion of the form will count toward your Twitter score in the course grading breakdown. The prompts in the form will ask you to evaluate draft research questions and provide a brief rationale.

Twitter comments and Google Form completion are due by the first Sunday of this Unit (November 7) at11:59 pm MST.

Photo by Juan Rumimpunu on Unsplash

During the second week of this Unit, you will focus on identifying a topic for the final project and on drafting a strong research question for your topic. As noted above, if you’ve looked at the resources provided and have thought about topic choices, but still aren’t quite sure what to choose, please reach out to me via email, text message, or Twitter for help. Please do that early in the timeframe of this Unit — either toward the end of the first week or the beginning of the second week.

Once you have an idea of what topic you’d like to pursue, work on drafting a question that sets the parameters of the research you’ll do to learn more about and make an argument relative to your chosen topic. Once you have a first draft of your question, share it with the rest of us on Twitter where we’ll be able to provide feedback and suggestions to one another.

Photo by Chris J. Davis on Unsplash

Please post your question to Twitter during the first half of the second week of this Unit (ideally by Wednesday, November 10). That will give us plenty of time to provide feedback to one another. Remember to be kind and generous in your feedback; emphasize the strengths of the question and provide specific ideas for how the question might be improved. Be sure to respond to the questions of at least 2 or 3 of your classmates on Twitter.

Once you’ve received feedback from the class and incorporated those ideas into your question, create a Medium post that: 1) states your historical research topic, 2) provides a few sentences that explain your interest in the topic, and 3) states your strong research question.

Your post to Medium is due by the Second Sunday of this Unit (November 14) at 11:59 pm MST.

Sections of each of the remaining Units in the class will be dedicated to working on the research project. In the next Unit, we’ll explore potential career pathways for History majors and you’ll take some time to work on the research step of your project. Because of the Thanksgiving holiday, I’ve slated the next Unit to last for one week. Please plan ahead to do your research work accordingly so that you’ll be able to take some time off for the Thanksgiving holiday between Units 7 and 8.



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Brandon Morgan

Brandon Morgan

CC History Instructor, father of three, and researcher of the Borderlands, U.S. West, and Modern Mexico. Working on a book about Violence and the rural border.