Publication Date

January 1, 1998

Designing, developing, and writing a good research paper takes a lot of skill, time, and practice. If students are not guided through the process and frequently assigned research papers, they have difficulty moving beyond a high school report. I teach on the quarter system at an institution where students work 20 to 40 hours per week. Students do not have the time to read for a seminar and write a research paper in a single-quarter class. They even have trouble devoting a class entirely to a research paper. Without sufficient practice, student skills remain at low levels and faculty become frustrated with the quality of student work. As a result, fewer faculty assign research papers and students do not accumulate enough experience to write good papers in the specifically designed research classes.

A way to break out of this cycle is to build research skills into classes that do not normally require a research paper. Faculty can teach the requisite skills in all of our classes. For example, we can teach students how to read an article or book by training them to find the thesis and the supporting arguments. We can also teach them how to write papers—formulating a thesis, using the library and Internet resources, developing a bibliography, and defining a topic. In a few classes, I ask students to take every step for writing an essay without actually writing it. I ask them to list all of the evidence for the different sides of the argument, develop a potential thesis for two opposing arguments, organize their lists into categories for each thesis, and then explain why they preferred one thesis over the other.

Students need the most help with research skills in two areas that are relatively simple to address in a class that does not culminate in a research paper. They need practice linking their research to the existing literature. This is always a difficult task because secondary literature takes so much time to read and because students must reconcile conflicting interpretations and recognize the connections between the arguments in the secondary literature and the available primary sources. Students also need guidance with their analysis of primary source documents. They are often too cautious with the sources and not daring enough; they fail to see the world view or assumptions implicit in the primary sources. Instead of taking primary sources apart and reassembling them in a different way, students tend to summarize them.

I have incorporated these skills (of linking research to the historical literature and analysis of primary sources) into my courses as a way to prepare students for researching. This article provides three examples from three upper-division courses, one of which is a general education course filled almost entirely with nonhistory majors. In the first case, students analyzed primary source documents to answer a cutting-edge historical question in the secondary literature. As a variant on the first case, students concentrated on systematically analyzing a primary source document, focusing on notetaking and finding implicit assumptions and connections. In the third case, students evaluated the conclusions of a secondary source by testing it against a variety of primary sources.

Linking Research to Secondary Literature

In a U.S. social history class, I divided the 10-week class into five units. For the first two units, students read monographs for which they were explicitly taught to find and summarize the thesis of each chapter and the entire book. By turning in thesis statements, discussing the theses amongst themselves, and then receiving my evaluatory grade, students learned how to do this first but crucial step. (In the beginning, they also turned in a one-to-two sentence summary of each of the sections of a chapter if it had such designated divisions. Summarizing "subtheses" helped students learn how to find the relationship between the parts of the essay and the thesis.) Meanwhile, my lectures fleshed out the reading, especially by incorporating more recent literature and different approaches. For each book, the class discussed the historian's assumptions and logic; overlooked themes, groups, and topics; and explored alternative approaches. We then considered how the author's thesis might change if he or she looked at other groups of people, explored other relationships between groups, and used different approaches or sources. In other words, we began to rethink the subject and fantasize about a variety of future research topics. As I led students through these steps, I named exactly what we were doing and how each step fit with research.

For the next three units, students read primary sources. For each topic, students read one of two or three books. On mid-19th-century slavery and construction of a racial identity, they read one of two slave narratives (Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass or Harriet A. Jacobs [or Linda Brent], Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl) or a novel written by an African American woman, Harriet E. Wilson, Our Nig: or, Sketches from the Life of a Free Black.1 For discussions of immigration and acculturation, they read Anzia Yezierska’s novel Bread Givers, Jose Antonio Villarreal’s novel Pocho, or Akemi Kikumura’s oral history about her mother’s life, Through Harsh Winters: The Life of a Japanese Immigrant Woman.2 And for the subject of rural to urban migration, they read either Malcolm X’s autobiography or Harriet Arnow’s novel The Dollmaker on Appalachian migrants to Detroit during World War II.3

As we began to use primary sources, students were asked to evaluate the strengths and limitations of each type of primary source: slave narrative (or autobiography), novel, or oral history. (In some classes I asked students to compare two sources—autobiographies and oral histories or letters and phone conversations—as a preliminary step for evaluating a source.) I wanted students to recognize that different sources do not provide the same types of information and cannot be used interchangeably for every type of analysis. We discussed the motivation of writers and their expected audience. I also wanted students to discard their privileging of nonfiction (autobiographies) over fiction by helping them realize that both types of sources reflect the values of the time period when they were written. Moreover, autobiographies might be problematic because often they were written years later, mirroring values from that later time period. I also expected students to recognize that oral histories give historians access to people who have not left written records, and also enable us to ask questions directly of our subjects. However, because the subject interviewed and the oral historian construct an oral history together, the product may reveal more about the values of the era when the interview took place than of the time period studied. From these discussions, students begin to think critically about the nature of primary sources—a crucial step in research.

Meanwhile, at least one of my lectures for each topic (slavery and racial identity, immigration and acculturation, and rural to urban migration) would have dealt with the historiographic debates. In this way, I surveyed the historical literature for the students but let them see the process of moving from an understanding and critique of the literature to formulating new questions and conducting research. Not only did I share my evaluation of the secondary literature and proposal for new directions in research, but I also helped the students to formulate their research agendas.

After students had finished reading the primary sources with the guidance of study questions, they were grouped in fours with others who read the same source. For the topic of slavery and race, we prepared to investigate ex-slave/free black self-representations as a way to understand racial identity. Students answered a series of written questions that walked them through the steps of breaking the topic into questions and subquestions, organizing the information, and building back up to the larger question that tied to the theme of racial identity. (See box.)

We began with a broad question, "How did former slaves and free blacks represent themselves to counter white images of African Americans?" To answer the question, students listed the characteristics of each major black male and female character in the slave narratives and novel. Then they determined which of these characteristics directly responded to images of African American men and women presented in the lectures. Because we had already made a list of characteristics of middle-class men and women (the self-made man and true woman) from an earlier section of the class, students discussed which of these characteristics these African American writers used. They were then ready to answer how ex-slaves and free blacks represented themselves to counter the negative images of African Americans.

To shift gears, I asked how African Americans revised white representations of themselves. To do this, students listed the characteristics of each major white male and female character, distinguishing between the heroes/heroines and villains. Then they listed which characteristics of middle-class white manhood and womanhood the author accepted, which were rejected, and why. Students could see how African Americans used the dominant middle-class values to protect themselves and criticize whites, revising the values to fit with their own circumstances. For example, Harriet Wilson's heroine, Frado, distinguished between her mistresses' false domesticity and her own based on who actually did the work in the home. Next, students met in a jigsaw with classmates who had read the other two books to compare their answers and summarize. By the end of the discussion, students recognized the relationship between the dominant middle-class beliefs and the cultural resources open to African Americans for constructing their own identity.

By following the path from a review of the historiographic literature to evaluating the primary sources in terms of my critique of that literature, students were conscious that they had moved from a critique of the historical literature to an analysis of primary sources. And they used primary sources systematically to do so. We repeated the same process when we studied immigration and acculturation and again when we studied rural to urban migration.

Analysis of Primary Documents

A second example of teaching research skills extends the previous one by concentrating on systematically analyzing a primary source. This activity occurred in a class on "Representations of Women in the United States from 1790 to 1920." After reading selections from 18th-century "seduction" novels, students spent three weeks reading Harriet Beecher Stowe's great antislavery novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin.4 Through a series of lectures, I underscored the ways that historians have presented conflicting views about 19th-century values. On the one hand, women’s historians have accepted a dichotomous, gendered value system.5 Conversely, historians who do not focus on gender emphasize a more unified middle-class value system.6 We then used Uncle Tom's Cabin to understand which values were gendered and which were not, focusing particularly on how shared values took on gendered permutations as they intersected with class and race. During the first few weeks, students learned to take notes on primary sources describing the physical and personal characteristics of each character. In their groups they compared notes and learned to improve their own notetaking. We also discussed various 19th-century values, such as domesticity and the self-made man. After they finished reading the book, students compiled pages of notes organized around each character.

At this point, I asked the groups to organize the characters by race, class, and sex. (Uncle Tom's Cabin, as you may recollect, did have black middle-class characters.) To group the characters, students debated the 19th-century meanings of class and race. Then the entire class constructed a long list of 19th-century middle-class values, including independence and dependence, self-reliance, domesticity, sexual purity, piety, modesty, selflessness, neatness, management skills, compassion, industriousness, simplicity, devotion to family, upward mobility, and “self-madeness.” Each group of four students chose a value from this list. They ran the value through each of the racial, class, and sex groupings they had developed. Students were asked to distinguish between those results that fit with their expectations of gender, race, and class distinctions and those that did not. They were to be prepared to explain the values that turned out more complex than they expected. Students continued this process until all of the values identified by the class had been tested. Each cluster of students then presented its findings to the class. They noted which values came out as expected, but focused on the ones that did not fit. For example, students were surprised that Stowe’s white and black middle-class and most of her working-class women were good at management skills. Conversely, white upper- and middle-class men failed as managers, while white working-class men excelled. They concluded that because women managed their homes, they could possess these skills. Because men managed money, something Stowe criticized, she only allowed the white working-class men, whom she detested, to possess this skill. This exercise helped students recognize complexity in a single document. After reading a second novel, students were prepared to compare the two to explain 19th-century middle-class values for the midterm. For our purposes here, they were learning to analyze a single document in a systematic and thorough way and link the document to a historiographic debate. And they had fun, too!

Critiquing a Secondary Source

A third example of teaching research skills in a nonresearch class focuses on teaching students how to test the validity of an author's arguments using primary sources. During the first half of an upper-division general education class (a theme class on the history of emotions), students also learned how to read for a thesis. When they finally read Beth Bailey's From Front Porch to Back Seat after the midterm, they were quite adept at finding and summarizing each chapter’s thesis.7 The class evaluated the strengths and limitations of Bailey’s primary sources—college newspapers and advice literature. After reading the book, students had to translate the thesis of each chapter into a series of questions, which became study questions for the primary sources. Students then read three primary sources.

In class, we practiced taking notes and testing Bailey's arguments against a short chapter from Mary Helen Ponce's autobiography, Hoyt Street. 8 Students discussed which of Bailey’s theses Ponce addressed and supported or challenged. They organized their notes into a T-diagram with one side listing the supporting evidence and the other side, the contradicting. They came to realize that Ponce’s work did not fit perfectly with Bailey’s; so they had to decide which evidence mattered and which did not. At home, students read a section from Anne Moody’s Coming of Age in Mississippi and their major source, Bob Greene’s high school journal, Be True to Your School.9 The class discussed the strengths and limitations of autobiographies and journals, including ones like Greene’s that had been rewritten. We discussed the time period covered in Bailey’s book and the time period covered in the primary sources. Because none of the primary sources dealt with the early years of Bailey’s book, we knew that we were only looking at the later years of her study, covering the period from World War II to 1965. And because Ponce was a child and Greene a high school student, we might be seeing a different pattern than that emerging from Bailey’s emphasis on college students. In other words, our sources could only test part of her chapter theses. We had to be clear about what we were testing. At this point, we had our class discussion on the primary sources themselves, considering topics that Bailey did not address, such as the meaning of love and friendship to Bob Greene and his friends. Students were now ready to organize their notes and translate them into an essay. After modeling possible ways to organize a paper, they were ready to evaluate Bailey’s work.

All three of these examples, analyzing primary sources from a historiographic problem, breaking apart and reconstructing a primary source methodically and systematically, and critiquing a secondary source, gave students supervised practice with the most difficult steps for research—connecting secondary and primary sources and analyzing the primary sources. In some ways these examples are no different from teaching students how to analyze any text. This, however, is exactly the skill we want them to learn, especially when it is linked to secondary literature. If we include these types of activities in our classes, we can give students frequent practice with the difficult steps of research, not relying only on the few research classes. By modeling, giving them practice, and naming the experience, students are in a better position to duplicate this process when they are on their own. And we can actually enjoy reading their papers.


1. Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, in The Classic Slave Narratives, ed. Henry Louis Gates Jr., 245–331. (New York: Mentor, 1987) (from 1845 edition); Harriet A. Jacobs (or Linda Brent), Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1987); Harriet E. Wilson, Our Nig: or, Sketches from the Life of a Free Black (New York: Vintage Books, 1983).

2. Anzia Yezierska, Bread Givers (New York: Persea Books, 1975); Jose Antonio Villarreal, Pocho (New York: Doubleday, Anchor, 1959); Akemi Kikumura, Through Harsh Winters: The Life of a Japanese Immigrant Woman (Novato, Calif.: Chandler and Sharp, 1984).

3. Malcolm X, with the assistance of Alex Haley, The Autobiography of Malcolm X (New York: Grover Press, Inc. 1965); Harriet Arnow, The Dollmaker (New York: Avon, 1971).

4. Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom's Cabin (1851–52; reprint, New York: Signet, 1966).

5. For classics, see: Mary P. Ryan, Cradle of the Middle Class: The Family in Oneida County, New York, 1790–1865 (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1981), 145–48; Barbara Welter, Dimity Convictions: The American Woman in the Nineteenth Century (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1976); Nancy F. Cott, The Bonds of Womanhood: "Woman's Sphere" in New England, 1780–1835 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977); Kathryn Kish Sklar, Catharine Beecher: A Study in American Domesticity (New York: W. W. Norton, 1973).

6. Richard L. Bushman, The Refinement of America: Persons, Houses, Cities (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992); John F. Kasson, Rudeness and Civility: Manners in Nineteenth-Century Urban America (New York: Hill and Wang, 1990).

7. Beth L. Bailey, From Front Porch to Back Seat: Courtship in Twentieth-Century America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1988).

8. Mary Helen Ponce, Hoyt Street: An Autobiography (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1993), 293–301.

9. Anne Moody, Coming of Age in Mississippi (New York: Dell, 1968), 224–27; Bob Greene, Be True to Your School: A Diary of 1964 (New York: Ballantine, 1987).

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