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Surviving the history JP: basic advice

Content from this guide may also appear in guides for individual junior seminars.

The problem in a nutshell

You need a topic

  • that you care about;
  • that addresses a historical question;
  • for which you can identify primary sources that are accessible to you; and
  • that's the right size for a 30-page paper due on January 6.

What kinds of questions do historians ask?

To start with, what questions have other historians asked about your general topic? If you are writing about something that already has been addressed by other historians, it can be very useful to survey that literature and ask yourself which approaches are interesting to you.

And remember: history is about change over time. Simply describing the events of the past isn't very interesting, unless there is disagreement about what actually happened.

Ways of writing history

In your junior seminar, you'll be introduced to many different ways of writing history. Some approaches have a long history of their own, like biography and the history of nations. Others are new, like transnational history or the study of race and gender in history. History has established subdisciplines, with their own ways of thinking about particular questions. So think about what you are interested in:

  • Political history; the history of nations; the history of relations between nations; transnational history; history of government and administration; the history of power
  • Economic history; trade, finance, taxation
  • Social history; the history of particular social groups (workers, the poor, peasants); history of gender, race, minority and marginal groups; relations between social groups
  • Intellectual history; the history of ideas, education
  • History of religion; the history of religious beliefs, practice, and the structures of organized religion
  • Cultural history; the history of elite culture and of popular culture; material culture and consumption; art in historical context
  • Environmental history; the history of the built environment (cities); the history of the natural environment
  • Biography (the history of an individual); prosopography (the collective history of a group of people such as a network of families or professionals)
  • Historiography (the history of the writing of history)

The source-driven junior paper

Often, the best work arises from close engagement with a primary source. As you read, you'll think of questions or begin to shape an argument. The hard part is to find a primary source that addresses the broad general area of interest. Here are some strategies for finding primary sources:

Is your topic feasible?

Do not choose a topic for which there is no secondary literature and no primary sources that are accessible to you. Some questions to ask yourself, your advisor, and me:

  • Have other historians found your topic worthwhile? It's better not to choose a topic on which there is no scholarly secondary literature whatsoever. (Possibly what you have is a good Ph.D. dissertation topic, but more likely it is not feasible for some other reason.)
  • Are the sources for your topic written in a language you can read?
  • Are the sources for your topic published, or unpublished? Are they available in print, on microfilm, or online?
  • Are the sources for your topic available at Princeton? If not, can you borrow them (through Borrow Direct or Interlibrary Loan) from another library?
  • Are the sources for your topic available somewhere else nearby? Can you travel (on a Friday, or over fall break) to another library or archive, or do you have other commitments that would make that impossible?

Suggestions for the desperate

Talk to your friends about what interests you, and about possible topics. Then ask them to repeat back what they've heard. You may learn something about what's most important to you. And if you can't get your friends or advisor excited about your project, you may not be able to get yourself excited about it, either.

Has some history book excited you? Gotten you thinking? What kind of question or topic was that book about?

Truly desperate? Get an encyclopedia that covers the general area of your interest -- say, America in the 1950's, or the French Revolution. You can find a selection in the Trustee Reading Room on the first floor of Firestone, or you can ask me for a suggestion. Encyclopedias rarely break new ground, but they are useful as lists of people, events, and questions that other historians have found worthwhile to study. Skim until you find something that seems interesting, then use the bibliography to get started with the secondary literature.