World History at




What Can Go Wrong in History Research at KMLA
An Incomplete List



(I)     An Ill-Defined Topic Has Been Selected

Example : "The History of Dinner". One might begin with the history of meals in ancient Egypt or Greece, go through the centuries, via medieval and Enlightenment France to a DINK generation U.S. microwave-heated or restaurant-taken meal. The choice of cultures the dinners of which are to be discussed here is left to the individual researcher; 10 students writing on such a topic may come up with 10 different sets of cultures/eras they discuss.
At any time in history, even in our modern industrial society, society was stratified and dinner was different depending on the social group which took it - the upper class may have been able to offer opulent meals in numerous courses, especially if guests were sitting at the table. The middle class may have tried to live up to upper class standards, but may have been restricted in the choice of ingredients, the number of courses and even guests, due to budget, the size of the dining room, the number of servants. Landowning farmers, qualified workers may have taken a meal, which may have been rich, but less in variation from day to day. Less privileged social groups may have counted themselves lucky if they could feed the family at all, offered bread, potatoes, soup, rarely, if at all, vegetables, fruit, meat. The most unlucky ate dinners only every now and then.
Another aspect : if the topic is too broadly defined, it will be difficult to find the right sources. One might find sources on Renaissance dinners of wealthy Italian merchants, on dinners of Hellenistic monarchs, Roman orgies, at Versailles or at Rothschild invitations; coincidentially found sources may determine the choice of chapters in the paper, rather than systematic search of sources.

Remedy : A topic like this needs to be specified. 'The History of Dinner in France from the 18th to the 20th Century'. Focus on one culture, differentiate by various social groups and various eras (Late Feudal France : Nobility, Bourgeoisie, Peasantry; Industrializing France : Grand Bourgeoisie, Petit Bourgeoisie, Peasantry, Urban Poor; Interbellum France, Post-World War II France).
A paper trying to discuss the History of Dinner from Ancient Egypt until Today necessarily will be perceived as somewhat arbitrary in the choice of cultures/eras discussed, and somewhat superficial in its analysis. A paper on the History of Dinner in France from the 18th to the 20th Century is likely to be more thorough and reach a deeper level of analysis.
Such specification requires the student to spend more effort on finding appropriate sources.

(II)     The Source Situation

Historians are usually confronted with one of two possible scenarios : (A) there are (way) too many sources, difficult to organize, or (B) there are too few sources, even none.
If there are too many sources, the student may decide to further narrow down the topic or to develop criteria by which to eliminate sources, so to end up with essential ones. Choi Eunsol's paper on the History of Kazakhstan reconstructed after Articles from the New York Times is an example how this is done.
If there are not enough sources, the student may consider to widen his topic, reformulate it or look out for a new one.
There are alternatives (C), (D) or (E) : (C) the sources are available and online, but access costs school 10,000 $ / the book is available at antiquarian bookstores, for $ 2.500 - excessive costs force us to look out for a new topic. (D) the sources are available in English, in an archive in Gloucestershire; the student has to travel and stay there for a month - unpractical. (E) the sources are easily available and not costly, but in a language the student can not handle, let us say in Finnish. Situations B, C, D and E may force the student to look out for a new topic (after having done thorough research to find if there are relevant sources accessible, affordable and in a language he can handle).
P.S. even if you never before read texts in Italian or German, you can try reading encyclopedic short texts in such languages : Koo Hyemin does list one brief Italian language source in her paper on Evolution of Film Propaganda Throughout World War II, Roh Yong Ho lists several brief German language sources in his paper on The Rise of the Ruhr Area, Germany's Industrial Heartland, in the 19th Century. She does not speak Italian, he does not speak German; with the aid of a dictionary and a translation engine (the result has to be proofread) short texts may be managed.

(III)     Existing Books

Years ago a student tried to write a research paper on the Sputnik Shock. He bought himself a few books on the topic - to find out that one particular book had the answers to all his questions.
Students may want to develop an original perspective; finding the answers to all your questions is not a good situation either.

Remedy : Redefine the topic so that it becomes a comparative study. In this case : examine how the U.S. press reacted to Soviet achievements in the space race, and how the Soviet press reacted to U.S. achievements in the space race. (Of course, this may require the student to access Russian language sources; but, if he is lucky, there may be English language monographs providing him with the missing information. Example : Kwan Suk Chun's paper on Development, Deployment and Impact of Airborne Infantry in World War II; he compares the history of paratroopers in Germany, Russia, Britain and the U.S., based on English language monmographs on each of them. Similarly, Koo Hyemin's Evolution of Film Propaganda Throughout World War II analyses movies produced during WW II in Italy, Germany, Russia, Britain and the U.S. based on English-language monographs.

(IV)     Time Management

Because this is the first time the student writes a research paper, and he has to plan his time and effort for an entire year or so, he may not invest sufficient energy and time in the beginning, then suddenly to find out that there is too much to be done, and the project remains unrealized.
According to experience, somewhere between 50 and 75 % of the students who take on research topics do not complete them.
In case of those who gave up before seriously beginning research, this is not a problem. In case of students who invested time, money and significant effort, got an original perspective and a presentable result, and then fail to complete their paper because (a) they got accepted after early application, thus no longer have an incentive to work, (b) they did not find the time to finish because of numerous other obligations, this hurts.

(V)     Stages in Research

(A) Find books, websites, sources on the topic; make sure that it is manageable and your perspective is somewhat original.
(B) Establish a working table of contents. The last parts of your paper to write are introduction and (final) table of contents. Begin with your bibliography, and with some chapters in the center.
(C) When you write an individual chapter, always do so complete with footnotes. In the past, a number of students wrote their papers with the strategy "footnotes I can fill in later" and then could not handle. A number of papers begun with that strategy were never completed. I recall one student who wanted to write about Lee Jun and his visit of Den Haag 1907. Searching online he found an image of a letter in which Korea was included among the countries invited to attend the International Peace Conference of 1907, and then striped out. He did not bookmark the image; could not find it back, end of project. Do not treat footnotes as lowest on your priority list; treat them, and the reference list as points number 2 and 3 on your priority list; number one must be your conclusion.
(D) write the (finalized) conclusion after you wrote the individual chapters.
(E) after you wrote the individual chapters, rearrange them if necessary
(F) finalize your paper

(VI)     Feedback

As this is probably the first time you try to write a major paper in the humanities, it is likely that you need feedback. Many students ask for advice on their choice of topic, and then on their choice of books to order/use, or on how to find sources. Then I get nothing for a year, and suddenly there is a complete first draft.
Better would be that the student writes a chapter at a time, and then asks for feedback on a chapter by chapter basis. One paper completed that way is Kim Shin's Early Years of the Little Ice Age in Northern Europe, 1300-1500, in my view the best research paper written in history at KMLA so far.

(VII)     The Choice of Verbage

When interviewed by an American photojournalist, Kim Ku, having returned to Korea (then under U.S. military administration) spoke of himself as a "retired assassin". Most Koreans will regard him as a patriot and hero, some Japanese may label him a terrorist. Terms such as 'terrorist' and 'hero' are not neutral, but contain a judgment, say something about the perspective or bias of the person using it.
Then there are words which may be regarded unproblematic in one country, the usage of its equivalent regarded taboo (politically incorrect) in another. In the U.S. the words "negro", "nigger" are politically incorrect, but the usage of the term 'race' in connection with human beings is not. In Germany, the term 'Neger' is unproblematic, but if yoy refer to human "races" better use quotation marks - race applies to horses and dogs, if you - in German language - apply it to human beings, you will be perceived as a Nazi.
Students writing about history have to learn to respect such sensitivities.
In a paper on history, during the descriptive part, neutral terminology should be used; f. ex. Nazi terminology, in the historical context, should be used in quotation marks. Judgment should be reserved for the analysis (conclusion).

(VIII)     Multiperspectivity

Try to look at a topic from a variety of angles/perspectives, before you reach a judgment. Omitting one or several perspectives may result in a paper being biased.
Do not describe history as you want it to have been; try with the best of your ability to create a fair description of history as it was. You want to convince your readers that your analysis is correct. Do not think of those who agree with your prejudice in the first place; try to convince those who, before reading your paper, thought otherwise. A History of Dinner, already discussed, if not specified might unwillingly turn into a History of Opulent Dinners of the Extremely Wealthy over the Ages (Roman Orgy, Versailles-style French dinners, 19th century Salon dinners) because sources on these will be available, while sources on the nourishment or the lack thereof of the poorest segments of society may be hard to find.
If a History of Dinner is to be written, the question may be : which dinners may be regarded representative. For French society of the 18th to 20th century, sufficient sources should be available to cover the various segments of this society. If, instead, we want to write on Ancient Roman Dinners, we might have sufficient sources for the opulent orgies of the wealthy, but insufficient sources for other classes.
Before writing, we should go through the phase of brainstorming : Establish a catalogue of questions you want to answer. What was the purpose of dinner in Versailles in the 18th, in French Salons in the 18th and 19th century, in modern DINK households ? How much effort was involved in preparation ? To what extent did the development of technology affect it ? etc. etc.
In the final paper, individual chapters may try to answer individual questions.

(IX)     Avoiding Unexpected Disasters

Save copies of your computerfiles outside your computer - on disks, on a website, on DSBs etc. I have heard the complaint "my laptop broke down ! I lost all my files ! " too often. Honestly, students who lose the result of months of work that way, deserve it because they were careless and naive.
Once again, write down the reference of any source useful for your topic THE FIRST TIME YOU SEE/USE IT. Later it may be very difficult to find it back.


December 27th 2007

Alexander Ganse