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Thursday, August 30, 2018

Historical Research Methods Letter Assignment, Autumn 2018

On this date on Round and Square's History 
30 August 2015—China's Lunar Calendar 2015 08-29
30 August 2015—New York Review of Books Questions: Autumn 2015
30 August 2014—China's Lunar Calendar 2014 08-29
30 August 2014—New York Review of Books Questions: Autumn 2014
30 August 2013—China's Lunar Calendar 2013 08-29
30 August 2013—Syllabic Cycles: Mountains Syllabus (b)
30 August 2012—The New Yorker and the World: Course Description (h)
30 August 2011—Annals of Ostracism: Discovered Notes

[a] Text and illustration RF
Historical Research Methods
History 210
Autumn 2018

Preliminary Writing Assignment 
Research: The Letter
By choosing the letter format for your first writing assignment, I am asking you to build upon the skills you have already begun to develop in analyzing (and providing examples for) research materials. You have already reached a point where you have some experience with “research,” and your job will be to explain it to an intelligent non-specialist.
[b] Reaching, teaching RF

Teach it, really.

Letters from “the field” (or our modified “archive” of research works on the syllabus) are a good way to refine your thoughts about historical research, and they are a useful medium for beginning the intellectual “framing process” that will accelerate as we move through the next two-thirds of the course. The letter writing exercise is especially useful while studying research materials. 

The nonfiction writer John McPhee explains to his students that a letter is often precisely the solution to problems of interpretation or clarity—when in doubt, write to mother, he says. In this case, it is not a plea of “send money” that the letter contains, but a reworking, rethinking, and contextualization of your work. You need not limit yourself to kinfolk, but you need to think about who the recipient will be (ideally someone who will welcome a letter about “doing theory”).

It needs to be a real letter to a real reader. Do not treat this assignment as an "exercise." Your letter will be mailed through the Beloit College history department and sent to your reader.

You owe it to yourself to listen to this long interview with McPhee (but I know that you are pressed for time). At the very least, though, listen to the first few minutes. It is the very purpose that lies behind this assignment.

John McPhee NPR (1978) 22:40
Click on the second blue circle on the right side of the page (it is worth it)

Now start writing. Toward that end, you should pay attention to the following issues.

1. The letter needs to be “long enough” to get you deeply into several issues regarding social and cultural theory, including particular approaches and a few examples.  There is no absolute upper limit, but I am going to make an absolute lower limit of 2,000 words (about six pages). Realistically, your letter should probably be somewhere in the 3,000 word range (about ten pages). 2,000 words (about six pages) is the bare minimum, and you are unlikely to receive an "A" for it. The letter requires detail, and that usually requires 2,500 or 3,000 words, with solid examples (including quotations) from your texts. 

Do not, under any circumstances, turn in an assignment shorter than 2,000 words.
2. I am asking you to connect with a very specific reader, and to explain “historical research methods” in a level of detail that she will find satisfying. You are the expert, and your “audience” is the person who will be reading your letter (think of my role as reading over her shoulder). I have found that this kind of assignment helps students to explain even abstruse matters, because the personal relationship they have with their readers demands an attention to patient explanation that is often lacking in more “academic” forms of writing, in which they assume that a professor already knows what they are writing about.

Your reader probably doesn't. 

Make it make sense.

3. You may approach your materials from any angle that you like, but you will need to “cover” at least the following items, no matter what order you choose.

          a. You must discuss the “what is research?” question. Provide your reader with 
              at least a few ways of thinking about it. Use examples from texts you have 
              noticed in the Geil archive.

          b. To some extent (you may choose to emphasize this matter or just treat it lightly),   
               you must introduce William Edgar Geil (1865-1925). It is entirely your decision 
               how you do so, however. You certainly have plenty to discuss about Geil, but 
               this letter need not be a "biography" of him.

          c. Give your reader a sense of what you have learned up to this point about 
              how to "do" research, using the Geil archive. Use examples, either from the 
              course or your own work.

          d. Finally, give your reader some sense of what it is like to “learn to do research” by 
              discussing the details of some of our texts. Think about your possible research 
              proposal project. Explain it to your reader.

          e. You must have at least one illustration. Think about "the rhetorical role of 
               illustrations" in the New York Review of Books.
4. The best way to approach the writing process is in three parts (this is a friendly suggestion). First, jot down some notes for each of the “sections” of your letter. Second, using those notes as a guide, write a rough draft of the whole letter. Third, revise, polish, and refine.  

Voilà you will have something not unlike what Alexis de Tocqueville might have written about understanding a complex, foreign culture that baffled and enticed him 180 years ago. While your letter won’t be as long as Democracy in America, it is likely—if it is done well—to be much like Tocqueville’s rich and evocative letters back to his family about encountering people, texts, and institutions in a strange land called the United States. 

You get the idea. If you don't, just raise your hand and ask me (or send me an e-mail message). I'll be happy to help.
***  ***
Letters are Due (as stapled hard-copies outside my office, MI 206)
by 5:00 p.m. on Sunday, September 30.

Add the word count and your box number to all papers!
[e] And then you may rest RF

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