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History Dissertations: Top Tips for Students

We’ve finished our most recent dissertation cycle here at Northampton. The marking is done and the results have been released. It seems a useful time to reflect as I prepare meetings to discuss projects with students for next year.

We’ve had some great results, some fascinating dissertations, some of them first class. As the convenor of our dissertation module and a supervisor I have the pleasure of seeing individual projects through to completion as well as seeing the ‘whole picture.’ I’m the first to see the overall results which is very exciting!

Seeing students excel in their dissertations is among the most rewarding parts of my job. The dissertation is the culmination of their studies, where they test all the skills they have acquired and really think deeply about the subject in the context of a detailed research project. It is when they truly become ‘historians.’

Some of the results are publishable and some do get published and that is tremendously satisfying for us and the students.

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Students also really enjoy the process overall. We are consistently told by students near the end of their studies (often at graduation) that it was their favourite experience at university. They get to focus on their specific interests, develop their own ideas.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that it isn’t hard work, difficult and stressful. Developing high quality research and making it worthy of good rewards is all of these things.

So here is a brief description of what a dissertation is and some tips for succeeding with the dissertation and having a good experience – some dissertation do’s and dont’s that we communicate to our students at the start of the process.

Every project is different and only you and your supervisor know precisely what you should be doing from one point to another but these guidelines generally apply to most dissertations. This is a longer blog than I usually write but there’s a lot to get through!

What is a Dissertation?

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A history dissertation is a written study (Most universities specify around 10,000 words) of a specific historical topic/theme/person/event.

It forms a significant part of the third year of an undergraduate degree (many universities, including us, double weight them so they count for two modules).

It should be based around a series of primary sources (the volume and type depends on the project) and should include a comprehensive review of the existing historical literature (this is usually done in the introduction).

Dissertations are not ‘taught’ in the way that other modules are – they are individual projects supervised by academic members of staff.

We provide whole group guidance for our third years in four sessions across the academic year (some other institutions do this, some don’t). But in the main your experience will involve one-on-one supervisions.

A dissertation is not a long essay and it is not a source analysis.

Unlike essays the argument of the dissertation must be based around and driven by primary sources and the secondary sources (the books, articles etc) are used to contextualize and help you interpret the findings from the primary sources.

Unlike source analyses the sources must be used to build the overall argument – merely commenting on their content is not enough. Your footnotes in the main chapters should mainly be to your primary sources – this is why we call them ‘primary.’

Some universities (including ours) build in other assignments to the dissertation module (we have a Viva which forms 10% of the overall grade). These are important staging posts towards the final product. But the showpiece is always the written dissertation and that’s the piece of work you’ll have on your bookshelf after the deed is done.

Do’s and Don’ts

1. Choosing the Topic: Picking a topic is subject to a range of different factors: In short it must be interesting to you, feasible in the time (1 year) and space (10,000 words) you have, possible with regards to primary source material and worthy of study.

DO pick a topic you are interested in, DON’T pick something because it seems easy. You will be studying this topic for a whole year and it will be really tiresome if it’s something that doesn’t really interest you.

DO take time thinking about your topic and speak to your prospective supervisor in detail about this (probably in several different meetings). DO read around the subject. DON’T rush this – if you change your mind midway through the project it will almost definitely impact negatively on the outcome (are you listening Brexiteers?)

Ask yourself a series of questions. What period of history am I interested in? Am I a political, military, social, cultural or economic historian? What particular themes have I enjoyed on my modules, is there anything I particularly enjoyed (think of the assignments you have done).

There’s no problem starting with quite a broad topic then narrowing this down as you scope the project (see below).

But the topic needs to be worthy of study in the sense that there needs to be a rationale, it needs to be something that is of interest to others and some importance, not just interesting to you. In the introduction you’ll need to justify the topic, why are you studying it and what the importance of it is.

2. Scoping the topic: DO scope your project carefully before deciding on it and DON’T stick stubbornly to your beloved subject if it becomes clear it can’t be done.

Are the primary sources available and can you use them? If they are written in a foreign language will you be able to read them? Is there much more that can be said about the topic? Can the project be done in one year and can it be given sufficient justice in 10,000 words? – (a new history of the Second World War is probably not feasible, neither is a new history of the Industrial Revolution).

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The final product will be only four times the length of this blog (we exclude footnotes and bibliography) so what at first seems a daunting volume of writing will soon become quite a restrictive format.

Work spent early on planning and researching the project (as opposed to researching the subject) will be some of the most valuable time you’ll spend on it.

3. Organising your work: DO start work early. DON’T leave it until the beginning of the third year. You’ll have a very busy and hectic final year anyway, so don’t make it even more stressful.

Make sure you start the project over the summer between the second and third year. Engage with any preparation modules in the second year – ours is called ‘Research Skills in History.’

Over the summer get some reading done, get to the archives and start thinking about a structure – very valuable time, especially if an unexpected personal or family issue means you have to take some time off in the third year.

You need to take a break from your studies, that is important, but there should be time for work too.

DO work consistently on the project at an even pace, DON’T work in ‘fits and starts.’  Try to work on the dissertation each week so you remain ‘in contact’ with the research.

Successful academic research requires us to create a space in our minds that is devoted to the project – it becomes part of us (not physically of course but that’s how it feels). A few weeks away will distance you from the project and you’ll need to spend several days (or more) ‘getting back into it.’

As academics with teaching and admin to take care of as well as research we’re all well aware of that. I’m looking forward to getting my teeth into my new project on the history of emotions over the summer.

4. Supervisions: DO go to meetings with your supervisor and DON’T ‘bury your head in the sand’. Missing meetings (often because targets have not been met or little work has been done) will annoy your supervisor and if you make a habit of doing this will leave you flying solo with the project.

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Academics require years of training and experience to manage their own projects – the simple truth is students (undergrads and postgrads) need supervision because they lack that experience.

Make sure you pay attention in supervisions and take notes for future reference. Try to stick to any plans and timetables agreed – its best to be realistic when setting these. Above all be honest, supervisors can’t help if they don’t have the full picture.

5. The Reading: DO think about what you need from your reading. You need three main things:

1. The main debates and arguments in your topic area – these are generally found in the introductions of books and articles.

2. The wider context within which your topic sits – this means finding reading dealing more widely with your period and topic so DON’T merely read the small number of books on the history of shoemaking in nineteenth century Northampton if that is your subject. Read about be wider history of that industry and the wider economic history of Britain in that period.

3. Some background and factual details with some examples.

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Often students focus on number 3 and neglect the first two. You’re expected to distill and synthesize this material for the literature review in the introduction and to contextualize and compare your findings from the primary sources in the main chapters. Think about this as you read and take notes.

This means the best way is always to read the literature and study the sources in tandem. DON’T do one first then the other. You want the primary and  secondary sources to have a productive conversation with each other.

More generally you should use your reading to familiarise yourself with your period/country/locale. As L. P. Hartley wisely said ‘The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there’: L. P. Hartley ‘The Go-Betweens’. You will be a traveler in that foreign place (be it nineteenth century Britain or early modern France etc) so equip yourself with knowledge about the language, culture, politics and habits of that place, even if you’re not a social or cultural historian.

We all know how disorientating it can be in a new place and even if you’ve made visits there before in your modules this will be a much longer and important trip. A good textbook is a wise investment for this purpose, ask your supervisor to recommend a ‘goodun’.

6. Analysing the primary sources: This will be the really fun stuff and is often fascinating and rewarding. DO spend time with your sources, get to know them well, understand their quirks and foibles. Your relationship with the sources should be deep and meaningful, not a brief flirtation. Dissertations require more than a ‘quick look’ at the source material.

It takes a lot of time to read and thoroughly analyse sources, even online ones or visual sources so DON’T under-estimate this in your planning. You’ll understand them more fully if you have a little bit of reading under your belt but you should get to the sources ASAP.

Take a look at this excerpt from an early eighteenth century manuscript letter. How long might it take you to get through a long series of this type of document? What kinds of knowledge and practical skills might you need to use these types of sources? Not all sources will involve the same kinds of skills and knowledge, but all of them will require decoding and careful analysis.

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More than anything else the best dissertations are often expressions of the deep knowledge that students have of their sources as windows on the period and area they are studying. If you find previously unstudied sources you stand a chance of finding something truly original but you might also find a novel way of interpreting well known sources.

7. The writing process: DO start writing early and DON’T leave this until the end. As soon as you have some ideas and some material from the sources get on with some writing and send it to your supervisor once drafted.

Start with an easier element of the project and this need not be the introduction (these are often best left until the end of the process). Dissertations need to be drafted, redrafted, redrafted again (possibly several times more) and copy edited before the final read through and submission.

Early writing will expose any weaknesses in the research plan, give you a good idea of what you can fit into 10,000 words, show you the gaps in your knowledge, gaps in your reading and any flaws in technical aspects of your writing remaining into the third year.

If you think that you work best under pressure with coursework, close to the deadlines, this won’t work for the dissertation. In any case you’ve probably not fulfilled your potential with the other coursework you’ve approached in this way.

8. Developing the argument: DO take time to really think about your project and the argument, DON’T rush to pull the trigger on this. What are the central debates and arguments in your topic area? What are the sources as a whole telling you about it?

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This may be quite complex, a series of primary sources rarely give us a linear and simple narrative picture. Accept these nuances and acknowledge them.

What is the wider significance of your topic and findings? DO make the most of your work but DON’T be tempted to overstate the significance of your conclusions and simply dismiss all other research in your area.

Conclusions and arguments should be calibrated to the scope of the sources and the length of the study. Historical research is about building on the previous work done, not dismissing it all and starting again.

9. Staying calm: DON’T Panic and DO work through problems.

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You will encounter problems, bumps in the road. This is inevitable in a project that lasts a whole year and involves so much work.

If you encounter a problem, either intellectual or practical, speak to your supervisor ASAP. They will have encountered this problem before and are best equipped to help you deal with it.

If you are suffering from stress and anxiety tell your supervisor, they may recommend that you see a counselor. There is no shame in this, its a stressful period in your life so access all the assistance you need to get through it.

The cycles of academic life are one of the things I love about the job – Seeing new students arrive, watching their knowledge and skills develop and seeing their work come to fruition in the dissertation and then graduate – it mirrors my own research cycle: Starting a research project, beginning the writing process, seeing the publication come to completion.

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There’s a very pleasing symmetry to it all. I look forward, as ever, to next year’s dissertations. There will be frustrations but there’ll also be some fascinating work and, as ever, some real gems.

Good luck with your projects! Whatever the results don’t be too hard on yourself, if you gave it your best shot that’s all anyone can ask.

Mark Rothery, Senior Lecturer in Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century History

 

Exploring the Archives

There are many skills a historian acquires: distilling information, debates and arguments; finding, reading and analyzing primary sources; writing and publishing research; dressing smart but casual; finding obscure conference venues; looking marginally interested in endless administrative meetings (with full knowledge that each second saps a small piece of our zest for life – See here for helpful advice: Rules for a Successful Meeting). Our skills are fine tuned primarily in the archives, that’s where the most fun is to be had. That’s nirvana, where all the good stuff is.

At Northampton we introduce history students to these gems as early as possible because we want them to research history rather than just study it. In that spirit we organize lots of visits to archives, museums and libraries.

We offer trips for our second and third year students to the National Archives, the British Library, the London Metropolitan Archives, the Wellcome Library, Bletchley Park and the Imperial War Museum.

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Students with Searchlight documents

Our first years begin more locally by visiting three archives in Northampton: the National Leather Collection, Northamptonshire Central Library and Searchlight (University of Northampton). This is part of our first year skills module, ‘Themes and Perspectives.’

The students made some interesting discoveries this year. One group found an innocuous looking leather-bound cane in the National Leather Collection, only to discover (to the tutor’s alarm) that there was a sharp blade concealed within: this was a sword cane, of the type often carried by British military officers in India.

Another group used the a microfiche reader in the Central Library to look at Northamptonshire General Hospital’s birth records, and one student found his own record in there. Microfiche readers are old technology – none of the students had used one before – but they are still useful for consulting large datasets like newspapers and the census.

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Using a microfiche at the Central Library

We also explore digital archives. The US Holocaust Memorial Museum’s oral history deposits are a particular favourite: US Holocaust Memorial Oral History. We aim to show students the great quality and volume of sources available to them. We want to equip them with all the skills they will need to succeed in their studies.

The students blog on their visits and the module concludes with a public poster presentation on campus. In groups the students summarize their experiences and their findings in the poster and answer questions from the audience. It’s a nerve-racking experience but a tremendously valuable and rewarding one.

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The poster presentations

This year the students chose to focus on topics including W.J. Basset-Lowke (Northants businessman), Charles Bradlaugh (MP for Northampton), Poor Houses and Northamptonshire Hospital, Tunderbolt (a Far Right magazine), and Spencer Percival (MP for Northampton, PM 1809-1812, assassinated 1812). All of them local themes with national significance and context.

The students were struck by the diversity of primary sources in each archive (material objects as well as documents). They appreciated the value of handling original documents, as students often do in this digital age. They were interested in the range of different archives available and the numbers of people accessing and using them (note to Northamptonshire Council: Council Spending Cuts).

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Discussing the posters

In their second year these students will hone their research talents on the ‘Research Skills’ module. Finally in the third year they are let loose on their own dissertation project. Topics this year have ranged from courtship ballads in the seventeenth century to Comintern control of Harry Pollitt (General Secretary of the Communist Party of Great Britain, 1929-56).

When they graduate students tell us that researching their dissertations was the best part of their experience as students. We’re with you on that! Researching is not an addition to academic life, it’s a crucial part of what we do. The closest-range social impact that research has is to enrich the experience of our students.

Mark Rothery – Senior Lecturer in Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century History

Matthew McCormack – Professor of History

DIY Digitisation and Ownership of the Past

Whatever new fads and fashions there are in the study of history (and believe it or not there are many happening all the time) one thing has remained in place since the revolutionary work of Leopold Von Ranke and the German school of history in the late nineteenth century: the use of primary sources dating from the period we are studying.

These might be official government documents, personal correspondence and diaries, images, recorded interviews or (as has been the fashion recently) objects. These things are our link to the past, helping us make sense of what people thought and felt. They allow us to inhabit the past, the same spaces as our historical subjects inhabited (in a literal sense when we touch the same documents they created). They are what makes history interesting and exciting.

As a historian I see no other method of enquiry – yes people are writing less (or zero) letters and ‘we’ll all be searching the web and using metadata in the future.’ But one way or another we will have to make direct contact with our past through some kind of evidence, otherwise it will be lost to us, which could have grave consequences.

George Orwell warned of the dangers of losing contact with the past in his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. The main protagonist, Winston Smith, works on historical records for the ruling party in this dystopian future, altering  the past in accordance with Party policy, at the same time trying to remember his own past, lost in a pre-fabricated illusion un-anchored in time and space.

Historians must explore the past and they must be open about what they find, however awkward this may be for others – this is as true of social, economic and cultural history as it is of political and diplomatic history.

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John Hurt as Winston Smith in the film 1984 (1984) 

 

Primary sources, then, must continue to be our historical material. But changes have been afoot for the past ten years or so in the methods by which we collect these documents. Advances in digital camera technology and a relaxation(ish) of attitudes to photography in archives have allowed historians (and anyone else who cares to bother) to digitally copy and ‘remove’ huge amounts of historical evidence from the archives.

This process of ‘DIY Digitisation’ has been revolutionary for some, and for others at least a significant change in academic practice. Not all historians now work in archives on their documents, some choose to make flying visits, fill their memory cards, and work on the documents at home. Many archives now bear more resemblance to photography studios than quiet spaces for historical enquiry.

Copyright rules and rules of privacy and ethics still remain central to what historians do in archives and with their documents, quite rightly so. But the fact remains that historians ‘own’ these documents in practical, if not legal terms. They have them ‘saved’ on their computers, available to them at any time (when they aren’t teaching, ‘doing some admin’, sitting in meetings…). In a world becoming more ‘digital’ on a day-to-day basis these documents are becoming more real to us – I know this having used this method for the past ten years and having been on that journey myself.

The documents can be consulted and re-consulted at the whim of the researcher, not at the behest of an archivist, and this is a game-changer. It isn’t just about ‘convenience’, it’s about access. Historians of material culture may argue their preference is to see, touch and feel their objects and many do. But many also rely on images of their objects and capture these for similar reasons – so that they can revisit them.

Charges applied to digital photography in archives (not all but many) are an indication of the contestations going on around the ‘ownership’ of these documents, the purposes of archives in physical buildings and the primacy of archive-researcher in the whole process as recent examinations of the issues have shown Learning to let go: Ownership, rights, fees and permissions of readers’ photographs. Given the mass exodus of documents from archives it seems to be a contest that historians are well equipped for.

Perhaps this is a good thing – history should be ours, it is our history and all history, whether secret communications between Churchill and Roosevelt or the correspondence of families in the eighteenth century, is in the public interest. Interesting things are often revealed when documents emerge from the shadows. Just yesterday we learnt that the Queen has invested (offshore) in some companies with questionable portfolios and ethical practices thanks to the leaked ‘Paradise Papers’ Paradise Papers leak reveals Duchy of Lancaster put money into retailer criticised for exploiting poor families. Oh, and Bono bought a Lithuanian supermarket in-between saving the world from poverty U2 frontman was investor in firm based in island nation where foreign investors pay 5% tax on profits, Paradise Papers show

Clearly these matters have more immediate political resonance than the culinary habits of a seventeenth century clergyman, but it all adds up to something bigger than the parts and it is all ours (or should be). I believe that digitisation can potentially have a democratising and liberating impact on our understanding of the past. We are still subject to the rules of archives on access, lots of documents remain unavailable. Some of this material is drip-fed to us by others in the form of online databases, but any of us can now ‘own’ historical documents (again if not legally then in an everyday sense of access) by copying them ourselves and potentially in quite large volumes.

We should beware, of course, that this does not interfere with our professional practice as historians. Reading sources ‘at leisure’ has the potential to loosen and de-formalise the process of document analysis. In his classic examination of the discipline, What is History (1961) E. H. Carr warned against ‘common-sense history’:

‘History consists of a corpus of ascertained facts. The facts are available to the historian in documents, inscriptions and so on, like fish on the fishmonger’s slab. The historian collects them, takes them home, and cooks and serves them in whatever style appeals to him.’

This reminds us that digitisation has not ‘changed everything’ and the fundamental rules and dangers of the game apply. But the way we ‘take them home’ has changed and is, I believe, changing what we can get from the documents and expanding our field of vision as historians. Orwell’s future was dystopian and clearly there are lots of concerns around the digitisation of our lives. But we can take ownership of some of it and the study of history seems like a good place to start.

Mark Rothery, Senior Lecturer in Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century History

If you would like to read a more extended piece on DIY Digitisation and find out more about my experiences of the process follow this link to my online article DIY Digitisation in the Study of Social History . You will find a range of other papers on the subject linked from that page.