Four themes, four projects, four years. From “Turning Points” in 2013 to “Exploration, Encounter, and Exchange” in 2016, History Day has served as a gateway to a new era of history and rich academic growth with each project I completed.
While you’ll certainly learn plenty about whatever topic you choose to pursue, you will also have some larger conclusions to draw about the contest in general. Although each History Day experience is different, here are some of my Yearly Lessons and Takeaways:
History Day has an undeniably distinctive environment. Its grounds are rich with contagious enthusiasm, exceptional diligence, and, of course, an intense love for history. When you begin your research, you have the capacity to dive deeply into the metaphorical world of your topic. Make sure that you fully embrace this. History Day allows you to devote yourself to a field of your choice and explore history more thoroughly than you could in any high school project.
That being said, this all may seem daunting if you have never done anything like it before in your classes. From my experience, however, History Day provides the best opportunity to expand beyond what’s familiar and comfortable in order to ultimately learn invaluable research and analytical skills.
For the theme of “Rights and Responsibility” in 9th grade, I chose to create a project on China’s One-Child policy. While it was amazing to research a topic that was so personal to me, I quickly found that, despite its prevalence, I had trouble finding resources that addressed my particular approach on the topic. Unfortunately, I found that many of the documents I was looking for were either written in Chinese without any reliable translation available or were not easily accessible due to my location. After realizing how limited I had been by my topic, I resolved that it would be best to stick to local topics in the future.
Although we may not always be aware of it, Connecticut truly has a rich history and a beautiful character to it. It’s also extremely rewarding to be able to learn about the world immediately around you—sometimes just the proximity of a particular topic can make its history much more tangible as well. When I chose to research Griswold v. Connecticut and the right to privacy and contraception, I was welcomed with an array of resources readily available in libraries, archives, and historical societies all throughout the state. Connecticut’s resources were abounding.
Every year, History Day students scour through museum basements and online databases searching for the perfect resources for their projects. Although it was incredible to scan Joseph Pulitzer’s personal papers and rare interviews with Estelle Griswold, I ultimately found that the Connecticut History Day community was by far the most important resource that endured the most throughout all four of my years. As cheesy as it is, I’m extremely grateful to the various workshops and resources hosted by the Connecticut History Day throughout the year, those at the Connecticut Public Affairs Network who run the program, as well as other participants who spent hours giving me feedback on my project. Each of them challenged me to go further and grow beyond what I previously imagined was possible.
Throughout all four years, History Day consistently served as an important source of growth for me. Though you may be thrilled to discover the connection between yellow journalism and immigration in the early 1900s or that Griswold v. Connecticut served as the prelude to Roe v. Wade, don’t forget about some of the more general and overarching things you will learn about community and historical research as well.
I wish you the best of luck with all your projects! What will you learn?
During a roundtable discussion at the Connecticut History Day state finals last year, I asked students competing in the senior paper category what I thought was a devilish question. In this modern world of digital media, the History Channel, and video documentaries, I inquired, wasn’t writing historical papers a little passé? To my surprise, these presumably tech-savvy young people responded with a unanimous, full-throated no. A scholarly paper, they eloquently explained, is the ultimate form of historical presentation. It facilitates the deepest investigation and most rigorous analysis of historical subjects.
And so it is, I think, with a superior History Day paper entry. Of any History Day category, a historical paper is a solo performance by a single student who engages in the most probing research and most careful examination of a topic covered in the History Day theme. A student who writes a successful paper, I discern from many years judging papers, will pay close attention to History Day’s well-chosen judging criteria regarding Historical Quality, Relation to Theme, and Clarity of Presentation. In doing so, a superior paper will exhibit the best qualities of the historian’s craft. In my experience, five qualities exemplify such a paper.
First is a well-framed research question about a well-chosen topic for the year’s History Day theme. I have read many fine papers that covered topics that did not obviously fit the theme, or that did not explain explicitly how their topics connected to the theme. This year’s theme of “Conflict and Compromise” in history, for instance, begs for a clear definition of those two concepts, and suggests a historical process of clash or disagreement followed by the reconciliation of contrasting views. The so-called Great or “Connecticut Compromise” at the 1787 Philadelphia constitutional convention is one of many wonderful Connecticut topics that the process of “Conflict and Compromise” can richly illuminate—the disagreement over different modes of Congressional election followed by the “compromise” (advanced Connecticut delegates) that established a two-house Congress with differing modes of representation.
Third is the quality and clarity of the paper’s writing. Judges are centrally interested in papers’ substance—that is, what they have to say about a topic—but rough writing can get in the way of what judges are looking for. Judges look closely for good historical analysis, not just narrative or description, in History Day papers, and how well papers organize and frame their arguments. Successful papers evince a good structure that includes a clear opening paragraph identifying the topic and research questions, a body that develops the evidence, and an explicit conclusion that affirms the topic’s historical importance. Good paragraph and sentence structure contribute vitally to a clear argument, too. A fine paper on the struggle and compromise for African-Americans’ right to vote, for example, deserves good organization and clear sentences.
Fourth is good punctuation, proper footnotes and correct bibliography, minor issues in judging criteria, but a chronic stumbling block, in my experience. Periods and commas almost always go inside quotation marks. First (not last) names go first in footnotes. First-hand accounts should be grouped with primary sources in bibliographies, where rules require primary and secondary sources to be separated. Careful attention to such basic rules in Turabian’s Manual for Writers or Gibaldi’s MLA Handbook can distinguish a good History Day paper from a superior paper.
Finally, diligent authors of History Day papers check their facts. My experience as judge shows how easily factual errors slip into papers, and how unfortunately they mar otherwise very good papers. Careful proofreading separates fine papers from superior papers.
Writing a superior History Day paper is a remarkable accomplishment. Writing a winning paper is even more amazing. Practicing good historical craftsmanship can produce this result. My fellow judges and I have consistent admiration for students who achieve it.
Donald W. Rogers, Ph. D is a part-time Lecturer in History at Central Connecticut State University, University of Connecticut-Storrs, and Housatonic Community College. Don has become one of our repeat Connecticut History Day judges, and is often at multiple Regional Contests as well as the State Contest in April.