History Day is also, however, an opportunity for students and teachers to think beyond usual assignments and, especially, contacts. So often, we stay inside our familiar orbits. Students work with their teachers, in their school library, and on the internet. Yet History Day invites students to fly farther, to go beyond where they might if it was a regular assignment.
I remember in one of my graduate school classes a student who had to report on a book. He began his presentation by stating that he had contacted the author. This wasn’t just any old author. It was someone big in the field, and I just couldn’t believe that the student, without any “credentials,” went ahead and called a well-known historian. But, you know, the student’s report and understanding of the book was really good.
Just as importantly, this award-winning author was more than willing to take the time to chat with a student about something in which both had an interest. The point is that Connecticut History Day is a wonderful opportunity for these sorts of interactions. Teachers should encourage their students to reach out. With the internet and email, there are literally no barriers. Most serious scholars are also serious teachers and more often than not they’re happy to help out aspiring young students who show initiative.
Are there any rules to contacting a professional historian? Sure. Here are a few things to think about:
- As your research should be mostly complete with the regional contests over, students should know that interviewing a scholar isn’t be the start of the journey. Having familiarity with the topic will also make for much better and specific questions.
- Look up information about the scholar. Have they published something related to the topic? If yes, look at it and base some of the questions on it.
- Don’t ask super broad questions? “Why was the Civil War fought?” This is the sort of question that causes a scholar to conclude preparation work hasn’t be done. It’s much better to ask specific questions. Also, try to avoid repetitive questions, parts of which have already been answered.
- Be professional. Make sure to address the scholar by their proper title. “Dr.” if they have a Ph.D. If you don’t know, it’s usually safe to call him or her “professor” if they teach at a college or university. – Look them up on the university website.
Matthew Warshauer is a professor of history at Central Connecticut State University. Warshauer has written several books including Inside Connecticut and the Civil War: Essays on One State’s Struggles; Connecticut in the American Civil War: Slavery, Sacrifice and Survival; Andrew Jackson in Context and more. Along with writing books on Connecticut and United States history, Warshauer served as the editor to the journal Connecticut History from 2003-2011.