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.