Progress Report 3: A Quiet Week?

Late last night I submitted the final draft of my history proposal. Turned in, wrapped up, and shipped out the paper is out of my hands. This week I focused my efforts on finding more secondary sources, digging at primary sources, and pondering my next line of attack inquiry. For me, this blog post all begins with the marked up proposal draft that I received on Sunday. So let’s begin there, shall we?

Sunday night my thesis adviser sent me a well marked up copy of my first draft. Dr. Fernsebner highlighted some key issues that weakened my proposal: tone, sources, and framing a question. These three items can make or break a proposal. A proposal is more than just another paper on the long (perhaps ever-growing) list of papers you have. Rather, the proposal acts as a road map to how you intend on completing the long and arduous task of writing your thesis. The history department’s insistence on students writing a proposal is solid, because these proposals are similar to writing for grant money. You may not have really started the project, but at least you can demonstrate your competence in the field and what you already know about your topic. Given the nature of the proposal, you will be torn between not knowing enough (i.e. sounding unsure of yourself) and needing to communicate to someone that you have a very sound grasp of the material you are researching. The flip side of this issue is that you do not want to overemphasize your certainty. In order to make this explanation clearer, I will be demonstrating both problems through the first draft of my own proposal:

  1. “I will attempt to answer how simplification became the preferred route for Chinese’s future.”
    • The main problem here is the word “attempt.” Throughout may paper I had a very tentative voice. Anyone reading it would be able to see I was trying to be as non-committal as possible.
  2. “While I certainly will find some documentation, the absence of more personal writings should not negatively impact my project.”
    • This sentence actually encapsulates both problems I mentioned, too confident yet too uncertain.
    • Saying “certainly,” according to Dr. Fernsebner, “invites contradiction on the part of the readers.”
    • Keep in mind that the key is to balance uncertainty and confidence

My initial draft suffered from my inability to see a proposal for what it is, a tentative work produced from early, preliminary research. With that in mind you should go into your proposal with a basic understanding of your topic, understanding of potential research difficulties, and a sense of where your research is going. Writing your proposal should help hone basic questions and chart your research better than just thinking about the project as you go along reading.

Moving away from tone, my second issue was sources. For history papers you have two types of sources: primary and secondary. Both of those pieces are necessary to have a potentially successful paper. As a quick aside, primary sources are documents or media produced during the time you are research or by a person of the time. Think of it as your primary contact with the event. Analyzing the event and primary sources are your secondary sources. There is always a little bit of debate about what counts as a secondary source, but for simplicity’s sake, I like to think of secondary as a document produced by scholars from a later date or people looking back on the event/person after much time has passed. Some documents straddle the line between primary and secondary, namely memoirs. Others hold both statuses, such as film, but we can ponder that some other time.

Now I have dug up a wealth of primary sources for my research on Chinese character reform, but frankly the secondary sources were rather lacking. So let me touch on what to do when there just is not that much in the way of scholarly works on your particular topic. Think about the events surrounding your topic or perhaps related themes. For the language reform there are only a handful of scholarly works that detail the reform and historical implications, but my research does not just consider the language reformation. Rather, my research seeks to link nationalism and language reform. Now, scholars have produced a great deal of works about how language can become a driving force for national identity. These works will help to bolster not only your sense of other similar historical situations but also inform you of some of the previous theories and debates. Another way to consider the importance of secondary resources is to think about a long discussion and you have shown up late. Without someone filling you in on the discussion it is likely that you will merely repeat what has already been said. Secondary sources allow you to see what ground has already been covered. What are the major issues in similar situations? What do scholars now debate about concerning your topic.

Finally, ask yourself, “what is my paper asking? What is it answering?” These questions are exceedingly simple but crucial. Just because you have sources and pretty grammar does not equal a stellar paper. The lines of inquiry fundamentally shape your project. What questions you ask will lead to what types of answers you will receive. I say that knowing how asking poor questions leads to nothing but even worse answers. When writing my paper I assumed that my questions would just come out naturally. I am studying character reform…isn’t that good enough? No, no it is not. What about it is important? How does it connect to the larger issue of nationalism within China during the honeymoon period of the People’s Republic of China? What were the main goals of the government for the language reform? How did the publishing organization for character reform influence the language movement? Who were the key players? So you see some of the questions are specific, who/where/when questions and others are broader and thematic.

To wrap up! Keep tone, sources, and questions in mind when you are taking on big projects. Hopefully here soon I will be able to post a final draft of my proposal (other drafts are too dangerous for the general audience!). Monday, January 31st I will hear from the University about my grant proposal. Will I win some financial assistance to continue my work? Or will I have to beg for cash to keep it going? Find out next time!

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