HOW DO I FORMULATE A GOOD HISTORIA QUESTION?

  3.1 Why are Questions so Important?
  3.2 What are the Characteristics of a Good Question for a Historia Paper?
  3.3 How Do I Actually Go About Framing a Good Question for my Historia Paper?
 
3.31 The Ninth and Tenth Grade Projects: How Do I Go From a Relatively Narrow Assigned Topic to a Good Historia Question?
3.32 The Eleventh and Twelfth Grade Projects: How Do I Go From a Broad Topic to a Good Historia Question?
  3.4 What Does it Mean to Think Historically?

3.1 WHY ARE QUESTIONS SO IMPORTANT?

Sometimes school just seems like a race to get the "right" answers. But as we grow up intellectually we realize that sometimes it's not the answers that really matter but the questions. People at the intellectual cutting edges of their fields are not handed a neat course outline with a tidy list of assignments when they arrive at the lab or the library in the morning. They must determine what questions they will ask. Those questions are like search beams glaring out into unknown territory; their direction and power will determine the value of what is seen. The price for asking misguided questions in real life is much steeper than a bad grade; it could be millions in research grants wasted—not to mention decades of one's life.

Albert Einstein spent the last decades of his life pursuing the dream of a "unified field theory," a theory of everything that would relate mathematically all the forces of the universe, from the atom to the galaxies. He never succeeded, and his colleagues thought he was barking up the wrong tree—wasting his time by asking a bad question that had no answer. But now, decades after Einstein's death, the quest for a unified field theory has become one of the hottest areas of research in physics. Although he didn't get the answer, Einstein may yet get the last laugh because he asked the right question.

The formation of your Historia question is one of the most intellectually challenging and sophisticated parts of the research process, and it will have a major impact on the thinking level you can reach with your paper. If you ask an insightful question, other people will always be interested in your work—even if they totally disagree with your answer. On the other hand, if you ask a vague, flawed, or dull question, few people will care about your work, no matter how much time and brainpower you have put into it. Thus the quality of your question will set either a ceiling or a floor to the quality of your inquiry.

Questions are literally the keys to knowledge. The skill of asking good, critical questions—of interrogating a subject, no matter how much or how little we know about it—is one of the most powerful intellectual tools we can possess. It gives us the power to unlock the doors that open up vast caverns of new knowledge and understanding. And it is a skill that can be learned.

 

3.2 WHAT ARE THE CHARACTERISTICS OF A GOOD QUESTION FOR A HISTORIA PAPER?

A good Historia question is one that requires you to do research and to think. In addition, a good Historia question should be clearly defined and focus on a significant aspect of a meaningful topic that is of appropriate scope. Finally, the question should be interesting to you.

A. A Good Historia Question Requires You to Think and Do Research

Imagine two very different essays on Columbus's voyages of discovery. One simply retells the story of Columbus's voyages, including most of the known facts (the dates of the voyages, the places of his visits, the names and dimensions of his boats, etc.). The other essay consists entirely of judgments on the effects of Columbus's voyages on world history without any factual evidence for support.

Each of these essays is an extreme example that defines a spectrum of essay types. The first required research, but no real thinking; the second involved thinking, but gave no factual evidence to support its conclusions. Each essay does not add up because each is missing a crucial half of the Historia equation. The Historia equation is H=T+R (Historia equals Thinking plus Research.)

A good Historia question is essentially a thought-provoking interpretive question that requires you to exercise historical judgment to develop a point of view (your thesis) that is well-supported by accurate, relevant factual evidence and logical, valid arguments. It requires the diligent, intelligent use of sources, but must, at some point, go beyond these sources. No source can provide the "answer" to your Historia question, because no book, article, or Internet site can tell you what you think. You must discover your own perspective through a combination of "outer research" (in the library) and "inner research" (thinking).

Imagine the structure of your essay as a pyramid. The top represents your own thinking, but it is supported by a solid foundation of factual evidence and logical arguments. The essence of your Historia project is thinking; your essay will ultimately be evaluated by the quantity, depth, and sophistication of the thinking that was required to produce it. You will take strands of material from your sources and weave them together to form a unique pattern that is the expression of your own angle of vision and insight. The extent to which your question stimulates and supports this kind of thinking will have a big influence on the ultimate success of your project.

B. A Good Historia Question Focuses on a Significant Aspect of a Meaningful Topic Within an Appropriate Scope and at an Appropriate Level of Detail

At the ninth and tenth grade levels, you will be assigned a topic from which you will generate a good Historia question. At the eleventh and twelfth grade levels you will be given a broad unit level subject, from which you will carve out a more specific topic, then finally an appropriate question (a more challenging task).

In each case, however, your Historia question should highlight a significant aspect of a meaningful topic. Using our Columbus example, consider the question, "What kind of shoes did Columbus's crew wear and how were they made?" Now perhaps in some context, this would be considered an appropriate topic; Historia is not one of them.

In addition to being a little out of the mainstream, this topic is extremely narrow, and it would be difficult to find enough source material to support a meaningful essay. Which brings us to another hallmark of a good Historia question: it should be of appropriate scope. Your question should not be too general or too specific—but just right. How can you tell? Think of your essay as having a certain density or texture, which is the breadth of your topic divided by the amount of space allotted to it. If the 'texture of your essay is too thin, it means that you have bitten off more material than can be treated at a meaningful level of depth in the allotted space (number of pages). Your paper is superficial. Perhaps "The History of the World" could be written on a single page—but not at any meaningful level of depth. On the other hand, if the texture of your essay is too "thick" it means that you are treating a topic that is too narrow for the allotted space. Although sophisticated essays tend toward greater thickness (because it takes more knowledge and expertise to know so much about such a limited topic), this is still an extreme to be avoided in your Historia paper.

Your question should highlight an aspect of the topic that can be treated at the appropriate level of detail within the allotted number of pages.

Although your question may be a bit fuzzy at first, once developed it should be well-defined, with clear boundaries that separate it from closely related topics.

One good way of gauging whether the scope of your question is too broad, too narrow, or just right is through a preliminary exploration of the available sources. If there are hardly any sources relevant to your question, the reason may be that it is too narrow; on the other hand, if the number of sources is overwhelming, then you know that your subject is too broad.

C. A Good Historia Question Should be Interesting to .You.

Perhaps this may seem like too much to ask, but if you can at least learn to love your topic (like an arranged intellectual marriage), then your Historia project will be much more enjoyable. When we are wrapped up in the pursuit of a truth that really means something to us, it can be intellectually exciting. You will be putting in many long, hard hours of work on your Historia project over the course of many weeks; if you focus on a question that really means something to you, this work can become almost a kind of play or game. The topic becomes a powerful magnet that draws you deeper into the project.

 

3.3 HOW DO I ACTUALLY GO ABOUT FRAMING A GOOD HISTORIA QUESTION?

3.31 The Ninth and Tenth Grade Project: How Do I Go From an Assigned Topic to a Good Historia Question?

At the ninth and tenth grade levels of Historia, you will be assigned a fairly well defined topic from which you will have to generate a good Historia question. On a practical level, how do you do this? What thought process do you go through?

The mind, in some ways, is like an old-fashioned water pump. In order for it to begin pumping, you first have to pour some water into it. This is called "priming the pump." In order to generate a good question, you must first prime the pump of your mind. You must do some preliminary exploratory reading in general sources in order to get a broad overview of your topic. The more you know about your topic, the greater the chance you will encounter something that suggests a good question.

The best place to begin is with any course materials that are relevant to your topic. Then you should read a overview article in a good general or specialized encyclopedia. Perhaps you could then move on to a single chapter in a book that provides a broad view of your topic.

At this point, you do not want to be reading very specific articles that treat just a small sliver of your topic. Without an overall feel for the dimensions of your topic, it will be hard to see how such an article fits in. Imagine your topic as a huge jigsaw puzzle with hundreds of pieces; if you have no ideas what the "big picture" looks like, examining a single piece is unlikely to mean anything.

In general, throughout your research, you should envision the pattern of your reading as a large funnel, moving from the more general sources to the more specific. This will ensure that you will get the most out of your sources as you go along. At this point, you want general overviews because the more aspects of your topic that are treated, the greater the chance of finding an aspect that generates a good question.

You should read these general articles in a special way that serves your particular purpose. You should read them through a "questioning" lens. A good general article takes you on an escorted tour down the "main road" of your topic. It also contains signposts that point you down some interesting side roads. First, look for some signposts that point down side roads that look like they might be intellectually scenic. If something in your head says, "I'd like to know more about that ... that seems interesting"-follow your instincts. Are there aspects of the topic that relate to any personal experience (family involvement, travel, etc.). Are there any possible intersections with other related topics that you know about and/or are interested in—either in other school subjects or in your personal experience?

Most important, look for interesting problems, issues, questions lurking in the reading that might be fertile ground for an interesting thesis. Learn how to listen for the implicit questions that lie beneath the subject headings and lines of the article. Look for discrepancies; discrepancies are stimulants of thought. (Read that last sentence again!)

In the early twentieth century, most physicists believed that the atmosphere was permeated with an invisible substance called the ether. When an experiment was done that showed that this theory was false, the whole discipline was thrown into a crisis: an experimental result had contradicted a widely-held theory. One man sought to explain this discrepancy—his name was Einstein and his new theory was special relativity.

Thought begins with a problem. Does the article say anything that seems unclear, doesn't quite square with what you think, or what you have experienced, or what you have read elsewhere? Does the article contradict itself in any way or does it specifically point out issues where reputable scholars have significant differences of opinion? You are looking for a fertile question, one that can give rise to an interesting thesis. A good question opens up a "thinking space"—an area in which you can do your own independent thinking. Problems, issues, and discrepancies are all clues to the existence of a potential thinking space. Reasonable differences of opinion are the intellectual smoke that signals the presence of an interesting issue that will provide you with a good space to do your own thinking.

3.32 The Eleventh and Twelfth Grade Project: How Do A Go From a Unit Level Subject to a Good Historia Question?

The eleventh and twelfth grade process is a bit more complicated because it starts with a more general topic and therefore has an extra step. But the same general techniques apply. To go from a unit level subject to a topic, you must do general reading and look for an aspect that interests you and seems to contain fertile ground for questions. Once you have narrowed your subject to a topic, then repeat the procedures you learned in ninth and tenth grades to generate a good question.

 

3.4 WHAT DOES IT REALLY MEAN TO THINK HISTORICALLY?

If the whole point of the Historia project is to get you to think historically, what does that really mean? What are some of the key kinds of questions that historians ask? What are the general patterns or forms of historical inquiry? Three important categories are: causes, character, consequences, and connections.

3.41 What are Some Basic Categories of Historical Thought?

A. Causes

The question that is central to historical inquiry—and human understanding, in general—is "why?" The study of causes—of events, trends, ideas, and human behavior—lies at the heart of historical study. When considering a causal question, it is important to appreciate the number of different causes that may be at work; the different types of causes (political, economic, social, etc.), how the different causes relate to each other, and their relative importance or influence. By their very nature, cause-and-effect relationships unfold in time; therefore, a sense of chronology is inherent in historical inquiry.

Although historical study may have some semi-scientific aspects to it, it is at most a social science since it deals with that most unpredictable of phenomena, human beings. History, unlike the "hard" physical sciences, cannot conduct controlled experiments to isolate causal factors; history cannot be done in a test tube. However, historians have their own methods of argumentation from the evidence and their own standards of "proof."

B. Character

What was the character or essential nature of major events, trends, people? What were they really like? What did they really mean? What was their major significance? How does the true character of a historical element (what a particular period, person, movement was like) compare to its self-professed character or how other historians have seen it? Does our account need to be revised in light of new evidence and/or insights?

C. Consequences

What were the effects of major events, trends, and people? What impact did they have on subsequent events and trends?

D. Connections

How do the causes, characters, and consequences of major historical events, trends, ideas, institutions, and figures relate to each other?

3.42 Intellectual "Games" Historians Play

Cutting through all of these categories are classic intellectual "games" that historians play. These "games" (approaches, question types), can be played on the fields of (applied to) any of the categories.

A. Comparison and Contrast:

This is one of the most familiar, yet also one of the most accessible and valuable approaches for opening up a genuine thinking space for your own original thinking. Historical elements (people, events, ideas, trends, etc.) can be compared within the same period or across different historical periods (including the present). The selection of elements can constitute a major opportunity for originality: although each element may have been extensively studied individually, you may bring together elements that have never really been compared before.

Try not to totally neglect either similarities or differences. When framing a comparison question, take care that the question has the potential to yield significant points of similarity and difference that lead to a meaningful conclusion; otherwise, comparison essays can become merely academic exercises every bit as dry as the paper they are printed on. In addition to actual historical elements significant secondary interpretations (the points of views of various historians) may also compared and contrasted to yield your own personal synthesis.

B. Evaluation, Rank Ordering:

This is really the top-level application of historical judgment. The characteristics and consequences of historical elements (people, ideas, trends, movements, etc.) are judged against some standard (effective/ineffective; beneficial/ damaging). "Good/bad" is not such a useful standard; try to break it down into a more objective norm that can be analyzed with evidence. What were the relative importance or significance of causal factors or consequences of people, events, trends? Your argument will take the form of a weighing-in-the balance.

C. Debunking or Casting New Light on the "Conventional Wisdom":

The "conventional wisdom is the commonly held or standard interpretation of a historical topic or issue. You may want to show why you disagree with this interpretation; this is known as "revisionism." Getting even more subtle, you may want to shed new light on the conventional wisdom by showing that there is truth to it, but not in the way it is usually understood.

 

3.43 What Does it Feel Like to Think Historically?

A. To Think Historically is to Question:

In history, a high premium is placed on critical analysis. You must be constantly interrogating your sources—subjecting them to critically questioning to assess their credibility.

B. To Think Historically is to Weigh Various Arguments in the Balance:

The beauty and value of history is its richness, depth, and complexity. Historical questions are hardly ever black and white, and often they have a fascinating spectrum of shades of gray. When it comes to making judgments-on historical issues it is often not even enough to consider "both sides" of the question, because the question is usually like a diamond with many different facets. Since there are usually so many relevant arguments (and arguments of many different types), to arrive at a judgment (thesis) you will have to classify, tally, and rank-ordering arguments. Which point of view has, in your opinion, the preponderance (majority) of the credible arguments? How would you rate the points in terms of weight? Which arguments can be rebutted by the other side and which cannot? Sometimes the sheer number of valid arguments is not as important as the weight and significance of the arguments.

Thus the historian proceeds by a kind of calculus of arguments—not as precise as mathematics, but useful nonetheless in pursuing historical truth.

C. To Think is to Engage in a Dialogue:

Genuine thinking has the quality of a really good conversation-spontaneity, sincerity, and intellectual give-and-take. Argument, counter-argument, and well-reasoned conclusions flow naturally.

When we read something that is the product of genuine thinking, it has the dramatic, developing, suspenseful quality of a genuine dialogue. The mind of the writer seems to ' be engaging in a passionate, critical conversation with itself and other minds. Different sides of the question are considered; arguments are weighed in the balance. The paper should engage the sources and the reader in a challenging interplay of ideas.

 


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