Why I Never Ask for a Draft Thesis Statement

This post is mostly for undergraduates, but also relevant for graduate students and those who teach writing & historical research. Others, read at your own risk!

I enjoy teaching history research and writing and, over the years, I’ve developed a somewhat idiosyncratic approach to doing it. I have a sequence of assignments that more or less mirrors my own research and writing process, but broken down into steps. Usually the steps are a little bit confusing for students, because I don’t describe them the way that other professors do. I embrace the confusion, because it often produces learning.

One of the things that students often find confusing is that I refuse to talk about thesis statements until after they have written the first rough draft of the whole paper.

Many professors, including esteemed colleagues whose teaching I respect, ask for a draft thesis statement early in the research process, perhaps even as part of a project proposal. I have found that this is counterproductive.

I used to be frankly baffled when students came to me early in the semester, unsure whether their preferred research topic was good because they didn’t know what they could argue about it. I always wondered: How could you possibly know what your argument will be before you’ve done the research and writing?

Likewise, students in the history survey courses come to discuss their papers, unsure what they should argue, even though they haven’t taken any notes or started writing. The first question should never be what will my thesis be? The first question should always be what do my primary sources say? If you start with that question, you will find an answer to the first question before you know it.

Students who assume that you need to know what you will argue before you start writing often have a really hard time starting to write. I think it’s fair to say that I rarely know what I want to argue when I start writing. When I think I know, I often change, refine, and rearrange my ideas in the process of writing.

My core assumptions about research and writing are twofold:

  • writing is a crucial part of the thinking process; therefore we rarely know what we think until after we have started writing
  • our arguments only emerge after we have deeply engaged with our primary sources

I almost never begin one of my own writing projects with either the introduction or the thesis statement. These only emerge in the process of describing my evidence and crafting a narrative. This is why it is so important to leave time for revisions. That great Aha! moment you have at the end of writing your paper can and should be woven back in to the introduction and the body.

The best starting place for a strong historical research project is a combination of a coherent set of primary sources and robust questions about those sources. In primary source driven research design, questions must guide the research process. Instead of writing a draft thesis statement, I ask students to develop significant historical research questions.

The answer to a significant research question will be—down the road—the thesis or argument for your paper. A significant question is one whose answer:

  • is debatable
  • is suited to the primary sources you have access to
  • identifies a connection between multiple primary sources
  • can only be answered by speculation, albeit speculation informed by your understanding of what other historians have already written on similar topics
  • makes a connection between the primary sources and the broader historical context
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Why you should think twice before you read a book that’s more than 25 years old…

This is unsolicited advice for Ph.D. and M.A. students. Others can read at their own risk.

Also note that this advice is fight-picking advice. My senior colleagues–especially the self-described curmudgeon who thinks that all historical scholarship has gone downhill since 1968–will most certainly disagree with what I have to say here. We will agree to disagree, though, since we quite like each other!

I am saying that you should think twice before you read older books. NOT that you should dismiss them out of hand. Sometimes on the second pass, you will decide the book is worth reading.

Academic presses churn out scholarly books at a breakneck pace. Your job is to gain a familiarity with the directions current scholarship is moving. You can’t do this if you mainly read older books. While we laud historiography–knowing the history of our own fields of study–we can often glean the history of our history from recent books. We don’t need to re-invent every single wheel.

Here are the really good reasons to read books that were published more than 25 years ago:

  1. People still regularly read it, assign it, and argue with it. I can think of countless examples of books that are so important to their respective fields that people still regularly assign them. I habitually assign Cohen’s Making a New Deal (1990) and Bederman’s Manliness and Civilization (1995). I imagine that I may stop someday, but why mess with what works so well? Sidney Mintz’s Sweetness and Power (1985), William Cronon’s Changes in the Land (1983), Knight’s The Mexican Revolution (1990), E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class (1963), for example, all continue to spark debate and inspire others, even if scholars have complicated (and sometimes disproven) their interpretations. How do you decide if a book is in this category? Ask your advisers. [I have read all of these books and would recommend that you read them too!] Check in google scholar to see how many times it’s been cited by other scholars [Alfred Chandler’s The Visible Hand (1977) has been cited by 10, 204 other works.] Check to see whether it’s still in print, and if so, how many printings it’s gone through. [Chandler’s The Visible Hand had gone through 16 printings as of 2002.] Check to see whether there are revised editions. A press generally won’t issue a revised edition of a work unless the original work remains influential.
  2. There’s literally nothing else. When you are doing research, you will sometimes identify a very specific and specialized topic that has not been covered extensively by historians more recently. If you need background (or a review of what is in an archival collection you won’t be able to visit otherwise) that is only available in an older book, by all means, read that book. For example, there has been surprisingly little written about the New Deal in Puerto Rico. For research I did for my book, some material was only covered in Thomas Mathew’s Puerto Rican Politics in the New Deal (1960). Most of what you read for comps fields will not fall into this category. Dissertations may be a different story. But you will still need to know what the most recent interventions have been in your field.
  3. A theoretical book gives you new insights into your own ideas. Really important books that changed how everyone thinks about everything sometimes merit careful re-reading . Some classics really do continue to pay off (or we delude ourselves into thinking they do). People read Polanyi, Gramsci, Raymond Williams, Foucault, and etc., for this reason. Sometimes this is justified.

Not-so-good reasons to read older books:

  1. It was the only book in the library on the topic. Our university library catalog is not to be counted out for building bibliographies.
  2. Historians at one time in the past got extremely agitated about the argument offered in the book. For decades people got exercised by William Appleman Williams’ The Tragedy of American Diplomacy. Most of us have moved on. Though it was important and influential, I no longer think that it’s required on a U.S. foreign policy reading list. You can understand the contours of the debate from more recent works.
  3. You couldn’t figure out which of the many books on the topic to pick. Don’t just roll the dice. In this case, ask for advice. Check to see how frequently each book has been cited. Check reviews to see whether reviewers think one or another recent book is most important.
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Dissertation Hobbies

During graduate school and dissertation writing I knitted something around 15 baby sweaters, 6 adult sweaters, 5 scarves, a dozen hats, 4 shrugs, at least 30 woolen slippers, and a captain underpants doll and a goldbug doll (from Richard Scarry). I also baked dozens of loaves of bread, grew vegetables, and went for a walk almost every single day. And I stitched 16 samplers. How and/or why, for pete’s sake, did I do all this?

I did it because I needed to remind myself that I was a person who could finish things. A dissertation takes a long time to write. It’s easy to get in a bag about how it will never be finished. And/or how *I* will never be able to finish it. Or whatever. So I decided that it was really important for me to start and finish as many concrete things as I could. I am a person who finishes things that I start, unless I screw up, in which case I unravel and start over again. I had to unravel my dissertation at least once. It also helped me to create space away from my academic work so that I could maintain perspective. No sense in pretending like I could actually read/research/write 20 hours a day. I can’t. Few people that I know can do it, and if they can, they can’t do it for long and stay healthy. I had lots of routines and lots of habits that created space for productivity–both scholarly and craft.

So this is to say that I don’t think you need to give up on your hobbies to finish a Ph.D. (or the book that comes after, or the second book after that). In fact, I doubt I would have finished my dissertation had it not been for all of those stitches. If you don’t already have something you can finish by next week, maybe it’s time to find a new hobby.

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Dissertation Soundtrack

Right now I’m procrastinating. I am supposed to be writing a blog post on a different topic. I’m trying to procrastinate productively, which is why I’m writing this. Productive procrastination is a crucial technique for accomplishing things in the long run. This morning when I was thinking about writing the blog post I should be writing, it occurred to me that maybe it would help if I listened to my dissertation soundtrack. What, you ask, is a dissertation soundtrack?

I am a a serial monogamist when it comes to music. I tend to get a little bit obsessive when I find something that I like, and I listen to it over and over again until I’m totally sick of it. By accident when I was writing my dissertation, I discovered that music was sticky. Whatever piece of research and writing I was doing glued itself to the music that I had on repeat while I was working on it. I would love for a cognitive scientist to explain how this works. But it does.

Once I realized that I could get myself in the mood for a particular chapter by playing the music that I had listened to while working on it, I started to do it strategically. When I started researching and writing a new chapter, I would pick out a new album or a new artist to listen to obsessively. And it came in handy later, when I was revising the dissertation chapters into a book. Even though in some cases 7 years had passed since I originally wrote a chapter, I could quickly get back into the mindset of that chapter by listening to what I listened to when I originally wrote it. When I listen to The National’s High Violet, for example, I pretty much can’t help but think about U.S. policy towards the Philippines in the 1920s and 1930s. I suspect that this might always be true. When I listen Zoot Woman’s Grey Day, I am immediately transported to the bizarre world of candy manufacturers in the 1920s.

Here’s the list I compiled at the end of the dissertation:

Chapter : Candy

  • The Gossip
  • M.I.A.
  • Zoot Woman
  • Cut Copy
  • Thao

Chapter : Piloncillo

  • Sean Hayes
  • Bon Iver
  • Madeline
  • Denison Witmer

Chapter: Tariffs

  • Dirty Projectors
  • Thao
  • Micachu
  • The Whitest Boy Alive

Chapter: 1930s

  • Sleighbells
  • Micachu
  • The Dodos

I added a few more chapters and much new research to the book, so there’s a whole other soundtrack for that.

And for my new project? Cannabis and herbicide policy in the late 1970s and 1980s has yoked itself to Sufjan Stevens’ new album, Carrie & Lowell. Now you know what I listen to!

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Done with Sugar, Now for Weed!

My first rule of living in Florida: If Governor Rick Scott thinks it’s a good idea, I better take a second look. The Miami Herald yesterday reported that a judge has cleared the way for medical marijuana in Florida. The state will begin issuing growers licenses in 3 weeks. Wait, what? Wasn’t there a medical marijuana ballot measure defeated in November? Indeed there was! The medical marijuana that will soon be available (the so-called low-euphoria Charlotte’s Web strain) was authorized in June 2014 through SB 1033, signed into law by Rick Scott. Nothing to do with any ballot initiative. The Herald article mentions a couple of provocative details: licensed cannabis producers—of which there will only be 5 in the state—have to be large-capacity nurseries that have been in business for at least 30 years and are well-enough capitalized to post a very large bond.

As a historian, I have been working for the last year on a new research project on the environmental history of the war on drugs. Now that my book about sugar is about to be released! What I have learned so far is that ideas about nature and agriculture have long been central to strategies for combating the narcotics trade. At least since the 1920s, prohibitionists have struggled to restrict the production of poppies, cannabis, and coca–all agricultural commodities. Even before the Reagan-era supply-side drug control strategies, farmers and their land were at the center of drug control efforts.

It turns out that agriculture is still very much at the heart of our debates about cannabis. Or, it would be more appropriate to say that horticulture is. Last November when we voted on medical marijuana in Florida, I had thought it had a pretty good chance of winning here. The vote was indeed close. The reason it failed? Hardcore lobbying and a well-funded opposition campaign. Notably, but not obviously, the plant nursery industry in Florida was a major opponent of the ballot measure. They even hired a “strategic communicator” with experience in “grassroots operations” to coordinate their campaign to defeat it.

Suddenly a few things make sense to me. Last fall in my “War on Drugs in Historical Perspective” class I had a student who was earning a second BA after a long career as a nurseryman in South Florida. He had a keen interest in medical marijuana laws and told me a few times about how avidly the issue was being followed in the nursery business. Honestly, I didn’t really think much about it at the time. I also didn’t think too much about the fat stack of “Vote No on Medical Marijuana” brochures I saw last November at the plant nursery where I buy vegetable starts. Well, I did think about it enough to wonder why, of all political issues, the plant nursery had medical marijuana brochures prominently displayed on their counter.

This morning I read the full text of SB 1033 and was surprised at how deeply and obviously it was crafted to represent the business interests of large, highly-capitalized greenhouse growers. Out of curiosity, I also looked at the laws that authorize medical marijuana in other states. There are currently 13 states that have approved medical marijuana by legislative act rather than through a voter-driven ballot initiative. The earliest of these was Hawaii in 2000, followed by a handful of other states. There has been a boom in such laws since 2012. Three each in 2013 and 2014. There are variations among the laws, but they have an awfully lot in common—suspiciously so. Is ALEC getting in on the medical marijuana business? When I compared states with voter-driven versus legislature-driven measures, here’s what I found. They differ in the scale of production, financial requirements for authorized producers, limitations on the total number of legitimate growers, and whether licensed users can grow their own plants. The last legislature-approved law that allowed production for personal use was New Mexico’s in 2007. Since 2010, every single legislature-approved law has followed a similar formula that seems designed to put a few large-scale, well-capitalized greenhouse operators at the top of a very tightly regulated supply chain. Florida’s law is the most explicit in its favoritism. And, as the Florida Black Farmers Association points out, the result is also profoundly discriminatory.

Greenhouse growers are ready to seize the opportunity created by years of prohibition. One of the things I find most fascinating about the war on drugs is the interdependencies between licit and illicit economies. Illicit producers transformed cannabis into an indoor crop in the 1980s in response to DEA surveillance, herbicidal eradication (yes, even in the United States), and supply-side enforcement that punished growers more aggressively than others in the supply chain. There are lots of reasons to worry that this is far short of the decriminalization that drug-policy reformers hope will undo the civil rights discrimination endemic to the war on drugs. Florida’s system will–by design–continue to criminalize small producers,  undermine efforts at further reform, and assure that profits are concentrated where they usually are. At the top.

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Considering a Comps Field with Me?

Here’s my approach to comps:

I am happy to work with Ph.D. students doing comps fields in modern U.S. history, U.S. foreign relations, U.S. empire, U.S.-Latin American Relations, U.S./Latin American/European comparative, comparative race and ethnicity, immigration, environment, food, cultural studies, and probably some other topics.

It is great if you have taken a class with me before doing a comps field, but it is not required. If you think you want to do a comps field with me, by all means let’s talk.

I do not provide you with a list. In fact, I believe that building the list is one of the most important pieces of the comps prep process.

I generally ask students to start by making a bibliography of books that you’ve already read in your proposed field and books you really want to read. Think about how to group the books into smaller subsections, each focused around a few key questions and themes. I will give you feedback on books I think you might consider adding or deleting. We will work on developing your subsections, themes, and questions as you prepare for the exam. The questions I ask you on the actual exam will almost always be related in some way to the questions you yourself have posed in the process of building the bibliography.

Look here for my advice about tools for building bibliographies of secondary sources.

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Tips on locating PRIMARY SOURCES

My Top Ten Library Subscription Databases

New York Times Historical (1851-2008)

Access World News: The World [good for recent Latin American newspapers (1990s onward), including titles from Mexico, Colombia, etc.,]

Congressional (Lexis-Nexis Proquest) [Most Congressional publications are indexed here; a few are available in full text here. ]

  • If this database does not have the full text of an item, you can also try Heinonline and U.S. Serial Set
  • Recent hearing transcripts for House committees are here. You will need to know the name of the committee.

Heinonline [Congressional Record, recent Congressional hearings; government documents, international law journals, Foreign Relations of the US]

U.S. Serial Set [Congressional documents]

U.S. Federal and State Cases (Lexis-Nexis) [Legal cases]

Digital National Security Archive [FOIA requests archived; a lot of foreign relations materials]

Hispanic American Newspapers [1808-1980, in Spanish]

African American Newspapers (1827-1998)

America’s Historical Newspapers (includes both of the two listed above + English language mainstream press)

JSTOR (for primary sources use the advanced search and limit the dates to the years you are researching; remember that JSTOR is an archive of scholarly journals, so most of what you find will be in that genre)

Worldcat (cross search the library catalogs of most university libraries in the country; request books by ILL; look here for published primary sources)

My bibliography of open-access online archives of digitized primary sources (this is not exhaustive; feel free to add other databases that you find).

 Zotero Group Library — Online Archives of Primary Sources

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