Why prioritize books published by a university press?

**This post is part of a series on identifying secondary sources, including Tips on Locating Secondary Sources and The Seed of a Good Bibliography and Why you should think twice before you read a book that’s more than 25 years old… Be sure to read those posts, too.

My expectation is usually that student use secondary sources that are scholarly, peer-reviewed, and published by a university or other academic press. What is it about a university press that makes a book so special? The major criteria that historians use to judge the reliability of a scholarly, secondary source are:

  • The author’s authority, training, and credentials;
  • The book’s intended audience and intellectual purpose;
  • The accuracy, completeness, and recentness of the research;
  • The thoroughness of the book’s footnotes, documentation, and supporting materials.

University presses specialize in producing books that meet these criteria in particular ways. University presses rarely publish books by non-professional historians who do not hold academic professorships, they are generally intended for scholarly audiences, they put the books through rigorous peer-review to assure that the research is accurate and as complete as is reasonable, and they allow (encourage, even) footnotes and bibliographies. Thus, if you choose a book published by a university press (especially a well-reputed one), you have saved yourself much of the work of deciding whether the book is reliable and scholarly. The university press editors already did that work for you. Excellent university presses in modern U.S. history include: Harvard, Princeton, University of California, Duke, Oxford, Cambridge, and the University of North Carolina, among many, many others.

This is not to say, though, that scholarly, professional historians with university professorships do not occasionally choose to publish their research with non-university presses. Indeed, some of the most important works in the field have been published by Vintage, Hill & Wang, Penguin, and Picador, among others. There is something to be said for reaching a broader audience, even if you have to give up footnotes and arcane prose to do so.

And there are a few presses that do not have “university” in the title but that do publish peer-reviewed scholarly work. These include Rowman Littlefield, Palgrave, Greenwood, Basic Books, Routledge. These books are fine to use.

There is no easy way to limit your search to only university press books. You should get in the habit of checking the publisher for every book you look at. If you are unsure about whether a book is appropriate, ask!

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Historical Research Overview

Original historical research is based on the practice of primary-source driven inquiry. This approach is likely different from other kinds of research you have done. In this type of research, it is very important to distinguish among the kinds of sources you are using.Primary Sources vs. Secondary Sources      A primary source is anything that was created during the time you are studying.     A secondary source is anything created later (usually much later) that interprets and synthesizes primary sources.  Hint: look at the publication date!Historical analysis of primary sources involves attention to:

  1. Chronology: When was the source created? What happened first? What happened next?
  2. Context: What contemporary events and trends might have shaped the creation of the source? How do the events and trends of the time help you to understand and interpret the source?
  3. Comparison: Are there other sources like this? How are they alike and different?


Step one: identify an area of interest

  • It could be a decade, place, social group, issue, theme, big idea, vague sense of curiosity
  • ask questions and use reference sources (such as Wikipedia) and scholarly secondary sources to find basic information that will help you narrow your area of interest into a topic

Step two: consult primary sources related to your area of interest

Step three:      define your topic

Step four:        read lots of primary sources

  • Keep asking questions and answering them using more primary sources and new scholarly secondary sources

Step five:        write about what you have found

  • what’s missing? go back and look for the missing pieces
  • Get feedback from peers and professors

Step six:          revise and finalize, knowing that perfection is unattainable

HISTORIANS CONSULT MANUSCRIPT SOURCES (eg those that are not published) in ARCHIVES and SPECIAL COLLECTIONS. Here are some pictures from the archives.

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Angry Historians: A Comic


My kid drew this a long time ago–Angry Historians is a game kind of like Angry Birds. Please note that bananas are a healthy historian snack! Also note, that IS my head in a slingshot!

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The Seed of a Good Bibliography

**This post is part of a series on identifying secondary sources, including Tips on Locating Secondary Sources and Why prioritize books published by a university press? and Why you should think twice before you read a book that’s more than 25 years old… Be sure to read those posts, too.

In the early stages of a new research project, I usually have conversations with other people who already know a little bit about my new area of interest. I do this to get the names of books and scholars who are already researching the topic but who I might not already know about. I use these ideas to “seed” the bibliography I’m building for my new research. As I’ve described in another blog post, my first steps in building secondary source bibliographies are often:

  1. Search for a book I already know about in Google Scholar. In this example, I am building a bibliography of scholarly works on the history of pregnancy discrimination and fetal protection policies. I know of a book by Sara Dubow called Ourselves Unborn. I searched for it in Google Scholar and here it is: google scholar1 Note that the bottom line has a link that says “Cited by 84.” When I click that link, it will take me to the 84 other books and articles in the Google Scholar database that cited Ourselves Unborn. I can scan through these books and see if any of them are relevant to my research.  google scholar2I can also narrow the list further (especially if the book I am using has been cited by hundreds of others). Notice the tiny box under the title that says “search within citing articles.” I can click that box and then enter a more specific search term. Here I will add “environmental” since I’m particularly interested in how labor, feminist, and environmental groups worked together to defeat fetal protection policies.  google scholar3Several of the results are relevant and so I save them to my Zotero folder on reproductive politics and the environment.
  2. A second thing I can do to use the one book I know about as a “seed” is to look on amazon.com. The purpose of doing this is NOT TO BUY THE BOOKS but to look at the section called “Customers who bought this item also bought.” When I search for Dubow’s Ourselves Unborn, I immediately see a handful of other books on  reproductive politics, and several of these might be useful (eg Abortion after Roe, Killing the Black Body, Fetal Positions, How All Politics Became Reproductive Politics). Be sure to scroll to the right through the list until it ends. I recommend opening interesting looking books in a new tab [right click, “open link in new tab”] and look at them later. That way you don’t lose track of where you were scrolling. Be sure to scroll through the “Customers Who Bought This…” section for each of the new books you identify. By the time you have looked through the “Customers Who Bought This…” for each of these books, you should have compiled a substantial bibliography on your topic. Note that if you have downloaded zotero, there will be a zotero link in the toolbar for amazon books so you can save these citations. Don’t buy them. Save them. Look them up in the Hampshire College library catalog. If Hampshire doesn’t own them, one of the Five Colleges likely does and you can request it for delivery. Also, DO NOT USE AMAZON TO LOCATE PRIMARY SOURCES.

Not sure what to use as a “seed” for your bibliography? Ask me for ideas! That’s what I’m here for.

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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…

Please 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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