Smith College History Majors Research Skills

Writing Intensive Classes

For a description of basic information literacy skills required of all students before entering upon work in their major, click here.

Goals/Courses

Faculty may wish to differentiate among the skills important at the 100-, 200-, and 300-level, with yet other skills for honors project-level research. For example, goals for various courses might include the following skills, grouped loosely around locating information, evaluating credibility, interpreting arguments, reading closely, learning languages, reporting findings, and citing works consulted.

History 100 Level Courses

Locating information

  • Awareness of the inadequacies of web search engines for scholarly research
  • Ability to use the Five College Library Catalog to locate known items, perform basic subject searches, and access print reserves
  • Some exposure to using article databases

Evaluating credibility

  • Awareness of a variety of types of historical sources: written documents, audio or visual material (e.g. FDR’s Fireside Chats), artifacts, statistics
  • Differentiating primary sources from secondary sources
  • Appreciating that different sources carry different levels of credibility

Interpreting arguments

  • Becoming aware of differing perspectives on a specific historical event and pondering how those might reflect the authors’ interests
  • Awareness of the variety of historical approaches and methods
  • Learning to understand a historical statement and what evidence supports or undermines the statement

Reading closely

  • Determining what constitutes evidence, interpretive contention, or apparent contradiction in a historical argument
  • Applying questions from an instructor or an editor to a specific text
  • Picking out familiar elements from unfamiliar times and cultures

Learning languages

  • Recognizing brief, key expressions in English and in other languages
  • Valuing further language study for access to specific sources and broader cultures

Reporting findings

  • Defending their own points of view on a question posed by the instructor using common readings selected by the instructor

Citing works consulted

  • Understanding and avoiding plagiarism
  • Routinely acknowledging sources using a standard citation format (e.g. Turabian)

History 200 Level Courses

Locating information

  • Locating primary sources available at Smith from references in the secondary literature
  • Awareness of standard collections of primary sources (e.g. collected works, Documents of British Foreign Policy, United States Congressional Serial Set)
  • Identifying scholarly monographs via the Five College Library Catalog.
  • Locating scholarly articles from core history journals via online databases such as:
    Scholarly Articles Databases
    Humanities Abstracts 1984+ Abstracts of articles, book reviews, and more from over 465 sources in the humanities
    Historical Abstracts 1956+ History after 1450, excluding U.S. and Canada
    America: History & Life 1953+ American & Canadian history
    JSTOR Back issues excluding the most recent 2-5 years
    Project MUSE Current issues of journals in arts and humanities, social sciences and mathematics
  • Awareness of scholarly reference works in the field of history such as:
    Scholarly Reference Sources Call Number
    Encyclopedia of Asian History (4 vols.) ref DS 31 .E53 1988
    Encyclopedia of American Social History (3 vols.) ref HN 57 .E58 1993
    Dictionary of the Middle Ages (13 vols.) ref D 114 .D5 1982
    Cambridge Economic History  
    And also, reference works from related disciplines such as:
    Encyclopedia of Philosophy  
    Encyclopedia of Islam (12 vols.) ref DS 37 .E523
  • Searching databases using each database’s controlled vocabulary and, if available, thesaurus
  • Maintaining a flexible vocabulary so as to alter initial search strategies that prove unsuccessful
  • Sifting a list of search results for the most promising sources

Evaluating credibility

  • Identifying the credentials of an author
  • Attending to the publication history of a work, and considering that context in interpreting it

Interpreting arguments

  • Identifying key passages from the author’s own emphases
  • Developing independent questions while reading
  • Grasping empirical issues in a specific historical debate

Reading closely

  • Routinely devoting close analysis to primary sources
  • Extracting from a source information its author was not aiming to convey
  • Moving comfortably between varying perspectives of historical actors in the same event
  • Picking out unfamiliar elements in familiar times and cultures

Learning languages

  • Recognizing significant contemporary terms that appear in primary sources
  • Recognizing discipline-specific vocabulary that occurs in secondary sources
  • Developing sufficient fluency to read a short primary source (a poem or a newspaper article, say) in the original language

Reporting findings

  • Developing an independent interpretation
  • Sustaining an argument over the course of a ten-page paper

Citing works consulted

  • Routinely using sources appropriately and ethically
  • Knowing when to cite sources consulted, using a standard citation format (e.g. Turabian, Chicago)
  • Compiling an annotated bibliography

History 300 Level Seminars

Locating Information

  • Routinely searching for primary sources for historical research
  • Consulting major journals for the sub-discipline. For example, is studying the history of Japanese women, consulting journals such as:
    Journal Title SC Neilson Per 2nd floor/Link
    Journal of Japanese Studies Per DS 801 .J7 / online
    Journal of Women's History Per HQ 1101 .J67 / online
    Monumenta Nipponica: Studies on Japanese Culture Per DS 821 .A1 M6 / online
    Past and Present Per D1 .P37 / online
    U.S.-Japan Women's Journal Per HQ 1101 .U538 / online
  • Familiarity with the existence of professional book reviews and review articles—and how to locate them in databases such as:
    Databases Coverage
    America: History & Life 1953+ American & Canadian history
    Historical Abstracts 1956+ History after 1450, excluding U.S. and Canada
  • Familiarity as well with citation databases, such as:
    Databases Coverage
    Arts & Humanities Citation Index Indexes 1,300 journals covering all arts and humanities disciplines.
  • Locating scholarly monographs not only via the Five College Library Catalog, but also by using such tools as WorldCat, review articles, and scholarly bibliographies:
    Catalogs Coverage
    Five College Library Catalog For holdings in the Five Colleges
    WorldCat For holdings outside the Five Colleges
  • Expanding their selection of scholarly articles by using more specialized history databases and databases for allied disciplines or area studies such as:
    Specialized History Databases 
    L’Année Philologique 1959+ Classical studies, including history
    International Medieval Bibliography 1967+ Medieval studies 450 to 1500
    ITER 1859+ Middle Ages and Renaissance 400-1700
    Bibliography of British and Irish History 1901+ Consolidates over 50 bibliographies listing books and articles
    Allied Discipline or Area Studies
    ATLA Religion Database 1949+ Religious and theological scholarship
    International Political Science Abstracts 1989+ Indexing and abstracts of journals in political science
    Hispanic American Periodicals Index 1970+ Central & South America, Mexico, the Caribbean, & U.S. Hispanics
    AfricaBib.org 1763-2003 Africana Literature; African Women; and Women Travelers, Explorers & Missionaries
    American Bibliography of Slavic and East European Studies 1956+ East-Central Europe, Russia, and the former Soviet Union
    Bibliography of Asian Studies 1971+ Western-language monographs, articles, and book chapters on Asia
  • Locating and working with unique sources on campus such as:
    Resources Unique to Smith Description
    Sophia Smith Collection Internationally recognized repository of manuscripts, photographs, periodicals and other primary sources in women's history
    Mortimer Rare Book Room Covers the history of printing from the fifteenth century to the twentieth
  • Tracking down evidence from outside sources in support of their own critiques of assigned readings

Evaluating credibility

  • Attending carefully to the apparatus of a scholarly work (footnotes, bibliography, etc.)
  • Evaluating an author’s credentials for expertise, and for what they reveal about the author’s intellectual orientation
  • Routinely weighing the credibility of multiple conflicting sources

Interpreting arguments

  • Routinely using secondary sources advancing conflicting interpretations
  • Understanding theoretical issues in a historical debate
  • Identifying historical approaches and methods independent of the specific subject matter (e.g. liberalism, Marxism, feminism)
  • Recognizing similar debates across multiple settings and courses

Reading closely

  • Questioning the composition of a source (how a contract was negotiated, how a text was redacted, how a graph was calculated)
  • Treating as agents historical figures described in documents by others (e.g. a criminal from the judge’s speech at sentencing, natives from accounts by explorers)

Reporting findings

  • Presenting work in progress verbally and through effective handouts or electronic media in class
  • Sustaining an argument over the course of a twenty-page paper

Learning languages

  • Taking initiative to understand special vocabulary of the period under study as well as the scholarly language of the topic
  • Developing sufficient fluency to read a scholarly article or chapter-length primary source in a language other than English

400 Level Including Honors Project

In addition to working with a faculty honors project advisor, all honors project students are required to schedule a research appointment with a reference librarian/archivist/curator. Via the research appointment and consultations with the faculty advisor, the Honors student should have all of the skills identified above. In addition, she should:

  • Be aware of a variety of resources
  • Understand the structure of knowledge and its communication within the honors project discipline
  • Develop an effective search strategy
  • Appreciate the time required to acquire resources – and the need to create a reasonable timeline for the research process
  • Be aware of the need for a balance of publication formats, dates, and perspectives in the works consulted
  • Understand the limitations of full-text access to sources.

Locating information

  • Identifying and requesting materials available only through Interlibrary Loan
  • Preparedness to travel to the site of off-campus sources
  • Routinely perusing multiple reference works, while taking account of their varying perspectives. For example:
    Title Neilson Call Number/Access
    1911 Britannica Ref AE 5 .E363 / online
    The Catholic Encyclopedia Ref BX 841 .N44 2003
    The Great Soviet Encyclopedia Oversize AE 5 .B5813
    Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers Oversize AE 25 .E534
  • Routinely consulting relevant tools (Dictionary of National Biography, concordances, etymological dictionaries, etc.) on her own initiative:
    Title Neilson Call Number/Access
    Dictionary of National Biography Ref DA28 .O95 / online

Evaluating credibility

  • Tracing the professional reception of scholarly and popular works through book reviews, review articles, and citation databases

Reporting findings

  • Revising a research honors project in accordance with initial substantive findings and the availability of sources
  • Sustaining an argument over fifty or more pages
  • Deploying quantitative evidence judiciously and effectively

Learning languages

  • Developing sufficient fluency to read a book in a language other than English

Citing works consulted

  • Identifying which citation style to use and understanding when to cite research materials
  • Evaluating appropriateness of using RefWorks citation software to manage honors project bibliography; knowing how to gain access and get help
  • Understanding when copyright permission is needed for use of materials
  • Being aware that the writer of the honors project holds its copyright and thus has the right to grant or deny permission for future use of its content by others

Assessment

Assessment of information literacy takes place regularly within the framework of History courses. Class discussions, examinations, and papers call upon students to demonstrate interpretive skills appropriate to the course topic and level. Their performance in this area is one factor directly and/or indirectly determining their grades. Through formal grading and informal feedback during office hours and research appointments, instructors and librarians help students develop critical awareness of their own abilities and how they are improving.

Assignments requiring students to demonstrate and take advantage of information literacy assume varying forms, depending on the skills involved. In general, introductory courses devote more explicit attention to developing and testing basic skills, while more advanced courses assume students have already learned some skills and can deploy them independently.

A 100-level course might straightforwardly include a specific questionnaire for which students have to examine library holdings both virtually and in person. Papers at the 100- and 200-level might call for critical comparison of conflicting accounts of an event. Particularly useful in enhancing information literacy are readings exposing students to a chain of historical writings, in which later authors draw on earlier ones or react against their conclusions. Some 200-level courses assign research papers requiring students to locate and analyze primary sources. Others pose historiographical questions for which students must weigh competing secondary interpretations.

Some 200-level courses require the compilation of an annotated bibliography, either as a task in its own right or as a preliminary to a substantive investigation. Such a bibliography might, for example, call for the use of at least one scholarly history encyclopedia, the use of the online catalog to identify several relevant monographs, and a selection of scholarly articles identified from Historical Abstracts/ America, History and Life, J-STOR and ProjectMUSE. Students would be prepared to defend the credentials of authors cited (both primary and secondary), if asked.

In 300-level seminars, a similar assignment might be undertaken as one step toward researching and writing a term paper. The student could be asked to indicate the source of each citation, how she came across the item, and its relative value to the argument within the paper. The range of sources could be drawn from the list above. At the 400-level, students’ proficiency in uncovering and evaluating sources is evidenced not only in their writing and bibliographies, but also in their oral defenses of their projects.

In all these cases, library staff are also available to assist students and faculty members in devising, completing, and assessing such work.

Ethical Issues

For Smith College's policy on the ethical use of information, click here.

May 15, 2007