Today I saw on my blog site statistics that someone had come to this blog looking for Norwich capstone papers. I’m not sure precisely why, but for someone to do so they would have almost certainly been students at Norwich University, where I received my Master of Arts in Military History this past June. They didn’t find what they were looking for if they were looking for my paper, but hopefully they found something of value anyway. In honor of that quixotic search, I would like to talk today about the process of choosing a topic for a paper like the Capstone.
At the beginning of Norwich University’s Master of Arts in Military History Program the capstone paper (a reasonably substantial paper of at least 30 pages, sometimes extending as long as 70 pages, as did the prize-winning paper of a friend of mine in my class who wrote an examination of the 1704 Siege of Landau) was written in about six weeks, half of the last class in the sequence. The other half of the class was devoted to the race and gender issues, a course whose importance was not made sufficiently clear from its title, and would have been more appealing if the actual coursework had been revealed beforehand–dealing as it did with more than simply “race and gender” issues of political correctness, but also issues of war and society, which I am much more fond of.
By the time that I finished the progression for the program, the Capstone course had (wisely) filled a whole class, giving more time to finish the paper. As it was, I finished with about a month to spare myself–and I was glad to do so–given the sort of difficult time I have faced this year in my personal life. It might have been too much to overcome had I been forced to write in a hurry (even though I am a prolific writer). I had decided my capstone topic and begun finding and reading sources many months in advance–I do not like to leave things up to chance and I like to be very prepared–which was a major advantage in writing about an obscure topic where sources in two languages needed to be found (and had I known German I would have looked up sources in that language too).
It turns out, though, that after my time the capstone topic was chosen even earlier because some people still waited for the last minute, with the difficulties that resulted, and did not know how to properly research for their topics and find the best source materials. I would have liked to have had a bit more research familiarity, as far as the computer databases were concerned, as it would have saved some time and provided a few more papers, I would think. That said, for me the best topics to write and research combine a few qualities together: obscurity, quirkiness, simplicity.
Why these three qualities? Well, if you are seeking to do original research, it is important to remember that it has to be, well, original. Either new ground has to be broken, requiring a lot of qualitative or quantitative analysis (in most fields), or the topic has to be sufficiently obscure that material on it is scarce. For example, I could only find three historians who had dealt in any depth with my particular topic in the English historiography, and most of the works were written by one of them, coming to a conclusion that could be questioned from the available primary and secondary source material. In other words–there was an opportunity for something new to be said about what I wanted to write about–which is precisely what I was looking to do. A good researcher wants to provide an insight that has never been examined before within a field, to provide new insight into the knowledge of history in some fashion.
As far as the second quality goes, quirkiness, it has always been important for me to choose topics that were a little oddball. I myself have a natural affinity for little nations that are forgotten by the rest of the world. Not only does this allow me to find more original material to write about (see above), but it also allows me to right, in some small fashion, the wrongs of history in unfairly neglecting important time periods or phenomena of history, and allowing myself to be seen as someone interested in the important but oddball aspects of history, giving me enough space to establish a well-earned reputation for quirkiness but also great insight, as a result of seeing the world from an unusual perspective.
The third criterion I use for papers and research is simplicity. Can a topic be boiled down to one or a few essential questions, which can be answered in a systematic and organized fashion? If so, then I will take the years of study, the travel to dangerous places, the reading of obscure books and papers, in order to answer those questions. I like to keep the scope of my papers very narrow, very well-defined, in order to allow for efficient handling, but also allow for the raising of follow-up questions which can then be answered in later research, turning a single paper into the source of years of profitable and productive study and examination. Keeping one’s topics simple allows them to be better understood and prevents the researcher from having to spend years of wasted time chasing down tangents. One can mark off the side trails and explore them at one’s leisure in the future after one has finished the original task. This is how a reputation for being an expert is born–first master the major topics, and then fully explore the side issues that branch off of the main topic, showing a full comprehension of the given subject at hand with books and papers to show for it.
Of course, ideally, mastery of a paper like the Capstone, or a Master’s level thesis, is preparation for handling the truly massive and much more time consuming task of a doctoral dissertation, where originality is extremely important. I have not completed, or even officially begun, that task yet, so I cannot speak with expertise on it. Nonetheless, I feel like my practice thus far has prepared me to venture on that step, and given me sufficient preparation for that noble and difficult task. It is my hope that anyone else who is inspired to do so themselves will likewise gird up the loins of their mind and similarly develop the skills and perspectives necessary to succeed in their graduate studies, and live to tell about it.