Lessons from My First Major Research Essay

As I dive into my second junior paper, I’ve begun to realize how much more serious this paper is than the first one. Gone are the safety rails once provided by Princeton’s History department; instead of a course with concrete deadlines, I am now in the metaphorical Wild West, negotiating with my advisor on a whole bunch of elements: deadlines, research content, framing, among others. Even though it is only February when I write this, the April deadline eyes me ominously. With four classes and an array of extracurricular activities, whatever will I do to survive my second JP? How can I even anticipate the thesis?

At PCUR, we’ve done plenty of reflections on our prior research experiences. The more I think about it, the best thing to do is to reflect on my first JP. In that paper, I explored the attitudes and ideologies of consumption that post-war consumers held, particularly in relation to an acute shortage of nylon stockings. Sifting through dozens of articles in local newspapers, I identified many letters to the editor that female consumers sent in to voice their opinion about how nylons should be distributed, who deserves them, and how the shortage was affecting their everyday lives. 

Although I am undoubtedly proud of the final product, there were many things I could improve about it. From the way I kept sources and my reading schedule to my writing method and the final editing process, I could enumerate an endless list. For now, I will highlight two of the biggest takeaways from my first JP, which will be particularly useful given the abbreviated timeline of the second paper. 

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Lost in the Archive? Here’s How to Find Your Way!

Detre Library & Archives, Catelyn Cocuzzi
The reading room of the Detre Library and Archives, located on the sixth floor of the Senator John H. Heinz History Center.

Fall break – a time for rest and relaxation. While I certainly used the time to collect myself after the whirlwind of a more normal semester, I also had to make progress on my junior paper for the History department ahead of its first draft in November. Exploring a consumer’s perspective on post-war nylon riots (1945-46), I had toiled through various online newspaper archives to rack up an impressive number of sources; however, something was missing. I felt like I wasn’t going deep enough. I wanted to find someone’s thoughts on the riot outside of the newspaper databases I had used, which I knew would be a challenging (if not impossible) process that could only be achieved by looking at the archive.

An important tool in the historian’s kit is the archive, which is a trove of various historical documents, materials, and items that can transport you to another time. Given that the archive is a physical location, the pandemic had interrupted much of the on-the-ground work historians do in libraries across the country, much of which was overcome through technology. Thankfully, I was able to access wonderful archives in-person in my hometown of Pittsburgh, PA: the University of Pittsburgh Archives and Special Collections as well as the Senator John H. Heinz History Center Detre Library and Archives. Covering a vast array of local and regional history, I was set on taking advantage of these archives’ resources to further my research.

I wanted to use this space, then, to share a bit about (in-person) archival research and what I learned. Regardless of your academic studies or research, archives offer a window into the past that could helpfully contextualize your topic, explore an unknown tangent that can offer up a new perspective, or even just lose yourself in the archive looking at random things. In this article, I will specifically cover the process of identifying an archive and then finding items within that archive.

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Census Records, Wills, and Obituaries: Exploring the Ancestry Library


Have you ever wondered about your family history?

Besides the DNA kits offered by Ancestry and 23andMe, there are more concrete ways of piecing together the different tales that aunts and uncles spin at family reunions. Thankfully, as Princeton students, we are given access to a powerful database to locate, explore, and utilize different genealogical records to the benefit of both our personal and academic research: the Ancestry library. I had earlier discovered this resource through the class HIS 388: Unrest and Renewal in Urban America, whose instructor is Alison Isenberg, who was just featured in PCUR!

You might be asking: What kind of records does Ancestry keep? The records are multitudinous. From census records to wills to obituaries to yearbook photos, Ancestry keeps records from many different places, different times, and different people. The bulk of these records are government documents, often created, collected, and stored by bureaucrats for the purpose of institutional record-keeping and tracking individuals. According to Ancestry, these records are collected from different archives of information across the world, where they are then digitized, made machine-readable, and uploaded to their public database.

So, what does this all mean? What can we do with these documents? Let me show you.

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An Interview with Bhadrajee Hewage ’20, South Asian Studies Graduate Student and Researcher

Bhadrajee Hewage is an accomplished researcher in the humanities – he has conducted research in 5 continents, can speak 12 languages, and has published articles in several magazines and journals as well as his own book on Ceylonese Buddhist revivalism (with a second book on the way)! Bhadrajee graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Princeton in 2020 having majored in History and obtained certificates in South Asian Studies, African Studies, and Latin American Studies. I met Bhadrajee through the Davis International Center where he served as Leader Coordinator. From our first few conversations, I was immediately awestruck with the breadth of research he’s done, and this is why I chose to interview him. His published works range from the early history of Rome and Tanzanian political history to the U.S. Civil War.

Bhadrajee Hewage ’20

He is currently a DPhil Clarendon Scholar at the University of Oxford and recently obtained his degree as the Prize Research MPhil Student at the Joint Centre for History and Economics at the University of Cambridge. Broadly, his research interests lie at the intersection of colonial, religious, and intellectual history.

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Doing Research in a Pandemic, an Interview with Professor of History Alison Isenberg

For this Spring Seasonal Series, entitled Doing Research in a Pandemic, each correspondent has selected a researcher to interview about the impact of the pandemic on their research. We hope that these interviews document the nuanced ways the pandemic has affected research experiences, and serve as a resource for students and other researchers. Here, Austin shares his interview.

Alison Isenberg, Professor of History; Co-Director, Princeton-Mellon Initiative in Architecture, Urbanism, and the Humanities. Taken Feb 6, 2017.
Professor History and Co-Director of the Princeton-Mellon Initiative in Architecture, Urbanism, and the Humanities Alison Isenberg plans to finish a draft of her upcoming book, Uprisings, soon.

As part of our seasonal series, I interviewed Professor of History and Co-Director of the Princeton-Mellon Initiative in Architecture, Urbanism, and the Humanities, Alison Isenberg. A scholar of the American city and its contested history, Professor Isenberg is currently wrapping up her next book, Uprisings, which she sat down with me to discuss. Professor Isenberg, who took a sabbatical this year to drill down on the draft for Uprisings, details the contents of her book, how the pandemic changed the way she researches, and the implications of her book in our tense political moment.

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On “Choosing Sides” in an Academic Debate: The More Precise, the Better

An amusing remark on academics, itself attributed to several different academics, goes something like this: In academia, disputes take on such huge proportions precisely because the stakes of them are so small. Whether this observation is or is not true, I have found that its general sentiment is passed down to undergraduates, if inadvertently so. Of course, there are pedagogical reasons for instilling this impression; when we are learning about debates on a given subject within a discipline, it can help to read the most absolute positions on either side, if only to distill the terms of argument.

But the impression that such debate must necessarily be black and white, and must be of great intensity, can be daunting to accept as an undergraduate writer. Who am I, I wonder to myself, to so totally challenge the work of an established academic researcher? Even if I might disagree with their broader argument, have they not done far more research than I have? Relatedly, what if their research offers some quite usable background information– am I not just a little hypocritical to use it while arguing against the position it was intended to support? Or, what if I agree with smaller asides or observations by the researcher, but not the thrust of their whole argument? In a word, need the division be so absolute within the scholarly conversation? 

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How to Complete Research Assignments during Quarantine

This year, as we prepare to write our final papers in quarantine, it will be extra tough to locate the sources we need for our research. Without in-person access to campus libraries, this Dean’s Date will require some new strategies for accessing research materials. To help with this process, I’ve collected a few virtual research resources from my weeks of quarantine thesis work, as well as the beginnings of my Dean’s Date research (also check out Alec’s recent post for more tips):

Do not underestimate the library catalog. A lot of sources are available online, especially with the University’s new partnership with the HathiTrust Digital Library. Through this partnership, millions of scanned books have been made temporarily available to students—in addition to Princeton’s many existing online holdings. To see if a book is available online, just search for it in the Princeton library catalog. If you don’t see a digital edition listed, try clicking on a print edition and seeing if a scanned version is available through HathiTrust (if it is, there will be a link just below the book’s title and general information). You can also click the “Request” button under “Copies in the Library,” then “Help Me Get It” and a librarian will do their best to send you a digital copy—if it’s available—within a few days.

For one final paper this semester, I’m researching “Khush Khat,” a letter-writing program facilitated by a Bombay magazine in the 1990s. All of my sources are from the University’s online holdings: its digitized books and its digitized archives and databases.
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Interlibrary Loan and the Magic of Online (Research) Shopping

[Note: This post was written before COVID-19 reconfigured our library access. Interlibrary Loan is no longer accessible for students, but its sister program, Article Express, is still running at full speed!]

Every so often, when reading sources for my thesis, I come across a citation for a book or article I can’t find in the Princeton library catalog. Of course, given the size of Princeton’s holdings, these moments are rare—though somewhat more frequent as I’ve entered the fine-grain stages of my research project. In the past, a dead end in the library catalog was enough to convince me to give up on a source. However, the exigencies of my last month of thesis writing have pushed me to use what might just be the most magical tool in the Princeton library toolbox: Interlibrary Loan (ILL).

A detail from a 1967 event program I received through Interlibrary Loan this month. Some of the pages were still uncut when I received it!

Whereas Borrow Direct and Recap only provide access to books listed in the Princeton library catalog, Interlibrary Loan can provide access to… pretty much any source you could possibly need. ILL has two main request options: Article Express (for scans of specific articles and book chapters) and Interlibrary Loan (for larger sources, like books, audio/visual materials, and microreels).

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No Argument? Return to Your Research Question

Last semester, I fell in love with a cemetery. I had been interested in the processes of death and dying during the height of the AIDS epidemic in New York City and hoped to write one (or more) of my final papers about the topic. A quick series of Google searches led me to Hart Island, a public cemetery where nearly a million unclaimed or indigent people are buried, including many victims of AIDS. I was fascinated. I read everything I could find about Hart Island, watched over a dozen YouTube videos, and even scheduled a visit to the cemetery with a friend.

By the time reading period came along, I had over forty pages of notes about this cemetery. But I had no idea how to write a paper about it. When I met with one of my professors to ask for help, I started to share all of the data I had collected about this site—its history, its design, its present-day controversies. After a few minutes of this, she intervened: “Great, but what’s your question?” I looked at her blankly. “Do you have a question about this site?”

Photograph of burials at Hart Island, ca. 1890.

Developing a research question is hardly a new idea. It’s emphasized in the Writing Seminar curriculum, and professors often require us to articulate questions at the early stages of our projects. But once we get buried in the work itself—collecting data, writing, meeting deadlines and assignment requirements—it can be easy to forget why we’re writing at all.

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The Search for the Perfect Writing Space

It can be difficult to find the perfect place to write. When I leave my afternoon classes, I often find myself standing on the sidewalk, unsure of where to go next. There are so many study spaces on this campus, but some days nothing feels right. (For some ideas, check out Nanako’s post about finding the perfect space for you)

The space where I work matters. And frustratingly, what I need in a study space is in constant flux, depending both on my mood and the type of work I need to get done: energetic spaces for sleepy mornings, quiet spaces for more focused work, and so on. Over my few years at Princeton, I’ve learned how different study spaces affect me: campus cafes are energizing, but distracting; Firestone carrels are productive, but isolating; and my dorm room puts me to sleep within fifteen minutes—no matter the time of day.

With larger projects like a thesis or final paper, though, it can be even harder to find the right space to write. In my experience, larger projects require more focus and endurance, making it hard to be productive in a loud, busy space. On the other hand, the prospect of extended hours in library isolation is almost always unappealing to me.

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