The post that follows is an adapted version of my Royal University of Meridies class to be taught at RUM this weekend (July 2018). Do not cite without permission.
Note on the photos: They are irrelevant to the text, and I took them all myself. The snake headed lady is my favorite. I MEAN LOOK AT HER.
I have a PhD in Political Science from a top program in the United States. I am a full professor and I have multiple academic publications. I teach research methods and I advise a number of Ph.D. students. In addition, I am the Editor of Studies in the Social Sciences, a journal that focuses on publishing academic work in the social sciences which contains an element of real-world applicability.
Photo taken in the Egyptian Museum, Cairo, by me
Research and Research Papers in the SCA
The SCA parallels academic research. What we do in the SCA is, essentially, experiential anthropology. That is, we are researching past societies using experimental methods.
That said, we can “go down rabbit holes,” just like academics. We have a lot to offer, but our experience is that our research isn’t recognized by academics. Part of that problem is ours: that is, we refuse to use proper academic conventions. For example, in Meridies at least, we make up our own definitions of primary, secondary, and tertiary sources. When we use those definitions with historians or anthropologists, we look like we don’t know what we’re talking about.
Research papers ARE NOT DOCUMENTATION, and they are not for everyone. You don’t have to do one. They have their own scoring rubric.
A true research paper will probably be at least 10-15 pages of double spaced text, not including photographs, charts, graphs, citations, etc. It contains your well thought out, supported opinion about something you have studied at length. It is supported by academic sources.
Choosing a Topic
You may have a ton of experience making a particular item, but that doesn’t necessarily make it a good research paper topic!
We need to put the science into our arts and sciences research paper project. According to King, Keohane, and Verba 1994, the goal of science is inference (causal or descriptive), the procedures are public, and the conclusions are uncertain when you begin. What is most important is the use of the scientific method –“the content is the method.”
You probably have personal or idiosyncratic reasons, professional reasons, or any other reasons, for the topic you choose. Those reasons are valid. But when you are narrowing your topic down to a research question, remember that they should:
- Pose a question that is important in the SCA;
- Make a specific contribution to an identifiable body of scholarly literature; and
- Be something no one has studied, resolve a controversy, evaluate someone else’s assumption, etc – they should find a niche.
Scoring Rubric (Meridies)
- Analysis and Evidence
- All are scored 0-4
(Photo taken on the Acropolis by me)
The thesis is the premise of your paper: not the “topic”. Don’t write a book report. What is your original idea? What is your argument going to be? Every research paper contains a main point – a central message. What is yours?
A thesis should appear very early in the essay; that is, after a brief introduction to the topic, you should wind your introduction up with your thesis, then lay out what your paper will be about. Your thesis should be one or two sentences long.
The thesis should be as clear and unambiguous as possible: it should not be too general.
- Original:“My paper is about 16thcentury smock construction techniques.
- Revised:“There are two kinds of gussets in 16thcentury smocks and they make construction of better fitting garments easier.
- Further Revision: “The shoulder and underarm gussets in extant 16thcentury smocks should be incorporated into modern reproductions to eliminate several construction problems evident in SCA wear.”
- Original thesis: Viking boxes are made of various woods.
- Revised thesis: The wood used in Viking box making varies dramatically according to the time and place the item has been found.
- Further Revision: “While the most widespread type of wood found in Norse graves is XXX, in certain parts of France, where XXX is unavailable, Norse carvers often used XXX as an alternative.”
“So what?” Your thesis should be making a point that is relevant to the SCA. What contribution does your thesis make to improved understanding of medieval societies?
Final words about Theses:
- Avoid passive verbs
- Avoid generic terms
- Use your own words and your own ideas
- MAKE A POINT
Documentation doesn’t make a point. The point is the item you make. This is the way that research papers are different.
(Photo taken inside the Tower of London and features Tower Bridge in the background. Wouldn’t it be AMAZING to have an SCA event there? Look how cute the tents look? They were having a demonstration of some event from Tower history that day and have those tents set up.)
Find a structure that works for you, but recognize that there are modes of structure for research papers.
Appropriate “Modes of Structure*”
- “Narration: telling a story
- “Description: relating what you see, hear, taste, feel, and smell
- “Process: describing a sequence of steps necessary to a process
- “Definition: illustrating the meaning of certain words or ideas
- “Division and Classification: grouping ideas, objects, or events into categories
- “Compare and Contrast: finding similarities and/or differences between topics
- “Analogy: making a comparison between two topics that initially seem unrelated
- “Cause and Effect: explaining why something happened, or the influence of one event upon another” (U. Washington WC)
*(Courtesy of the University of Washington Writing Center: https://depts.washington.edu/owrc/Handouts/How%20to%20Structure%20and%20Organize%20Your%20Paper.pdf )
I recommend that you read a number of journal articles written about your topic. First, it’s research into your topic; second, it’s research into standard modes of organization of papers in that area.
A general, sample outline:
- General Introduction, with thesis;
- A general “preview” of your paper (This paper first….)
- Review the items you studied, etc. Describe the items using facts. Place them in historical context.
- Review the literature that discusses these items
- Make your argument, which should flow from the literature and the item descriptions
- Show your evidence (2nd strongest first, then weakest, then strongest)
- Conclude by summing up your central point
- Use subtitles.
- Paragraphs should contain one main idea. No paragraph should run on for more than half a page. Seriously, if it does, break it up.
- Make sure your description flows: That is, for example: describe the materials, then construction, then decoration. Don’t jump back and forth between ideas or start with decoration first (unless that’s your focal point of study, of course).
- Every paragraph should contain a topic sentence and should be providing support to your central idea/ thesis.
- Topics should come at the beginning of the paragraph; usually, but not always, they form the first sentence.
- Don’t make your readers mine for information! Be upfront about your structure. You aren’t writing a mystery novel.
(Photo taken on Delos of millennia-old mosaic floor)
- Spelling, grammar, punctuation, and citation style should be correct and consistent.
- Use grammar check – but it isn’t perfect. Same for spellcheck.
- Ensure your subjects in your sentences reflect the subjects in your paragraphs.
- Be consistent with subject verb agreements.
- Make sure your sentences link to the one before and the one after.
- Repeat key phrases to unify your paper, but don’t use the same word (or a form of it) more than once in a sentence.
- Vary your sentence structure.
- Make sure you do not create parallelism problems (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parallelism_(grammar).
- Use transition words and phrases (therefore, in consequence, etc).
- Avoid common problems: they’re, there, their. Then/than. “For sell” (this last one DRIVES ME NUTS, but is unlikely to be found in a research paper, hahah).
- Properly use of apostrophes to create possessives, not plurals; watch for the the weird variant of its vs it’s when creating contractions.
- Use first, second, next, etc to create a sense of flow.
- Use words that show place, time, cause/effect, etc (above, below; use “many years before” when discussing relevant timing of events that happened in history, “not many years ago”, which counts back from the current point in time… etc etc.)
- Correct use of citations is the most important factor in being a responsible researcher.
- It is critical to give credit where it is due. Period.
- You can use any style; however, I recommend delivering not only publication and year in in-text citations but also providing a page number, particularly when you are quoting.
- My Journal uses APA. I chose it because it’s widely used in Social Sciences, humanities, and education.
There’s nothing more frustrating than trying to find a publication with only part of a citation. A URL is not a citation.
A citation contains:
- Author(s) names
- Year of publication
- If a journal, journal title, issue number, and volume
- If a book, book publisher and place of publication
- If a website, URL, publisher, and date of access
(Avebury, with sheep.)
Analysis and Evidence
Sources are critical. Any you list should be cited in text.
It is impossible to evaluate sources without the full citation. I assume sources are faulty if the full citation is not present.
What is a scholarly source?
- Written by experts for experts
- Based on their original research
- Provides citations of literature
- Peer reviewed
What is Peer Review?
Sending it out, usually double blind, to another expert for evaluation. You can do this, too!, but not if you are thin-skinned. Be ready for touch criticism and try not to take it personally. It’s easier when it’s double blind, because only the editor knows the identity of the author and the peer reviewer(s).
- Magazines, newspapers, websites, encyclopedias, radio stations
- Special interest publications (i.e., Archeologymagazine)
- Government publications
- Museum guidebooks
You can use these, but not as your only evidence.
A primary source in the SCA is the extant item itself, an extant bit of literature, something written during the time period in question that details facts only (For example, Queen Elizabeth’s wardrobe Unlock’d, ships’ manifests, wills, etc)
Contrary to popular belief, you don’t have to have primary sources if they do not exist. If real primary sources do not survive or you cannot access them, don’t upgrade secondary sources to primary just for your ego or because the SCA says you have to use them. Just say they don’t exist.
Secondary sources include anything that interprets or draws conclusions about primary sources.
For example, a painting is at best a secondary source of clothing information in an SCA context. The Leyton jacket itself is primary, and photographs from the V&A are primary, but the painting of Margaret Leyton wearing it is secondary. You cannot draw whole reliable conclusions about seam placement or such from paintings.
And, a description of the Leyton jacket by someone who has only seen the painting is tertiary.
A painting of a painting (as was done VERY often in period) is tertiary. You can’t know very much about garments from those paintings and we can’t always know someone was sitting in front of the painter or if he was looking at another painting.
But wait! What is “making a contribution”?
The rubric requires the author of a research paper to contribute to the conversation among experts. You should be adding to the sum total of scientific knowledge –that is, knowledge derived via the scientific method. Your research paper should demonstrate your niche. What do you know that is novel and new? What did your research show? What old idea did you provide evidence against?
Scientific method (King, Keohane, and Verba)
Descriptive and causal inference are the point of science. We in the SCA are mostly using descriptive inference: that is, we are using what we can observe to derive unobserved facts. Causal inference is more closely aligned with social science but maybe you’re doing that, too. If you’re doing that, based on experiential archeology, then you will be able to make a contribution. Rigor of scientific enquiry creates a deep knowledge that is based on falsifiability.
“Falsifiability is the capacity for some proposition, statement, theory or hypothesis to be proven wrong. That capacity is an essential component of the scientific method and hypothesis testing. In a scientific context, falsifiability is sometimes considered synonymous with testability.”
Don’t Write Tautologies
I’m not talking about grammatical tautology- repeating yourself unnecessarily: “I, myself, went to the museum.” (But avoid those too.)
Don’t try to test something that is true for you no matter what you find out.
Don’t go into a project already “knowing” what you’re going to find out.
Once you interrogate a subject with the scientific method, you will know a ton about it. And then, you will find your unique niche.
(Glastonbury Tor. ALSO with sheep.)
Is the paper interesting or boring to your reader? Style can be VERY subjective, but ask yourself these questions:
- Is it engaging?
- Is the subject interesting or compelling?
- Have you varied your sentence structure?
- Does your organization contribute to the flow of the paper?
Have your friends read it. You’re your own worst critic, but you also miss things – have both people who know what you’re talking about and those who don’t read it if possible. In addition, finish the paper at least a week before it is due. Have a friend read it, then re-read it yourself. You will find areas to improve.
- Be creative! One of my favorite tips is “never use two words when one will suffice”, i.e., “critical” vs “really important”
- Vary your vocabulary, but don’t write like you swallowed a dictionary and you’re regurgitating it via your fingers.
- Don’t use hyberbole.
If you are very careful about your choice of topic, thesis, structure and organization, transition, grammar and spelling, evidence and analysis…you will write an interesting, engaging paper.
But it’s your style and personality as a writer that will make it shine for the judges.
King, Gary, Robert O Keohane, and Sidney Verba. 1994. Designing Social Inquiry: Scientific Inference in Qualitative Research. Princeton: Princeton University Press. http://j.mp/2ovYrhx
Kingdom of Meridies. 2018. Scholarly Works Judging Form. Accessed June 30, 2018. http://artsandsciences.meridies.org/faire/forms2011/Scholarly%20Works%20Judging%20Form%20Faire.pdf
University of Washinton Writing Center. 2018. How to Structure and Organize Your Paper. Accessed June 30, 2018. https://depts.washington.edu/owrc/Handouts/How%20to%20Structure%20and%20Organize%20Your%20Paper.pdf
Whatis.com. 2018. Falsifiability. Accessed June 30, 2018. https://whatis.techtarget.com/definition/falsifiability