Learning to Write a College Level Paper: Independent Study Teaches Critical Skills

Posted: May 8, 2017

Three Blair seniors are getting an in-depth course in research and writing that will undoubtedly put them a step ahead of their peers when they get to college in just a few short months.

In an intense yearlong independent study overseen by history teacher Hannah Higgin, PhD, Chloe Kim ’17, Harry Moore ’17 and Elayna Daniels ’17 are focusing on how race and American foreign policy intersect, and learning the ins and outs of college-level research on a topic related to that area of study.

Chloe is focusing on how black Americans used ideas of Africa to create a black American culture during the Harlem Renaissance; Harry is looking at President Nixon’s policy regarding apartheid South Africa; and Elayna is writing about the role race played in the decision to drop atomic bombs in Japan during the Second World War. The students collaborate one-on-one with Dr. Higgin as she walks them through the research process, receiving deep and individually tailored attention as they consider the “hard-to-answer” questions of their choosing.

Race as a Social Construct & Shaper of Foreign Policy

During the course’s first semester, Chloe, Harry and Elayna focused on the social construct of race in the United States and abroad, and how transnationalism has been central to American foreign policy since the nation’s founding.

“A large part of our nation’s history is about race and foreign policy coming together, which is my area of expertise,” said Dr. Higgin, who earned her MPhil and doctorate in history at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom in 2010 and 2015, respectively. “ My PhD dissertation, which I am in the process of turning into a book, focused on how American understandings of race impacted American foreign policy in sub-Saharan Africa during during the Civil Rights era. Of course, the U.S. and Africa have deep historical ties, not least because of slavery, and the U.S. government's understanding (or lack thereof) of that continent remained all tangled up with notions of race during the 1950s and 1960s. The Civil Rights Era overlapped with the Cold War, when the U.S. was competing with the Soviet Bloc for ‘hearts and minds’ around the world. Africa became a major stage for the Cold War battle over ‘hearts and minds’ beginning in the late 1950s when the continent began to decolonize. Most people study the Civil Rights era and Cold War discretely, but, actually, negative foreign perceptions of American race relations directly impacted American policy making.”

Throughout the fall, the students analyzed U.S. history as it relates to race and foreign policy, covering topics including race as a construct, intersectionality, blackness and whiteness, indigeneity and transnationality. They then wrote essays on each theme as a precursor to the independent study’s capstone 20-page paper.

Answering Questions That ‘Aren’t Easily Answerable’

After the holiday break, all three students formed larger research questions to be considered and answered in the 20-page paper, in which students will take a position and make an argument.

For Chloe, that means looking at the Harlem Renaissance and how black Americans during that era used their understanding of African culture to mold their own new culture in America. Thus far in her research, she has concluded that black Americans used inaccurate understandings of African culture, which is of course very diverse, and created something “new and very American.”

“The Harlem Renaissance was a time of great cultural and artistic expression in the 1920s and 1930s, and by that time, black Americans were more American than African,” Chloe said. “Black Americans were trying to figure out who they were in a racist America and create a new identity that worked for them. In the end, it is clear that their perceptions of African culture had little to do with actual African culture, and they were looking at it through a skewed lens, like white Americans did. But, ultimately, they created something new and wholly American through that process.”

Harry, on the other hand, is researching U.S. involvement in the South African apartheid regime, with the goal of determining whether President Nixon’s policy was motivated by race, Cold War politics or both. As he researches the Nixon administration’s approach to the staunchly anti-Communist and most modern state in Africa, Harry is learning the differences between writing concise, simple five-paragraph essays and longer, more-detailed research papers.

“I had some experience from previous years, but the flaws in my approach to big questions were more apparent after writing more in-depth assignments for Dr. Higgin,” he explained. “Working on my big research paper and on smaller assignments in the fall has prepared me for the more in-depth writing I should expect in college by forcing me to be more organized in my research methods.”

The Course’s Main Takeaways

While it is important to Dr. Higgin that Chloe, Harry and Elayna come away from the independent study with a deeper understanding of both race and American foreign policy, and, of course, where, when, how and why they intersect, she feels that the most important takeaway is their understanding of how to approach a college-level research paper.

“The students are also learning how to find the time to think deeply about puzzling questions when they are busy, how to answer a question that is not easily answerable, and how to organize a formal paper when they aren’t yet sure how all of the information they are finding really fits together,” said Dr. Higgin, whose work on race and foreign policy (specifically, jazz and ex-American slaves’ repatriation to Liberia), among other topics, appears in Scribner’s America in the World: 1776 to the Present.

Of course, students are also getting a firsthand look at how difficult this can be, and, most importantly, that they are more than capable of pulling it all off. “When it gets hard—which is often the case during the research and writing process—I remind them that I’m here to help and that engaging in that process is excellent practice for whatever field they go into, history or not,” Dr. Higgin said.

Elayna wholeheartedly agrees, noting that the independent study has taught her the importance of looking at and trying to understand different viewpoints, and the incredible importance of examining diverse evidence.

“Dr. Higgin has given us extraordinary feedback and truly helped us elevate our skills to the next level,” she said. “This seminar has really helped prepare us for college by enhancing our writing and ability to utilize reliable and accurate sources. I have never written such an extensive and exhaustive research paper as the one we are required to complete, and I think that this experience has shown me what to expect, and what professors will expect from me, in college.”

Pursuing Personal Interests

For Chloe, the opportunity to work with Dr. Higgin, who she calls an “amazing and challenging teacher,” was a major factor in her deciding to take her first independent study during her busy final year at Blair, even though doing so went beyond her graduation requirements.

“I have learned so much from Dr. Higgin about self-discipline and time management,” said Chloe, who will attend The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania next year, where she will combine a business focus with an interdisciplinary liberal arts program that requires writing a thesis. “Dr. Higgin has given me the tools to do that well, and I really feel that this class has prepared me for college. Balancing reading and writing as part of the research process is really hard—you know you have to get started on the writing process, but you have to read a ton to get to that point, and it is easy to get sidetracked.”

Chloe looks back on her first independent study as a special and rewarding experience, and encourages her younger classmates to give the seminar a try should it be offered again in the future.

“Just go for it,” she said. “This course is a safe place to see what college feels like and do it with a safety net. When you get to college, your professors likely aren’t going to work with you on such a personal level or offer you such detailed critiques as you write. It is also a great opportunity to delve into what you are interested in, which is such a hard thing to do in high school—you are so overwhelmed by work in basic subjects that you don’t always get to do the things that most appeal to you. This seminar changes that, and teaches you some really critical skills along the way.”

Last Updated: May 12, 2017