Writing my History 601 Final Paper was an eye-opening experience. After having completed Hist 301 during the final semester of my undergraduate program (It was supposed to have been done during my first semester in upper division coursework and as a transfer student I had not been informed), I was ready for the super-heavy, reading-laden trench work of 601. The semester went fairly well as we read various works, including That Noble Dream by Peter Novick and The Cheese and the Worms by Carlo Ginzburg. We learned about the development of the profession of History and how we were to embark on a mission to educate the world about humanity and all of its glories and follies.
For my final, I chose to write a paper on The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II, by Iris Chang. Of course, as I had done the entire semester, I waited until the last minute to research and write my paper. We were reading books at the pace of one a week; with work, children and a needy girlfriend occupying most of my time, I was forced to read the books in one or two days. I am a quick reader. Although digesting the information, interpreting it, formulating an argument and selecting passages for support and evidence are more than simply reading a text. I needed more time than I was allowing myself for each assignment, and the 7/10 that I was consistently earning never quite pierced the veil of my brain and translated to the raw 70% that would eventually become a B, which led to a lower average than I needed to maintain in order to remain in good standing within the graduate program.
So there I was, one week left to write my final paper, and of course life did not slow down to accommodate me. I did not use enough sources and one of the ones that I had selected was known for being written by a very lousy example of a historian. I would have known that, had I done more research and examined more sources. I look back and recall the large stack of books I used for my history 301 paper and I can’t understand why I didn’t think to do the same with Hist 601. I remember making three or four trips to the library looking for sources for my 301 paper (Which was on the relationships between Churchill, Stalin and Roosevelt and Truman during WWII) and I even bought one book for 25cents as an additional source. Somehow, that commitment wasn't there for hist 601. Was it hubris? Was I so full of myself after being accepted into the Master’s program that my academic standards became inexplicably lax? I believe so. I was forced to face the truth: I hadn’t only let myself down; I let down every professor who wrote a letter of recommendation for me as well.
I learned a very valuable lesson in Hist 601, and that lesson is that no matter how skilled we might be the effort has to accompany that skill and be infused into every work. The first great job you do, regardless of the form, format, field, etc., sets the bar for the future. Each assignment should improve on the previous one in any way possible. Each subsequent piece of work should include no less effort than the one before it. Following this ideology, I have been able to produce high-quality work even when the subject matter fails to mesmerize me. I realized that if my standards drop, then so shall the rewards. And frankly, I want platinum medals, not bronze ones.-John
Thursday, June 13, 2013