Argumentative Essay

Alan Wood, war correspondent, typing his despatch in a wood outside Arnhem; with him are three members of the 1st British-Airborne Division. 18 September 1944

War Correspondent Alan Wood Typing Dispatch Outside Arnhem, Netherlands, 1944

You must complete an argumentative essay to pass the course.  The essay will be at least five paragraphs and will probably come in around 3-4 pages double-spaced with 12-pt., New York Times font (often listed as Times, New Roman).  It will address a question that intelligent people disagree on and you’ll show what light history sheds on the topic.  We will discuss the papers more in class, but I encourage everyone to come and discuss their research with me during office hours if you are having any problems getting started.  It must concern American history, from 1492-1877 or thereabouts for 1301 and 1877 to the present for 1302.  It is due on November 8th (1301) or November 13th (1302).  I use hard deadlines because they are more similar to what many of you will encounter in the workplace.  If you feel hard deadlines are unfair, finish the paper a week ahead of time.

Submission & Grade
The essay is graded on a 60-point scale based on the quality of the argument, historical content, writing, and grammatical cleanliness (40 for argument/research & 20 for writing/grammar). Submit your essay as a WORD attachment in Blackboard (it will be run through SafeAssign to check for originality).  Plagiarism of any sort will result in an F for the course.  Submit the paper on the due date, by 11:59 pm in Blackboard.  The Essay Submission tab is in Blackboard is in the upper-left hand corner, along with the other tabs.  Don’t try to paste the whole essay into the little box, just submit the WORD attachment.  If you see the Goldish-Yellow ! in your Gradebook, you’ll know that it’s submitted.


It’s a classic 5-paragraph persuasive or analytical paper that builds on the paragraph writing skills you’ve been developing all semester, and what you’ve likely done (or are doing) in English Composition.  The opening paragraph should introduce a question you’re addressing and include a response to that question that is as succinct as possible (one or two sentences).  The question should be straightforward enough that you can use it as the title of your paper (embolden and capitalize the title).  This opening paragraph will start off fairly general as you frame the question by introducing some context then gradually narrow down to your thesis (response) toward the end of the opening paragraph.  Ninety percent of the time I could accurately guess an essay’s grade by the time I’m through with the opening paragraph, because that’s where you “get your ducks in a row.”  Then follow through on your outline and you’re on your way toward a well-organized, coherent essay.Five ducklings in row, side view (Digital Composite)

The next paragraphs will be the three main points of your argument, and the last paragraph will be your conclusion.  Each of the three (or more) argument paragraphs in the body of the essay will have an opening sentence or two that provides some transition to the previous paragraph while introducing a new idea.  Transition sentences should move along your discussion and crystallize main points.  Your paper should be ordered in a logical manner, and not jump around all over the place.  Some well-placed direct quotes from primary sources are good, but don’t waste a lot of space on direct quotes from secondary sources.  Here’s another good source with guides on effective paragraph writing and thesis statements.  Here are four important things to consider as you research your topic:

  • How does history shed light on the topic in ways that people might not otherwise consider?
  • What do partisans on either side of the issue most tend to include/emphasize or leave out of their arguments?  How are people marshaling evidence and formulating arguments concerning the question you’re writing on?  What are the strengths and weaknesses of various arguments and interpretations concerning the issue?
  • Before you hand in your essay, ask yourself: would your argument hold up in court?  Consider me a skeptical jurist or, better yet, an opposing attorney who is going to cross-examine.  Your thesis should be focused, substantive and coherent, and be followed by well-chosen examples that back up your argument.  You don’t need to anticipate the other attorney’s weakest arguments; you need to anticipate that he or she will be explaining the best counter-arguments to the same jury when you’re done speaking.  What are they?  A good place to address this is in the opening paragraph where you’re introducing the reader to the topic and why it’s controversial.  (A few of the pre-authorized topics won’t deal as much in counter-arguments because they ask “to what extent….” is something true.)
  • Take advantage of the links I provide in Memory Hole, where appropriate.  They can help launch your research and, in some cases, give you multiple points of view to take into account.

You’ll need to start brainstorming early in the semester for a good topic.  The topic doesn’t have to be controversial, but it should be an interpretation historians might disagree on, not just descriptive.  You have a topic, now ask: what about it?  Clear the topic with me in office hours or via email, and I can help you formulate a question.  Make sure to consider topics from further along in the course, not just chapters you’ve already read.  The essay can be over anything historical, including social, political, economic, military, religious or cultural history, and isn’t limited to subjects covered in our textbook.  Twenty-first -century topics are acceptable (especially for 1302) if the focus is on their historical roots.

For ideas on controversial questions, you can check out the Memory Hole Link and pick a topic that’s still contested today.  Another source for ideas is Intelligence² Debates.  These hour-and-half public forums cover modern debates, which you could weigh in on by researching their historical background, and start with their library of articles.  Three other good sites for ideas are: Origins, Real Clear History & Digital History (Controversies, Decision Making, Historiography).  You can also examine Texas Textbook Controversies.  Another source of ideas are the links at the bottom of most chapters.  Finally, another angle to consider is take something that’s going on currently and investigate the debate over its origins.

Familiarize yourself with the terminology surrounding the topic, and think long and hard about the issue you’re writing on.  Don’t be afraid to ask yourself the more counter-intuitive question, that runs against the grain of normal interpretation (e.g. What worked about Prohibition? Rather than what didn’t, since every 8th-grader already knows that).  See the Memory Hole for more on how partisans emphasize or omit various points and arguments.  The History Hub Library has various left- and right-leaning textbooks and magazine/periodicals.  Use their search functions to get a feel for how historians argue the issue.  Also, look in the History Hub Library’s Topical Links to see if your topic has other sites related to it.

Jonathan Buckstead, ACC-Cypress Creek Librarian Specializing In U.S History

Jonathan Buckstead, ACC-Cypress Creek Librarian Specializing In U.S History

Unlike some argumentative or analytical essays, this one will have elements of a research paper, insofar as you’ll consult and cite reference materials.  It’s really a hybrid of the classic argumentative/analytical essay and research paper models.  It’s built around a question and thesis, but it includes research.  Tap into at least 3-4 books, scholarly articles, and websites as secondary sources.  Use at least one book for research (on-line or hard copy), even if you don’t read the whole thing — that’s where the hard-core scholarship can usually be found.  Failure to do so will exclude getting an A on the assignment.  Exclude our own textbook from your sources and don’t use other online textbooks; focus on sources exclusively about your topic instead.  Generally use websites ending in .org, .gov, .net or .edu, not .com.  Your first line of attack should be to tap into our own extensive ACC Library, followed by our online History Hub Library or UT.   Here’s the ACC Library’s U.S. History Page.  ACC’s Cypress Creek Campus library staff includes Jonathan Buckstead, the system’s specialist in U.S. History.  Talk to him; he’s there to help you.

The UT PCL library is open to the public before 10, and you can check out books by getting a Tex-share card from the Public Library.  The History Hub Library can be a bit overwhelming, but if you dive into it with an idea of what you’re looking for, it’s a good tool.  Real college-level research goes past Schmoop,, History Channel, Sparknotes, etc.  Do not use on-line encyclopedias such as Wikipedia except for initial studies and peripheral fact-checking (not as a main source, in other words, but only as a jumping off point).  Wikipedia is a good source for bibliographies, toward the end of entries, but use real sources for the heart of your research, including scholarly books and articles, and primary sources.  Just as there is a lot of fake news out there on the Internet, also be wary of fake history (e.g. fake Jefferson quotes).  Use at the very least one actual book, even if the book is online (or Kindle) instead of a hard copy.  You’ll be graded on whether you spend a month rolling up your sleeves and doing some actual research or whether just hit some cheesy websites quickly at the end.  Historian Kevin Levin suggests the following guidelines to steer students away from fake history, misinformation and distortion:

  • Is the site associated with a reputable institution like a museum, historical society or university?
  • Can you identify the individual or organization responsible for the site, and are the proper credentials displayed?
  • Then, finally, you have to examine the material itself. Is the information provided on the Web site, including text and images, properly cited? What can you discern from both the incoming and outgoing links to the site? Only then can you approach it with the same level of trust that you would a scholarly journal or piece of archival material.

Include at least one primary source (original source) — a document, letter, diary, newspaper, telegram, speech, transcript, key photo, tape recording, film, manuscript, cartoon, etc. from the time period in question that provides evidence or firsthand testimony.  In this use primary doesn’t mean main; it means original.  The best way to approach the primary source requirement isn’t to just go find one for its own sake, but to think about the question you’re addressing for your essay and how to approach it?  Where would start if you couldn’t rely on the secondary sources of authors, journalists, etc. who have attempted to explain things for your benefit (as a reader)?  What sort of evidence would you want to have in a courtroom?  The point isn’t just to find a primary source, but use it well.  How might this firsthand testimony be biased?  How does the interpretation of this primary source impinge on your argument?  For instance, if you were investigating the atomic attacks on Japan at the end of WWII, you might look at President Truman’s diary.  What sort of evidence are the authors writing and arguing about?  An obvious place to look for primary sources is in the discussion or notes of the main secondary sources you use.  A student asked if this source was primary or secondary; the source is a secondary article, but footnote #1 within the article is primary (it’s a document from 1957).  Do you see the difference?  The History Hub Library is another good place to mine for primary sources, as are the ACC Library’s American Decades/Gale Library and Milestone Documents pages.  Failure to utilize a primary source will result in a 5-point penalty.  For more on Primary Sources, see the video at the bottom of the page.  The Declaration of Independence and Constitution are both primary sources, and you should feel to use them, but neither count as your one required primary source.

This video is aimed mostly at teachers, but it’s worth watching to better understand primary sources and the type of questions historians (and students) must ask when analyzing primary source evidence.  These include considering issues like multiple claims, sourcing, context and evidence-based claims:

You should ask yourself where the primary sources (evidence) come from in your secondary source article, who generated them and why.  How might they differ from other perspectives?

Here’s a SAMPLE by a former student.  She didn’t pick a particularly controversial issue, but I use this example because she lays out a clear question and formulates an answer toward the end of the first paragraph.  Then the body of the essay supports her thesis, and she wraps up with a conclusion that does more than just regurgitate what she’s already said — it elaborates on and refines the original thesis by explaining what we’ve learned in the preceding paragraphs.  You’ll likely be posing a more controversial question; remember to include both sides by including what proponents of either side emphasize or leave out of their arguments.

For Citations, you can use either the MLA or University of Chicago (Turabian) style.  For the MLA version, include a brief WORKS CITED page at the end.  The Chicago Method doesn’t need a WORKS CITED or BIBLIOGRAPHY page, since the footnotes include full references.  Anyone planning to take upper-division history courses later on should use the Chicago Method.  For help formatting in the Chicago style, see eTurabian.  You can consult the ACC History Department’s Guide, or an excellent online guide, NoodleTools.

Recipe for Success
1. Give Yourself Time To Consider A Topic. Use Your Imagination. Take An Hour Staring Into Space Thinking About It.
2. Do Real Research in Libraries/Books/Articles, Not Cheap Quick-Stop Shopping @ Encyclopedias.
3. Pick A Question You Can Sink Your Teeth Into — Something There’s Some Interpretive Disagreement About Among Reasonable People.
4. Consider Whether The Question You’re Framing Your Essay With Really Matches Your Supporting Arguments & Conclusion/Thesis.  Would Your Argument Hold Up In Court?
5. Take Time To Proof Your Paper.  Use Grammar-Check and ACC’s Learning Lab.
6. Organize Your Time Well. Follow the Suggested Work Schedule. Don’t Be Fooled By The Relatively Short Length Of Essay.
7. Have some fun.  This isn’t torture.  Take the time to find a subject that interests you, start early, get the draft up and running and take your time proofing and refining.
8. Read about common fallacies of historical thinking in the Rear Defogger (top bar).  When I grade your paper I may write something like “RD-4” in the textual comments.  That means look at item #4 in the Rear Defogger.

Suggested Work Schedule:
Weeks 1-2: Pick Your Topic
After 1st Exam: You’ll Write On Your Topic For 6-pt. CAP
Weeks 3-6: Research; Dig Hard in the History Hub Library
After 2nd Exam: You’ll Write On A Primary Source & How It Impacts Argument For 6-pt. CAP
Weeks 7-9: Write Essay; Learn to Cite Sources & Format
Week 10: Revise, Proof (Grammar-Check & Learning Lab), Squeeze the Fat (Lean & Clean); Your Prose Should Be Clear & Concise. Read Over Grammar Tips in History Hub Menu (Under Syllabi)
Week 11: Does the Thesis Line Up With the Argument & Conclusion; How Sound Is Your Argument?
Week 11: Paper Due

Rubric for Grading That You’ll See In Blackboard (60 Pts.):
Content: X/40
     Strength of Main Argument: X/30
     Discussion of Strongest Counter-Argument: X/5
     Use of Good Sources: X/5
Writing: X/20

Late Papers, Backing Up & Grammar-Check
Each successive weekday the essay is late counts as another five points off the score, regardless of your excuse, up to 15 points off max. The smartest thing is to finish it before the deadline and work on polishing it – after all you have plenty of time to do them (2+ months), so what’s the use in finishing right at the deadline?  Or, worse yet, starting around the deadline?  Cover (or title) pages are unnecessary, but have a title that you embolden and capitalize that describes what your paper is about.  You could use the question you’re addressing as your title, or some variation on it.  If you do not submit the paper by the last day of class, you will flunk rather than receiving an incomplete. Back Up!  Keep an electronic version of your paper on MS Word (always save or email it to yourself, or keep a copy “in the clouds”).  For papers submitted through Blackboard, I won’t mark up the text, but rather put my comments on the historical content/argument portion of the grade in the drop-down Gradebook portion of Blackboard.  We can go over grammar in person with a hard copy if you have questions on that portion of the grade.  Go under WORD > PREFERENCES to set Grammar & Spell-checking at Standard.  Then after you’ve written the paper, go under TOOLS and run it through Grammar & Spelling check.  It’s an imperfect program, but it helps.  There’s no excuse that I can see for failing to use it (since the technology is free) other than simple laziness.  Also, check out the Grammar Tips in History Hub in the drop-down menu under Syllabi.

Some Helpful Websites on Writing Papers & Essays
Strunk & White’s Elements of Style
Dartmouth Guide
Univ. of Toronto Essay Writing Guide

Univ. of North Carolina Guide
ACC Writing Guide

ACC Library Study Skills Workshops (Including Effective Paragraph Writing & Effective Thesis Statements)