Argumentative Essay Guide

Those of you in the 1301 and 1302 in-class lectures classes (F2F not ONL) will write an argumentative essay and enjoy it.  For ideas on contested historical questions, you will use the Memory Hole Link on the tab above and pick a topic under either the 1301 or 1302 column, depending on which course you’re in.  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 informed people disagree on and you’ll show what light history sheds on the topic.  A key theme will be to address what various interpreters emphasize (cherry pick) or leave out (flush down the memory hole) when making their points.  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.  Check the Course Syllabus: Calendar for due dates.  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 just in case.

Submission & Grade
The essay is graded on a 90-point scale: 60 for content (30 argument, 30 research), and 30 for writing/grammar.  There are ~ 100 points available overall including the 5 points each for your earlier primary source submission and later follow-up question.  The point totals can vary by semester and between 1301 and 1302, but this is a typical breakdown:

100 Points:
Primary Source Analysis: 5
Argument: 30
Research: 30
Writing/Grammar: 30
Follow-Up: 5

In my follow-up question to your essay, I may redirect you to the Rear Defogger (tab above) for common fallacies, a fact-checking site (Politifact or Punditfact), Flipside ArchivesIntelligence² Debates, or to “follow the money” like any good detective, or might have you do a quick search into one of the sources or authors that you cite in your paper.  Submit your essay as an attachment in Blackboard; it will run through SafeAssign to check for originality.  Plagiarism of any sort, including generative AI, will result in an F for the course, not just the paper.  Submit the paper on the due date, by 11:59 pm in Blackboard.  The Essay Submission tab is in Blackboard on the left.  Don’t try to paste the whole essay into the little box; just submit your attachment.  If you see the goldish-yellow ! in your Gradebook, you’ll know that it’s submitted.


This is a classic 5-paragraph persuasive or analytical essay that builds on what you’ve likely done, or are now doing, in English Composition.  Analytical essays differ some from research papers because you’re addressing a specific question rather than just informing the reader about a topic.  The opening paragraph should introduce the question you’re addressing, the varying opinions on the question, and include your succinct response to that question.  The question should be straightforward enough that you can use it as the title of your paper (embolden and capitalize the title).  Using the question, or a clear answer, as a title will help ensure that you’re asking a straightforward question and staying on track.  No title page is necessary.  It sounds obvious, but don’t forget to answer the question you’re asking.  Align your content, in other words, with the paper’s title and stated subject matter.

Use the opening paragraph to explain the debate with the best arguments on each side.  The 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, preferably in the last sentence.  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” argumentatively, and I can tell whether you’ve proofed your paper.
Five ducklings in row, side view (Digital Composite)

Then follow through on your outline and you’re on your way toward a well-organized, coherent essay.  Remember, a thesis isn’t just something that you state; you want to follow through on backing it up in subsequent paragraphs.  In these paragraphs, lay out your evidence, with special attention paid to primary sources, just as a lawyer would in the courtroom.  These next paragraphs could include the three main points of your argument.  The last paragraph will be your conclusion.  In this paragraph, aside from summarizing your thesis, deal directly with the ethical aspects of your topic.  Why, if at all, does the issue have moral consequences?  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 from 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 in a paper this small.  Here’s a good source with guides on effective paragraph writing and thesis statements.

You’ll be graded on whether you spend a month rolling up your sleeves and doing some actual research or whether you just hit some cheesy websites quickly at the end.  Here are five important things to consider as you research and write on your topic:

  • If you’re stumped on picking a topic, ask yourself what you find interesting in the present and move back.
  • Don’t decide your thesis before you start.  If you’ve done that, you’re overestimating what you already know about the subject and need to open your mind as you research.  Good research doesn’t start with a conclusion and then search for evidence. It examines evidence then comes to a conclusion.
  • How does history shed light on the topic in ways that people might not otherwise consider?  This is a history class.  Let’s figure out how history can inform the topic in ways that people might not realize if they were just looking at the present.
  • What are the strengths and weaknesses of various arguments and interpretations concerning the issue?  In the spirit of Orwell’s Memory Hole, an organizing theme of your opening paragraph (and maybe elsewhere) will be to analyze which points interested parties emphasize and/or play down and why.  What are they flushing and what are they cherry-picking?  How do they utilize common argumentative techniques or commit logical fallacies?  For help on these, consult the Rear Defogger page above.  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.  Likewise, you can reference any of the common fallacies listed in the RD to argue what’s right or wrong about an historical interpretation in your paper.
  • Stick with your thesis.  At every turn, or at least the beginning and end of each paragraph, remind yourself what question you’re addressing and what your answer (thesis) to that question is.  Always align the content of your paper with the subject that you’re supposedly talking about.  It sounds obvious, but sometimes writers can stray off the path.  Grab me by the hand at the edge of the woods, tell me exactly what trail we’re going to walk down, then walk me directly down that very trail.
  • 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 points that back up your argument.  You don’t need to anticipate the other attorney’s weakest arguments; you need to anticipate that the opposition will be explaining the best counter-arguments (or opposing views) to the same jury when you’re done speaking.  What are they?  This is sometimes called the principal of charity or a steel [wo]man argument, as opposed to arguing with a straw man.  F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”  Understand the argument and why people disagree about it.  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 or directly connects to something that is 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.)  With counter-arguments, you can override, concede some ground or refute, but keep in mind that you don’t need to win arguments 10-0; you can win 6-4.  In the words of NYT columnist Bret Stephens: “Be proleptic, a word that comes from the Greek for ‘anticipation.’ That is, get the better of the major objection to your argument by raising and answering it in advance.  Always offer the other side’s strongest case, not the straw man.  Doing so will sharpen your own case and earn the respect of your reader.”  Philosopher John Stuart Mill wrote, “He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that.”  You can address counter-arguments in the main paragraphs as well, not just the opening paragraph. 
  • Take advantage of the links and asterisks 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.  If you see broken or dead links there, let me know.
  • Understand that, when I pose a follow-up question, I might be playing devil’s advocate.  I don’t necessarily disagree, overall, with what you’ve argued in your essay.
  • Back Up!  Keep an electronic version of your paper.  Always save or email it to yourself, or keep a copy “in the clouds.”

See the Memory Hole links for topic choices under 1301 or 1302.  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).  In Memory Hole, click on the topic if it has a a link and read those links to the right of that topic for more on how partisans debate the topic.

Sources & Research
This argumentative/analytical essay 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, though with a final product shorter than a research paper.  It’s built around a question and thesis, but it includes research.  Your first line of attack should be to tap into our own ACC Library.  Ask up front for a reference librarian and have them help you locate a book (if available) and/or online sources such as the Library of Congress (which includes newspaper archives) or scholarly articles on JSTOR.  Librarians can help you navigate the Library of Congress (LOC) and JSTOR and EBSCO.  To access JSTOR from home, you’ll need to be logged in with your ACC ID.  Here’s the ACC Library’s U.S. History Page and American History Database, which has a tab for primary sources after you’ve entered your topic.  For more refined searches, consider using Boolean Operators, though they shouldn’t be necessary.  Tap into at least one book (without reading the entire book, use the index), scholarly articles, and websites as secondary sources.  Your book can be an e-book, in which case you’d cite something in it with a % rather than page#.  Failure to do any library research so will result in a low score on the research portion of the grading rubric.  Use italics to list a book in Works Cited if using MLA so I that know it’s a book.

Next, the History Hub Library (tab above) has various left- and right-leaning textbooks, podcasts, and magazine/periodical and newspaper archives, etc.  Where possible, use their search functions.  Also, consult the History Hub Library’s Topical Links to see if your topic has other sites related to it.  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.  There’s no guarantee that you will find anything related to your topic in the HH Library but, either way, feel free to ask me about it.  But exclude our own textbook chapters from your sources, focusing instead on sources written specifically about your topic.  Textbooks have a role, to introduce you to a topic generally, but they are not sources of research.  If this was medicine, consider your survey instructor as a General Practitioner (GP), but not a specialist.  Dig deeper.

Much of your research will be online.  Like Library sites, you can refine your focus on search engines like Google with operators such as OR, site: , -, and ” “.  This 6:42 video explains how to refine your searches:

Generally use websites ending in .org, .gov, .net or .edu, not .com.  Roll up your sleeves and do some work.  Just research your topic and look for answers, information, and insight instead of wondering about some exact minimum number of sources.  You need to reference at least one book and one primary source but, with the other secondary sources, the number and quality will take care of itself.  I care more about the quality of sources than the quantity.  In the courtroom, cases aren’t decided based on whose lawyers have the largest stack of papers, but you don’t want to miss crucial evidence or perspectives either.  Spread this part of the process out over a couple of months of light work when you have time, spreading the butter on the toast.  Real college-level research goes past Schmoop,,, Sparknotes, etc.  Some of those sites are for people trying to get through college without learning anything or following the path of least resistance.  They can serve a more constructive purpose but aren’t suitable for real research because their entries aren’t written by true specialists.  As for Wikipedia, consult the bibliography and footnotes at the bottom of pages related to your topic; they are usually legit.  The Wiki article above those is likely sound enough, too (despite being open-sourced), but doesn’t constitute real research.  Dig deep enough to read actual specialists and don’t assume that “experts” are wrong or part of some conspiracy.  Use Wikipedia or similar general sites merely as jumping-off points, in other words, or to reference something, but not as main sources.  I corrected an essay recently that used real library research for the main substance but cited Wikipedia for the Clayton Act, a specific law.  That’s fine; just don’t use it for the heart of your research.

Also, just as there is a lot of fake news out there, be wary of fake history (e.g. fake Jefferson quotes) or shallow, fragmented forms of e-history (e.g., memes, provocative posts that start with hooks like “things you didn’t learn in school…” or “what they don’t tell in textbooks…”).  Employ lateral cross-checking for online sources.  For instance, since we know that the majority of online quotes from former presidents are fake, you could just search so-and-so’s online papers, or copy-and-paste the quote itself, or use a fact-checking site.Here’s a good article from NPR on filtering information.  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 Website, 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.

Crucially, understand the distinction between bias and misinformation.  Sources can lean left or right without dispensing anything false or necessarily even misleading.  Their bias comes in how they’re selecting material (what they’re including or leaving out) and how they’re mixing ingredients into their recipe, but the ingredients themselves (facts) can still be perfectly sound and true.  In the Textbook section of the History Hub Library there are links to textbooks by Howard Zinn and Shweikart & Allen that lean left and right, respectively, but they’re equally sound factually.  They might emphasize different facts and tell America’s story through different lenses, but both were written in good faith.  Academic history generally skews left, but the research is usually sound and true.  They’ve rolled up their sleeves in the archives.  If you want to counter it or provide an alternative view, play by their rules and blend your true and well-researched ingredients into a different recipe.  Misinformation, on the other hand, is outright wrong, or false.  Disinformation is purposely wrong.

More On Primary Sources
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.  But by no means should you limit yourself to just one primary source.  In this case, primary doesn’t mean main; it means original or evidence.  Primary sources are firsthand accounts.  The best way to approach the primary source requirement isn’t to just go find one for its own sake, to check a box, but rather to think about the question you’re addressing for your essay and how to approach it.  Where would you start if you couldn’t rely on the secondary sources of authors, journalists, historians, etc. who have attempted to explain things for your benefit (as a reader)?  How would you go about researching a book from scratch on a subject no one had ever written a book about?  What sort of evidence would you want to have in a courtroom?  The point isn’t just to find a primary source but to use it well.  How might this firsthand testimony be biased?  How does the interpretation of this primary source impact 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 might be unreliable about Truman’s diary other than that he wasn’t anywhere near Japan in 1945?  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?  If not, talk to me.  The History Hub Library is another good place to mine for primary sources, as are ACC Library’s American Decades/Gale Library and Milestone Documents pages, though you may need to be logged in to access them, as with JSTOR.  For those new to primary sources, this is a good explanation: ACC Library Guide to Primary Sources.  Here’s a guide to primary sources from Princeton’s library.  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.

For tips on analyzing a document, letter, photograph, cartoon, video, or sound recording, use this Document Analysis Worksheet tutorial from the National Archives (use the secondary student column).  This blog entry about Harry Truman’s decision to bomb Hiroshima, Japan in 1945 is a good demonstration of analyzing primary sources, including not just a 1945 radio address but even the rough draft of the speech.

This video was originally 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?  Primary isn’t better than secondary when it comes to sources.  They’re both part of the process and you could think of secondary sources as making sense of primary sources for the sake of readers.  Even well-intentioned primary source records are incomplete and could be misleading, and some are purposely misleading to confuse future historians.

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 or majoring in history should use the Chicago Method.  You can consult the ACC History Department’s Guide, or an excellent online guide, NoodleTools.

Here’s a SAMPLE by a former student.  This topic is no longer available and her bibliography is longer than yours likely will be, 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 be posing a more controversial questionHere’s a second SAMPLE that lays out a clear question and stays on point.  With this essay, the Works Cited research should include a book.

Late Papers
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 (2+ months), so what’s the use in finishing right at the deadline?  Or, worse yet, starting around the deadline?  If you do not submit the paper by the last day of class, you will flunk rather than receive an incomplete.

For comments, don’t just look at the comment box, but also the text itself for inline commentary (if that aspect of Blackboard is currently functional).  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.  In Google Docs, go under TOOLS > SPELLING & GRAMMAR.  Also, check out the Grammar Tips in History Hub in the drop-down menu under Syllabi.

Toolkit for Follow-Up Question:
Rear Defogger (tab above in HH)
Politifact & Punditfact
Flipside Archives
Intelligence² Debates

Additional Tips For Success:
1. Don’t devote a lot of ink in a paper this size to basic background.  For instance, if you’re writing about America’s entry into World War I, don’t devote the first two paragraphs to general history about the war that we already know and then get to America’s role later in the paper.  That’s too top-heavy.  Assume the reader understands the basics of the war and get to the topic you’re writing on: America’s entry.
2. Take time to proof your paper.  Use Grammar-Check and ACC’s Learning Lab.  All you need to do for Grammar-check is a push a couple of buttons.  Don’t send me the message that you’re too lazy for that, and get in the habit of doing that in the future for bosses, colleagues and clients.
3. Organize your time well.  Lay out a work schedule.  Don’t be fooled by the relatively short length of essay.
4. 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.

More Detailed Grading Rubric: 100 Pts.
The earlier primary source submission and later follow-up question are graded separately, five points each, for a total of 110 points.  The initial submission of a primary source will be three points for the source, and two for an aspirational primary source that you don’t have but would like to.  What source would ideally be able to access and why?

Content: __/ 70
— Strength of the Main Argument: X/40
•Include dealing with counter-arguments (they way you’d be cross-examined in a courtroom)
•Examine the evidence, with special attention paid to primary sources
— Research: Quality & Use of Good Sources: X/30
Writing: __/30
— Obvious failure to utilize grammar-check type software (even one case of it if it’s obvious) means a maximum score of 20/30
— Avoid simple mistakes like sentence fragments and capitalizing the wrong things (proper nouns are capitalized, nouns aren’t).

Some Helpful Websites & Videos:
Civic Online Reasoning (Stanford)
ACC Writing Guide
ACC Library Study Skills Workshops (Including Effective Paragraph Writing & Effective Thesis Statements)
Purdue Owl
Strunk & White’s Elements of Style
Dartmouth Guide

Reading Like An Historian (Stanford)