Friday, January 22, 2010

Valerie Strauss, The Washington Post; 22 January 2010

That first big research paper

The following was written by 17-year-old Christiane Henrich, a senior at Marblehead [MA] High School, about how she wrote her first research paper, on U.S. Civil War medicine. It was published in the Winter 2009 issue [#80] of The Concord Review, believed to be the world’s only quarterly academic journal for high school history research. She wrote it to Will Fitzhugh, publisher of The Concord Review, who shared it with me.

By Christiane Henrich

Before crafting my research paper on U.S. Civil War Medicine, I had never composed a piece of non-fiction literature beyond six or seven pages. Twenty pages seemed to be an unconquerable length.

I remember the dread that filled me as my AP United States History teacher, Mrs. Melissa Humphrey, handed out the assignment for the twenty-page research paper. She also passed around copies of The Concord Review as examples of research papers done well. For us, the first deadline was only a few weeks away. We had to have a thesis. It was then that I truly realized the depth of this academic adventure. My job was not to simply report on some topic in U.S. history; I had to prove something. I had to create an arguable thesis and defend it. I was overwhelmed.

I put the assignment in the back of my mind for about a week. Then I began to think seriously about what I could possibly want to write about. I brainstormed a list of [the periods] in U.S. history that fascinate me, ranging from World War II to the Civil Rights Movement. Finally, I settled on Civil War medicine because of my plans to pursue a career in medicine. I figured this would be a great opportunity to gather more knowledge on my potential future profession.

Simply choosing a topic was not enough, I needed a thesis. So I began to search through books and online databases for any information about Civil War medicine. I gathered so much information that my head was spinning.

I realized I had to narrow down my topic, and that this would be done by creating a specific, arguable thesis. Sifting through all the data and historical articles, I noticed that Civil War medicine was not as atrocious as I had always believed it to be. I had my thesis. I wanted to defend Civil War medicine by placing it in its own historical context, something many fail to do when evaluating it with a modern eye. 

A few weeks later, approved thesis in hand, I stepped into the Tufts University library, the alma mater of my mother. The battle plan: gather enough materials, particularly primary sources, to prove my thesis. The enemy: the massive amounts of possibly valuable literature.

I had never previously encountered the problem of finding books so specialized that they didn’t end up being helpful for my thesis nor had I ever been presented with so many options that I had to narrow down from thirty to a mere fifteen books. Actually, I had never left a library before with so many books. 

For the next few months, the books populated the floor of my room.

Every weekend, I methodically tackled the volumes, plastering them with Post-it notes. The deadline for the detailed outline and annotated bibliography loomed. I continued reading and researching, fascinated by all I was learning. 

In fact, I was so fascinated that I felt justified using it as my excuse to delay synthesizing all of my information into an outline. With thousands of pages of reading under my belt, I finally tackled the seven-page map for my twenty-page journey. That was easily the hardest part of the entire process. Once the course was charted, all I had to do was follow it. Of course, it was under construction the entire way, and detours were taken, but the course of the trip turned out much like the map.

I thought printing out the twenty-page academic undertaking, binding it, and handing it in was the greatest feeling I had ever experienced from a scholastic endeavor. I remember being overjoyed that day. I remember sleeping so soundly. I remember the day as sunny. I’m not sure if it actually was.... 

Clearly, I was thinking small. I had no idea what my grade would be. At that point, I did not even care. I had finished the paper. I considered that a tremendous accomplishment. Eventually, the graded research papers were handed back. What had previously been my greatest academic feeling was surpassed. The grade on my paper was a 99%. I was overjoyed and thrilled that I had not only completed such a tremendous task but had completed it pretty darnn well. I thought that was the greatest feeling.

I still needed to think bigger. I submitted my paper to The Concord Review on a whim this summer. I remember Mrs. Humphrey showing us the journals and praising their quality. She is a tough teacher, and I thought since she had liked my paper so much I should give The Concord Review a go. I was not counting on being published. I knew my chances were slim, and I knew I was competing with students from around the world.

 This November, I received a letter in the mail from Will Fitzhugh, the founder of The Concord Review. My paper was selected to be published in the Winter 2009 issue. That was the greatest feeling.

I am a 17-year-old public high school student. I am also a 17-year-old published author. People work their whole lives to make it to this point. I feel so honored to have this recognition at my age. My hard work paid off far beyond where I thought it would. Thank you, Mr. Fitzhugh, for recognizing the true value of academic achievement and for reminding me why I love to learn.


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