2 years, 35 students, $125,000 in funding: History seminar prepares undergraduates to do research around the world

Author: Carrie Gates

Billups Reception 1200History major William Robert Billups (right), seen here speaking with other 2017 graduates at an annual reception honoring senior thesis writers, traveled to London to do research as part of the history honors seminar.

In the past two years, 35 history majors in Paul Ocobock’s honors seminar have received more than $125,000 in funding to do original research around the world.

And every student in his course who applied for funding received it — using the grants to explore archives in France, Ireland, Uganda, China, and South Korea, among other places.

“The department takes undergraduate research very seriously,” said Ocobock, an assistant professor of history. “We encourage students to be practitioners of history, to go out and do it themselves.”

But to Ocobock, there is something even more important than his students’ 100 percent success rate in securing funding — the sense of community they develop as they plan their projects together, travel the globe to conduct research, then return to his classroom to begin work on their senior theses.

“The honors track courses create a lovely subculture in history — one that we want to extend to the whole program — where our students very much identify themselves as historians and as part of something special,” he said. “We are now seeing how valuable that is.”

“It gives students ownership of their education and builds skills you don’t get in most classrooms. They come back with a sense of being part of something much bigger. And the senior thesis forces them to problem solve in ways they never would in a typical class.”

Developing research skills

Ocobock redesigned and began teaching the honors seminar two years ago. The first class in the sequence, taken in the spring of junior year, focuses on equipping students with the practical skills necessary to conduct their research, which most pursue the summer after junior year.

Ocobock Thesis Reception 1200Paul Ocobock, an assistant professor of history, talks with students at the annual College of Arts and Letters event honoring senior thesis projects.

In the second class, taken in the fall of senior year, students analyze what they’ve found and begin writing their thesis projects.

“I want these to be very functional classes,” Ocobock said. “I want to see our senior thesis students doing more rigorous work. I want them to be able to get funding to go off into the world.

“Because no matter where they plan to go after graduation — a Ph.D. program or the business world — if they have refined grant-writing and research skills, interesting stories from abroad to tell job interviewers, and the ability to read quickly, form arguments, and prepare well-written statements, they are set for the rest of their careers.”

Building a dossier

Tianyi Tan Paris 600Senior Tianyi Tan, standing outside the Sorbonne in Paris, spent a month this summer doing research at the Archives Nationales in France.

Senior Tianyi Tan took Ocobock’s first seminar this spring and spent four weeks this summer researching at the Archives Nationales in Paris, with funding from the Nanovic Institute for European Studies

“The spring course was very well-designed and timed to prepare us for our first serious research endeavor,” she said. “It promoted a more conscious, thought-out approach to research.”

After choosing a topic to explore, the students’ first assignment is to complete an application for grant funding, if they need it. They then revise it with guidance from Ocobock, who is also a faculty fellow at the Kellogg Institute for International Studies and has been part of several committees reviewing grant proposals.

Next, with the help of Senior Archivist William Kevin Cawley and Special Collections Curator Julie Tanaka from the Hesburgh Libraries, Ocobock talks with students about what to expect when they arrive at an archive and shows them how files might be structured.

“I ask them what they’ll do first when they see a file,” he said. “You immediately want to jump in and read the text, but you shouldn’t yet. You should first consider who it’s written by, who it’s written to, and how the material came to be organized in that way.”

The class also reviews other types of materials and research, exploring correspondence, memoir, and visual media, as well as how to conduct an interview and how to work with data sets.

Finally, the students complete a personal “research dossier” that details what materials are available at their archives, the opening times of the facility, and the name of the archivist they’ve contacted, as well as a literature review paper that describes the state of their field and what their research questions are.

“Some of them find out hard truths — like the archive they thought would have their information has nothing,” Ocobock said. “So they need to find a different archive and amend their grant application. But the important part is they’re finding that out while they’re still on campus and have the time to revise their plan.”

For Tan, whose thesis explores media censorship in the early years of the French Revolution, the dossier was one of the most valuable assignments.

“Creating the research dossier allowed us to develop our research plan for the summer well in advance,” she said. “I felt very prepared and excited to begin when I arrived in Paris.”

Writing, together

William Billups London 600Billups, who won the Department of History's award for best thesis on Irish history, said his research experience was crucial to his successful application to a master's degree program at Cambridge University.

When students return to the second honors seminar in the fall, they share with the group the most important resources they found.

“We read one of each student’s primary documents together and talk about different ways you could interpret it,” Ocobock said. “It’s almost like crowdsourcing historical interpretation.”

The students also explore where their research fits into the field as they begin writing their thesis projects, said William Robert Billups ’17. 

Billups was in Ocobock’s first honors cohort and won the department’s O’Hagan Award for best thesis on Irish history.

“The assignments pushed us to develop our own arguments while exploring major historical traditions,” he said. “The result was that we were able to write theses that were tuned to the major intellectual currents surrounding our topics, making our arguments more engaging and well-defined.”

The experience was invaluable for Billups, who began pursuing a master’s degree at Cambridge University this fall.

“I submitted a draft of my thesis as a writing sample and wrote about my research experiences in London as part of my application to Cambridge,” he said. “But more importantly, my thesis at Notre Dame offered me excellent preparation for the research and writing required by my master’s program.”

As students wrap up their thesis projects in the spring of their senior year, Ocobock continues to meet with the group for an informal writing “boot camp” for two to three hours each week.

“I want to make sure no one ever says they felt alone or left to their own devices,” he said. “There are always social gatherings built in to make it a collective experience.”

Overall, Ocobock sees the senior thesis as an incredibly empowering process for his students.

“It gives students ownership of their education and builds skills you don’t get in most classrooms,” he said. “When students go off and conduct historical research in other parts of the world, it fosters a profound empathy for people of other cultures and people of the past. They come back with a sense of being part of something much bigger. And the senior thesis forces them to problem solve in ways they never would in a typical class.”