Help with undergraduate research: the classics essay

One of the most difficult forms of knowledge transfer is writing. Writing is a skill we all practiced from grade school onwards, and so we think it should be easy. But in fact, as you advance through your education, this ‘simple’ skill becomes more complex and more variable. Not only is it different to write a personal reflection and an essay, but it’s also different to write an essay in archaeology and an essay in history. Within the discipline of history itself, there are different standards for different subsets of papers — the source analysis, the literature review, the argument — and each has its own conventions.

In this series, we tackle the three major types of paper classics students are likely to see on their syllabi and offer some advice for how to approach them. Of course, the best resource for writing a paper is going to be the professor who’s grading you. But sometimes you need a more basic grounding in expectations and approaches. Read this first, and then head to office hours.

The first assignment we’re going to tackle is the most common: the argumentative essay. This type of paper comes in two varieties, aimed at beginning and advanced students. These first tips are for beginning students (advanced students may want to look at our previous post on writing). If you are a first-year student or you’ve never taken a class on antiquity before, you should start here.

Your first task is to forget most of what you learned about writing in high school. Professors, in general, are not impressed by five-paragraph ‘hamburger’ (or ‘sandwich’) essays. If you’re not familiar with this term, I mean essays that are structured like this:

essay help classics ancient sandwich hamburger shape organization

Image from breanabayraktar.wordpress.com

Why? A few reasons: first, you typically use this type of structure when you have an answer that you are trying to prove. Often, but not always, this means that you have read the question, thought “the answer is X!” and set out to show that the answer is indeed X. But a postsecondary-level essay needs to show that you’ve considered the question a bit more deeply — after all, if the answer is so clear, why are we making you write about it?

A second reason why professors tend not to like the hamburger structure is that it’s really not very fun to read. The three body paragraphs are repetitive (“in this paragraph, I will show that…”), and the introduction and conclusion tend to be identical. In some essays that I’ve seen, they are identical, simply cut-and-pasted from the first page to the last. This is not a good idea in a college-level essay.

Finally, the five-paragraph hamburger might work for a 2-3 page essay, but usually our essays are longer. If you stick to your hamburger structure for an 8-10 page essay, suddenly your body paragraphs are more than a page long. And that’s usually longer than the amount of evidence you have to discuss, meaning that your paragraph structure gets muddy.

So, to make a long story short, the 5-paragraph essay encourages bad thinking, bad structure, and bad writing. It’s best avoided in these papers. But that means you need a replacement. For lack of a better term, I’m calling it the “classics paper”.


 

To write a classics paper, first you have to really think about your question and break down all of its parts. Let’s say you’re asked to “discuss the fall of the Roman Republic” in 8-10 pages. That’s a pretty broad question. Whole books have been written about it, including two volumes of the Cambridge Ancient History. So what can you do to make that a manageable size for a beginning student?

Most of your task here comes down to phrasing. Your main words (also called content words) here are discussfall, and Roman Republic. These words can be analyzed (unpacked) further to help you focus your ideas. Here are some of the questions you could ask yourself:

  • What does ‘the Roman Republic’ mean to me / in regard to this course? Are we talking about a period (and if so, what is it?)? A form of government? An ideology? How can I define that term?
  • What does it mean to say that the Republic ‘fell’? Does this word suggest a particular type of end? Do you think the Republic met that end? If not, maybe you should argue that the Republic did not fall. If you think it did fall, what did that fall look like — that is, what were its causes and outcomes? What came after the ‘fall’?
  • Your directions for this paper are fairly broad: “discuss” might make you think that you should write a narrative of Roman history from c. 150 BCE to c. 50 CE. Beware of this urge. It is much more likely that your professor wants to know what you think happened in that period, which means that you should have an argument that in some way mentions the “fall of the Roman Republic” — even if you bring the idea up to dismiss it.

In order to write this essay, or even to start thinking about it like we just did, you’ll probably have to do some research. This might take the form of your required course readings or your individual research (using tools like JSTOR). Certainly once you’ve gone through your notes, parsed your question, and come up with an answer, you’ll want to do at least the minimum amount of research required for the assignment (for example, read 3 articles or book chapters). It’s often better to do more research than required, for reasons we’ll talk about in a later post.

Once you’ve done your research and have all your notes in one place, it’s time to start revisiting your structure. For this paper, one structure might be:

  • First paragraph: give a background on the topic. Most importantly, define your terms: what do you mean by ‘Republic’? What does ‘fall’ imply in this context? You can probably avoid saying “this paper will analyze…”, and depending on your professor, you can probably say “I will…” But make sure to check first.
  • The next several paragraphs can discuss your evidence. You should have more than three body paragraphs here, but there is no maximum or minimum. Each paragraph should focus on one idea, and it’s best if the ideas flow naturally. For example, if you are arguing that the Republic didn’t fall, but instead changed over time, you might move chronologically through the following outline:
    • ‘Ideal Republic’of second Punic War
    • Luxury introduced by the destruction of Carthage and Corinth
    • Marius’ army reforms and the rise of the popular general
    • Sulla’s march on Rome
    • the ‘first triumvirate’
    • Pompey’s sole consulship and Caesar in Gaul
    • Caesar’s war with Pompey
    • Caesar’s dictatorship

Note how this structure has many body paragraphs, but each one has one idea and flows smoothly to the next.

  • Your final paragraph should pick up on the idea of fall vs. change, and explain the larger implications of this idea. Don’t worry if you think you can’t make important, groundbreaking claims — that’s not the point. Saying that your essay completely changes the way historians understand the Republic isn’t likely to be true (remember, you’re a beginner!), and that’s okay. You could instead make a point about methodology or word choice. Going back to our list of questions above, for example, you can explain that Rome’s ‘fall’ implies that the Republic was really great, and the Principate was less so. But maybe that’s not the case, or maybe it’s just a bad assumption to work from. That’s a valuable observation, and a good way to close your essay.

If you’re writing a very long (15+)-page paper, you’ll need more support in your research and structure. I’ll guide you through that process in a later post.


~J.

 

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