University Essay Introduction

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History essays are less about finding the correct answer to the set question than they are about demonstrating that you understand the issues which it raises (and the texts which discuss these issues).

With most historical problems (certainly the most interesting ones) it is seldom possible to arrive at a definitive answer.

Of course, exactly what constitutes 'the evidence' is almost invariably one of the issues under discussion among the historians who are most deeply engaged with the problem, but in general for each historical question there will be a body of evidence which is recognised as being relevant to it.

This body of evidence will typically comprise what the primary sources tell us about the events and phenomena under discussion.

That is, to explain why they are the best criteria for judging the historical phenomenon at issue.

'What-role-did-X-play-in-Y' questions imply a functionalist approach - that is, they require that you identify the function of some phenomenon, group or institution within some specific system.An undergraduate essay need not be particularly innovative in its approach and insights, but it must be the product of the student's own dialogue with the subject.Essays which do not answer the question can only be regarded as demonstrating some knowledge of the topic, they cannot be said to show understanding of the topic.The conclusion would then require a summation of the various 'sub-conclusions'.It needs to be stressed that none of these types of question calls for a narrative approach.It is useful to note that there is usually a natural way of structuring your answer: that is, a way of organising an answer which follows naturally from the format of the question and which will put the fewest obstacles in the way of the reader: 'Explain' and 'why' questions demand a list of reasons or one big reason; each reason will have to be explained - that is, clarified, expounded, and illustrated.'Assess', 'evaluate' and 'define-the-significance-of' questions require judgements supported by reasons, explanation and evidence.'Compare-and-contrast' questions demand the identification of similarities and differences.One method of tackling such an essay would be to distinguish five or six areas of similarity and contrast, and to devote a section of the essay to each area - a section in which you would assess the degree of similarity and reach a sub-conclusion.Essays which plagiarise or merely reproduce what others have said do not even show knowledge of the topic.Plagiarism is thus not merely a matter of theft, it involves an entirely unacceptable subversion of the learning process.

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