Well to be honest I don’t think I had too much experience in researching before I transferred. I mean, we’ve all had to do research papers in history class but I never really did anything more than a few books or internet sources. Now that I think of it, there was quite often a very loose focus but I still got by.
In retrospect, it’s kinda funny too because when a few of us were having our history department orientation with our absolutely wonderful Leah, I had the surprise of learning that Cal is one of the few schools left that still requires a senior thesis as a capstone to the undergraduate experience. Quite frankly, I think it’s really cool that we still have to do that but when I heard this the first thing that popped into my head was something to the effect of “Shit, how much do I actually know about researching?” Not much really.
Upon this sobering realization I floated around asked around with some of my professors about the research process and they were enlightening as much as they were critical. I dipped my proverbial toes in the proverbial waters of research and inquiry, proverbially. I familiarized myself. However, I still haven’t had an opportunity or space to pursue this in actuality.
So in my second semester and with a need for 2 extra units and an opening on Monday from 12-2, I decided to take this curious DeCal. Katie and Jonathan were super cool and through the semester I was able to actually make some progress. Of course, not without difficulty and changing my research question like four times. But then again, that’s kind of what it’s all about.
I initially began this semester with a question somewhere to the effect of: To what degree were the Declarations of Independence in Mexico and the United States shaped by Enlightenment thought? In my time at UC Berkeley I’ve refined my interests in the United States and Latin America and have utilized this interest to shape the direction of my research but I must admit I initially bit off a little more that I could proverbially chew. Limited by lack of accessible resources and a complex topic with limited sources, I decide to keep the United States-Mexico dynamic but switched to their 200 years of shared history.
I then switched to studying how the Central Valley Project had affected immigration to the San Joaquin Valley. I found some luck in this endeavor being that the CVP is a federally-funded and operated infrastructure and as I tracked the progression of Mexican immigration to the United States I rediscovered Proposition 187 and its passage in 1994 California. Given this as a foundation for my research, I then switched my question to : To what degree has government been molded to shape the Californian/American Identity?
The freedom to change my topic was a big plus -though I must admit one must do so with caution pertaining to time constraints and relative position in the semester. I also really liked the fact that it is open to more than just the historian in-training. As per usual, the diversity in interests and opinions exposed me to approaches I would have never considered myself and in a lot of ways allowed breathing room for construction and critique of my own work. In addition, just by reflecting on our progress or problems I was able to see that a lot of us had some of the same issues but also that we could help solve them too. I could go on but in the end we all did our thing and at the end of the semester we all got to present our work and it was real cool.
I also was digging the new themes every week. To not move away from the document in the research process but to question its primacy with other mediums will always be part of my own work now and I really think this is a good thing.
Mind you, this is only a bit of my experience and some of what I found enticing. I can’t promise that any of you will have the same. But then again, this uncertainty about the future is kinda what this curious life is about, right? What I can say is that if anything, this class will be engaging if you let it.
So then why do we research? My favorite answer would be to live with the past, live in the present, and live for the future. In other words, history/research as Historian William Appleman Williams writes in The Contours of American History:
. . .is neither to by-pass and dismiss nor to pick and choose according to preconceived notions; [but] rather is a study of the past so that we can come back into our own time of troubles having shared with the men of the past their dilemmas, having learned from their experiences, having been buoyed up by their courage and creativeness and sobered be their shortsightedness and failures. We shall then be better equipped to redefine our own dilemmas and problems as opportunities and possibilities and to proceed with positive rather than negative programs and policies. This enrichment and improvement through research and reflection in the essence of being human, and it is the heart of the historical method.
To build – for better or for worse.
So here’s to a good semester.
Good health and good spirits to you all,