The subjects of academic research, debates, and disagreements develop over time. To you as a student, it may seem that when you read textbooks and other professional literature in your major or other classes you are taking, you are taking in permanent and stable truths. Yet, as we have seen from the previous two sections of this chapter, members of academic communities decide what topics and questions are important and worth researching and discussing before these discussions make it to the textbook of the pages of an academic journal.
As a student, you will be invited to examine the history and development of an issue, problem, or question in your major or other academic disciplines that interests you. In other words, you will be a historian of an academic discipline whose job will be to trace the development of a topic, question, or issue important to one academic community.
How far you will take this project will depend on the time you have, the structure of your class, and the advice of your instructor. For example, you may be limited to conducting a simple series of searches and preparing an oral presentation for your classmates. Or, you may decide to make a full-length writing project out of this assignment, at the end creating an researched essay, an I-search paper, or some other written document presenting and discussing the results of your research.
In either case, try to follow the following steps during this project. Depending on the instructions from your teacher, you may work by yourself or with others.
In order to select an important issue or question that is actively discussed in your academic or professional community, first look through the textbooks in your major or any other academic discipline you are interested in.
Next, conduct a library search for journals in the field and briefly looks over what topics, issues, or questions they are concerned with. Conduct a web search for reliable sites where these professional discussions are taking place. If you are taking a class or classes in the discipline you are studying, discuss this assignment and the emerging topic of your investigation with your professor. Try to find out how this topic is explained to the general public in popular magazines and newspapers.
Remember that your goal at this stage of the process not to learn and report on the current state of this discussion (although such reporting may be a part of your project), but to investigate its historical development as an issue or a problem in the academic discipline of your interest.
Develop a general understanding of the current state of the issue or topic you are interested in. Be sure to include to the following elements:
- What is the topic of discussion?
- What evidence of the topic’s importance for your academic discipline have you found?
- What is being said about the issue and by whom?
- Are there opposing sides in the discussion and on what ground do they oppose each other?
- What arguments do all the sides in the discussion use?
Conduct research into the origin and the history of your topic. The time range of your investigation will depend on the topic you choose. Some academic discussions go back centuries while others may have started only several years ago. Your research sources may include older textbooks, academic journals and conference procedures from years past, ever articles about your subject written for popular magazines and newspapers and designed to reach non-specialized audience. As a historian, you will need to cover the following areas:
- The first time the topic or issue gets significant attention from the professional community. Keep in mind that your job is not necessarily to pinpoint the exact date when the first publication on the topic appeared or the first discussion about it took place, although finding that out certainly will not hurt. Rather, try to find out the general time period when the discussion originated or the topic was attracting attention from academic professionals.
- What events in the academic world and society as a whole may have triggered the discussion of this topic? Since the academic world is a part of society as a whole, academic interests and discussions are usually somehow connected with what society as a whole is interested in and concerned about.
- Name a few key figures and events that contributed to the prominence of the topic or issue you are investigating.
- Identify times of paradigm shift for your subject. What event, both in the academic discipline and in society at large, may have caused significant shifts in people’s thinking about the issue?
- Try to predict the future development of the discussion. Will it remain an important issue in your discipline or will the discussion end? Why or why not? What factors, events, and people, both in the academic worlds and in society as a whole may contribute to this. How do you suppose the discussion of the topic will evolve in the future? For example, will the questions and issues at stake be revised and redefined?
- Chances are that during your research, your saw some significant developments and shifts in the ways in which your academic discipline has understood and talked about the issues and topic that interest its members.
To illustrate the process of historical investigation of an academic subject, let us look at the hot issue of cloning. What began as a scientific debate years ago has transcended the boundaries of the academic world and is not interesting to various people from various walks of life, and for various reasons. The issue of cloning is debated not only from the scientific, but also from the ethical and legal points of view, to name just a few.