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Research Paper on Computers?
November 11, 2010 9:44 PM   Subscribe

I'm writing a term paper (15 pages) in my American History class on the computer and its influence on America history. Topics of focus?

For my high school Junior Year history class, I really wanted to try something a little out there. Everyone in my class is doing the same old topics, WWII, Vietnam, etc. I don't want to go down the same beaten paths. So, I decided on computers and its influence on American History. But I'm having a little trouble trying to get a super rough outline together that can make a 15 page paper. So far I have:

I. Wars

WWII
Colossus-code cracking
Coldwar
Weapons systems

II. 1980s (Computer Revolution?)

PC computer-affordable

III. Internet

Huge influence on culture
Social Networks



I have never written a paper as long as this. But I do believe that you include background research. Is that correct? I was thinking about including how a computer could be made of everything and go on to give examples of very primitive ones.

If you honestly think I can't write a decent paper on this topic, tell me. My fall back is if I can't get this to work, I'm just going to do the Cuban missile crisis. Even though thats so generic. But whatever. The grade I get is what really matters.

I got a chance to talk to my history teacher about this. He told me how my paper varies from others because its a "story that does not have an end yet" when you you look at WWII and other past events. Its over. But computers are still evolving. My biggest worry is I might stray off the path of a research paper and form this into something else and get dinged major points.

I also need a minium of 5 print sources. Book recommendations would be great. :D

Any input will be super helpful. :D

Thanks!
posted by NotSoSiniSter to Writing & Language (20 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
 
Your topic is still way too broad. Either pick a specific time period, or pick a specific type of computer and group that it influenced. You will have no trouble finding sources, but you're going to really need to drill this down to a more specific to avoid glossing over everything in glittering generalities.
posted by cosmicbandito at 10:20 PM on November 11, 2010


In general, we don't do people's home work, so I'm going to ignore huge swaths of your question and focus on this: My biggest worry is I might stray off the path of a research paper and form this into something else.

The best thing you can do right now is narrow your focus. Either think about a specific time period when computers really started changing things (the 70s and 80s with the stock market) or think of a specific field that they've changed like journalism. Don't try to cover All of American History And Computers because that's a recipe for disaster.

Your best bet is to look for something that's a couple decades back, there will be lots in print to rely on. Anything super new like social networks is going to be difficult to research and you've got a bigger change of being pulled off course.
posted by stoneweaver at 10:22 PM on November 11, 2010


The FAQ says please do not Ask MetaFilter to do your homework for you. Try Yahoo Answers.

If I was more bored and if this wasn't about to be deleted for chatfilter, I'd say:

Your topic's reeeealllly broad. You could write a 15-page paper on, say, the computer's influence on homework, or on the history of technology and romance in America, or on so many other things. Use Google Scholar to find legit sources.

The grade I get is what really matters makes me a little unhappy. Learn to write well, and if you can, write something publishable that actually matters to you and your friends. Do it for the knowledge, not the grade.
posted by sninctown at 10:29 PM on November 11, 2010


Have a look at this, and other installments in the series (over on the left sidebar). He seems to cite his sources and there's no reason you can't chase those down.

I think you have a valid topic. There's two things I'd beware of though.

First, if it's a history paper, your teacher might be giving you a hint that s/he thinks history should be about the past. Some people do, for a variety of reasons. The most compelling for me are that in most areas you have to give the primary sources time to be released and archived, and the effects of contemporary events time to settle before you analyze them. If you think that's the case, cut it off 25 or 30 years ago.

Second. You've got a very broad focus. To do it really well, you'll need to do a ton of reading, and come up with some very concise writing. If you're not up for that, consider narrowing your focus. Stick with military computers used for particular purposes (code breaking, or radar, or something like that). Or maybe the effects of the early development of computer technology on the economy of California. Just think about polishing a small nugget rather than trying to dig up the whole mountain.

(On preview, other people saying the same. Listen to them.)
posted by Ahab at 10:39 PM on November 11, 2010


I wrote a somewhat similar paper in college (I focused on the role of radio in the 30s/40s in shaping American cultural identity blah blah blah)...you may find these books helpful, both for research purposes and for helping you zero in on a more specific topic.

A Nation Transformed by Information: How Information Has Shaped the United States from Colonial Times to the Present


Crystal Fire: The Invention of the Transistor and the Birth of the Information Age

Both of these books should be available at any well-stocked public library. (I grew up somewhere with a horrific public library system and a crappy high school library, but was able to use a community college's library for all my high school research. If you've got a bad library situation where you are, see if you can get an ILL (interlibrary loan) situation worked out ASAP--it will help you tremendously in the next couple years.)

Another thing I liked to do for framing high school research papers was to look up whatever issue I was writing about in back-issues of news magazines. For instance, if you have access to a periodical library, look up articles written when personal computers (or just computers in general) first came on the scene and see how the writers at the time thought about them. Compare that with what's being written today. (In my experience, high school teachers eat that stuff up.) If you want somewhere to start, Time and Newsweek have been around basically forever as far as your topic is concerned.

And as far as general advice goes, the above posters are right--your topic is waaaaay too broad. I know that when faced with a 15 page paper for the first time it's easy to freak out and think that you won't have anything to write about. It is much, much (trust me), much easier to write a lot on a very concise topic and keep it coherent and interesting than it is to give a broad overview like you've outlined here.

Skim through A Nation Transformed by Information and see if any of the topics it touches on strike your fancy. Then research the hell out of it. Once you have something focused, there are so many things to write about, like: how [topic] changed day-to-day life, how [topic] was helped shape a new a cultural identity, what led to the creation of [topic], if there was any resistance to implementing [topic], if [topic] required any new laws to be formed, what is the future like for [topic] (or why did it go away), etc, etc, etc.

And feel free to MeMail me if you have any questions or anything. I totally owned high school papers and would be happy to lend advice.
posted by phunniemee at 10:50 PM on November 11, 2010


Yikes. For what it's worth, I don't get the impression that you're asking us to do your homework!

As mentioned, the major issue is the broadness of the topic. Even with an outline, you are going to get bogged down in trying to make your whole paper flow and and come together as a whole piece of writing. Choose a period of history or a specific event and come up with several specific points that you would like to research and discuss further. Even though you are talking about a "very rough" outline, making it more specific now will actually make your paper easier to research and write down the road.

You're a high school student; I don't think it is unreasonable to be concerned about your grades. Work on coming up with an outline that has specific points and then run it by your instructor. Discuss whether or not this outline seems appropriate, or if you should refine it further. Based on his/her response to your outline, I think you will have a pretty good idea about how they think your paper is going to turn out.

Again, as you are in high school, I wouldn't worry about writing something that is "publishable." Stick to the basics and come up with a solid first draft of your paper. Once you have a rough copy written from start to finish, it will be a lot easier to fine-tune it into something really fantastic. Good luck!
posted by Nightman at 11:02 PM on November 11, 2010


I think the big thing that helped me with analytic/research papers is that you want to be making some sort of point. Your topic of "computers and their influence on American History" is big and vague because it's very hard to figure out what kind of point you want to make. Did computers Ruin Everything? Did they make everything better? Did they make everything Different? Pick a small area and do lots of research.

But it is so much easier to write a paper with a goal. It will also be much more interesting to read. Your goal might be to prove that "The Constitution is crap because a bunch of dead old white dudes wrote it and technology has changed everything." It might be to show that "The US military used information technology better than any other country in WWII, which was instrumental in their victory (and here is why)." You might decide "The Bay of Pigs invasion was the stupidest decision ever." You could argue that "The launch of the Challenger on January 28, 1986 was irresponsible and careless." Make a topic you have to argue, and then find supporting documentation and documentation that goes against your argument as well as the dry textbook-y sources about the general situation. Talk about the way things were, the way things are, the way things ended up, why they happened that way, and who and what influenced it one way or another.

Make a narrative!

Feel free to ask me more questions if you'd like. Writing papers is like fun puzzle-solving!
posted by that girl at 11:27 PM on November 11, 2010 [2 favorites]


I think you could write a very interesting paper about how improvements in data-crunching have allowed for a rise of the technocrats. Or if that's not true, for better technocrats. That is surely true.
posted by oreofuchi at 11:36 PM on November 11, 2010


Oh oh, if you don't already know this, one way to make your teacher happy will be to never list Wikipedia as a reference. Wikipedia can be a great source of information, but what you really need to do is scroll to the bottom of the article about what you're interested, and use its references and external links. Then take the books and websites you get from those and skim them and then look at their references and find them and skim them, as deep as you'd like. Looking up a book in a library and then looking at the books shelved next to that book can also be a great way to find new sources.

A good thing to do in a research paper is to question your sources. Wikipedia has the issue of being a 4th-layer source, and you want to get to the 1st layer and then question/explain the veracity of that source. If you were researching the reasons behind the Challenger disaster, you don't want only news articles about the disaster (although those will be great sources for showing its impact on the US feelings about the space program at the time), you want interviews with the engineers arguing for and against the launch, NASA documents about launch conditions etc etc. Papers written by others about the disaster can also be good, but you have to check and verify their knowledge. Are they just some random dude off the street, or a MIT-educated PhD materials engineer with 10 years experience with space ship materials in high-stress conditions?

This may be a little advanced for a high school student, but it is a good foundation for further work and will make your college life a lot easier.
posted by that girl at 11:41 PM on November 11, 2010 [1 favorite]


What about covering the influence and involvement of computer-mediated communication on recent historical events. 9/11, Twitter and the Irananian elections, the 2008 US election campaigns, teen suicides & bullying, civil rights, etc. I'd want to read that!
posted by iamkimiam at 1:01 AM on November 12, 2010


Or even the Iranian elections!
posted by iamkimiam at 1:01 AM on November 12, 2010


There's not just one book about what you're writing, there are dozens of books. For example, if you picked out of all those subjects World War II, you could use Enigma, The Secret in Building 26, Codebreakers, etc. All these are long and detailed books. Narrow it down and then look for sources.
posted by shii at 1:06 AM on November 12, 2010


Narrow, narrow, narrow. If you don't pick a VERY narrow topic you'll be left either a) knowing that you're doing a half-ass surface-level job or b) writing a book instead of a term paper.

How historical does the history have to be? What's unfolding now with Wikileaks' affect on the current wars could make for an interesting paper, and you would largely be dealing with newspaper articles for sources so you wouldn't be too overwhelmed with research materials. Maybe draw some parallels back to previous wars and show how this time is or isn't different.
posted by Jacqueline at 2:12 AM on November 12, 2010


First, to echo what nearly everyone above has mentioned, it looks like you've fallen into a common trap - "Oh my god, I've never written a paper this long! My topic needs to huuuge if I'm going to fill fifteen pages!" When I assign long research papers in my courses (usually 40-50 pages, but these are upper-level political science courses), I tell them to resist that urge. The narrower your topic, the easier it will be to write about it at length.

Second, re-frame your paper as question-driven, rather than topic-driven. In other words, get yourself to a point where your paper is an answer to "What effect has Wikileaks had on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan?" or "How did the Obama campaign use social media in the 2008 campaign?" rather than a general topic.
posted by brozek at 5:06 AM on November 12, 2010 [1 favorite]


For the most part, I struggled with history through most of high school. It seemed to be a lot of dates and facts. It started to click when I started to see the connections, the processes that filled the gaps between all those dry facts. It didn't really sink in though until my freshman year of college, until I really started seeing how something that happened (a decade or so) before I was born had had a clear imprint on the experience of my life and my family.

So, I'd agree with everyone who is encouraging you to narrow things down. And add the suggestion that you start with some aspect of computers that is so much a part of the life of you and your peers that it seems like it's always been that way, something that seems utterly ordinary, mundane, something you take completely mundane. Look for an aspect which, if you step back from it, you realize hasn't been quite as constant over the course of your own life as you first thought. Then work back from there.

I can pretty much guarantee you that just about anything you can think of was probably exceedingly rare not more than 5 years before you were born, but also likely had already been manifest in a lab, or in the pronouncements of some futurist no later than the early 70s. But I think if you start with something you already have a dim sense of being different when you were younger, you'll be able to connect with the subject more deeply and more easily.

To help get you started in thinking about it, I'll throw out one possible line of inquiry: Toy Story vs Toy Story III, and throw in Evans & Sutherland and the Utah Teapot.

Also, good background for any attempt to understand the evolution of computing and society are the idea of Moore's Law, and the history of the first few generations of compact hard disk drives that Clayton Christiansen details in part of his book The Innovators Dilemma, and earlier in some Harvard Business Review papers.
posted by Good Brain at 9:23 AM on November 12, 2010


You have a great start, but as others said you will probably want to narrow it down some. Maybe once you start looking into some of your topics you'll find that one of them is more interesting to you than the others (maybe the WWII code breaking efforts? that would be a clear-cut "past" topic).

Here is one starting point: a syllabus for a college class on computer history. It has things broken down chronologically, lists some main topics and some readings/videos for each topic. I would suggest looking at a few of these to see if there's one or two that interest you -- you could write 15 pages on any given week of that course, no problem.

Then take those one or two narrower ideas to your teacher and see if he can help you decide on a good approach that will make your paper be the kind of thing he's looking for. (Whatever you do, you want to be sure your topic fits the assignment!)
posted by LobsterMitten at 7:03 PM on November 12, 2010


A nice easy intro to some of these things, to help you picking a topic, is documentaries on computer history. The Machine that Changed the World is a 5 part series (that link is to part 1) that was made in the mid- 1990s. The first three parts cover the history up to the 1990s, the last one is on the beginnings of the internet (might be interesting to see how different it was, and how their predictions have come true or not).

If you are generally interested in the history of technology (thinking outside your research paper), you might like the tv show "Connections" by a historian named James Burke. The first series was made in the 1970s and traced the surprising history of a bunch of technologies that have a big effect on modern life; they are quite entertaining. He did several subsequent series. You can find these on Youtube.
posted by LobsterMitten at 7:40 PM on November 12, 2010


Just to say, I didn't ask anyone to write the whole paper for me. I was just looking for input. Just because this is school related doesn't mean It should be removed. If I came asking someone to solve these 20 math problems, then thats bull. I read the rules, I didn't believe it would apply to my question. :/

Sorry if I'm wrong.
posted by NotSoSiniSter at 9:05 PM on November 13, 2010


Thanks for all the advice! Wow, yea I really need to narrow down this thesis. I think the 80s and the revolution of the PC is sort of jumping out at me. But I gotta get my topics of coverage figured out. :D
posted by NotSoSiniSter at 9:50 PM on November 13, 2010


I've been told that my link to the syllabus was dead -- I believe this was the course I was thinking of:
History of Computers syllabus(PDF) from Paul N. Edwards at University of Michigan
Guidelines and Bibliography for final paper in Computer History by Paul Edwards

History of Technology syllabus from Michael Mahoney at Princeton has two sections on computer history
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:07 AM on December 18, 2010


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