Tag Archives: research

The Nine Circles of Term Paper Writing

College students across the country are about to walk through hell, a hell of term papers and cramming and source-hunting. Many of you will not make it, but all of you can expect to pass through several of the dreaded Nine Circles of Term Paper Writing.

First is Limbo, otherwise known as procrastination. This is where most of you will die. Limbo is where you need fifteen cups of coffee before even looking at your sources, where you are forever logged into facebook no matter how hard you try to leave. It’s a place of endless scrolling, a place where the due date at the end of the tunnel is miles away. It takes a concentrated effort to work through this circle.


After sitting down to start, you will find yourself in Lust. Now you have a thesis that you want to prove, and it becomes an obsession. You really, really want to prove this wonderful thesis of yours. You want to prove it until the sun comes up. Maybe you want to write a postpostmodern analysis of the presidential race, or argue that Plato was just a whale’s intestine and Aristophanes actually wrote all his works. Whatever it is, it will consume you, no matter how ridiculous.


Moving on from Lust, you will find yourself in Gluttony. Here you will quench your desire to prove your thesis by binging on the various amenities college life offers: ramen noodles and your RA’s stash of confiscated alcohol. Gluttony tends to resurface throughout the rest of your journey.


Next comes Greed. Filled with calories and “inspired” by Rick the RA’s vodka, you will push yourself to secure more sources than needed. Your paper is on the American Revolution, but you will find a way to incorporate Mad Max into it. Or your paper is on Mad Max, and you just need the perfect Plato quote for the intro. If the sources and vodka don’t kill you, unless you revise extensively, your professors might.


Sobering up a bit, you will find yourself in Anger. In this circle, you are taunted by your computer screen showing that after three hours of work, you put your name as the title, misspelled the date, and have written nothing else. Filled with rage and sudden hunger, you will seek satisfaction by insulting your roommate who wrote his final papers last week like a total jerk.


Soon, you will find yourself passing through Heresy. Here, you begin to question things: the due date on the syllabus, the current day of the month, whether or not you need to pass this class. You even find yourself questioning petty things, like whether or not the nineteenth century even happened in the first place (it didn’t).


Failing to arrive at sufficient answers, you will move on to Violence. This circle will last only briefly, and if it doesn’t, your jerk roommate will bring Rick the RA in, and you’ll have to apologize and watch that jerk return to his video games while Rick cuts you off from the vodka like the dingo’s bladder he is.


Next comes Fraud. Seriously, run through this circle. Sprint through it. Fraud is perfectly acceptable in other circumstances, such as politics, banking, military spending, the EPA, trade regulations, local/state/federal elections, corporate taxes, government surveillance, international gambling rings, working as an RA in a dorm, and even important places like twitter, but it is not acceptable in an academic paper, so just move on to the next circle.


Finally, you will come to Treachery. By now you have a paragraph of rewritten thesis statements that somehow ended up in second-person plural. You remove every instance of “all ya’ll” from your intro and realize that your problems all started with procrastination. This is where you realize that you have betrayed yourself by putting off this paper for so long. Maybe you spent too much time blogging and taking stupid pictures of yourself for your blog. Who knows? Whatever the case, you have procrastinated yourself into a hole, and procrastination is a terrible way to climb back out. So you slap yourself in the face and focus all your attention on one valiant goal: a high C. After this, you vow to never procrastinate so much again, just like last semester. But this time it’s for real.


To my fellow academics, happy End of the Semester. Now stop wasting time reading this and get back to work.


Srebrenica and Why I Still Study Genocide

Photo of Srebrenica City, 2002, from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Photo of Srebrenica City, 2002, borrowed from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

I should begin with a brief clarification about why I post so often about war and genocide. It affects me deeply, and I often have trouble bringing myself to read about it any more. As a result of the professors I’ve worked with, I find myself compelled to study and write about violent conflict in history. I do not find any satisfaction in studying it, and I feel the need to mention this because I know from experience that some people do find satisfaction in reading about genocides, especially the Holocaust; too often, I’ve heard people refer to it as ‘fascinating’ or ‘intriguing.’ I suppose I cannot dispute the value of somebody’s motivation, but I do not believe one should explore the industrialized slaughter of civilians because it arouses fascination. It should disgust, it should repulse, but I do not think it should invite intrigue. My motive for studying it is not rooted in a sick fixation with the gruesome details, which often keep me up at night; I do not believe enjoyment should be my sole motive, however. I feel compelled to study it in part because I have no power to change it.

I admit that the more I delve into historical traumas, the more guilt I feel, and I don’t think there is necessarily a problem with that. A guiltless being is a soulless one, and a belief that one is free of guilt, that guilt will never inflict legal or psychological damage, might be a common trait of the perpetrators. I think there is merit in a little collective guilt. History’s ghosts haunt us, all of us, if we stop and listen. The thing about history is that it persists, it continues into the present, and the battles are still going on.

I can distance myself from the details enough to write about them, just enough to maybe offer a brief commentary. The exception, however, is the Srebrenica Genocide. Today marks twenty years after the start of the massacre, and I have wanted to write about it. Anniversaries can be convenient opportunities to engage moments in the past, though they are also quite arbitrary: historical traumas are not relevant every ten years, but continually.

Though I have tried to write about the Srebrenica Genocide, I find it almost impossible. What happened in Srebrenica affects me more than other genocides. When I read about the details, I feel chest pressure and panic, and have to turn away from the research.

The region of Bosnia-Herzegovina, where Srebrenica is located, was solidified in the former Yugoslavia during the Cold War under the dictatorship of Josip Broz Tito, who took power after World War Two. Prior to that, the region had a brief period of independence after being ruled by the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and before that the Ottoman Empire. By the twentieth century, Bosnia was religiously and ethnically diverse, and the two are often conflated: With Catholic Croats, Orthodox Serbs, and Muslim Bosniaks, the region had few moments of independence despite strong nationalist movements, such as Young Bosnia. Gavrilo Princip, one of Young Bosnia’s members, assassinated the Austrian Archduke Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo in 1914, sparking the First World War.

While Yugoslavia collapsed in the early 1990s alongside the Soviet Union, Bosnia declared its independence. Serbian nationalists attempting to solidify the region again under the new Republic of Srpska, rejected the declaration of independence, invaded the region, and began a campaign to cleanse it of its Muslim population. This event is similar to how the Irish War for Independence and Civil War broke out, devolving into sectarian violence between Catholic Republicans and Unionist Protestants after the Republicans declared a kind of independence; this event is also similar to what is currently going on in Iraq, where a right-wing Sunni organization has the apparently unquestioning loyalty of many of Iraq’s Sunnis who felt oppressed by a Shi’i-led, and US-backed, government. Ireland did not witness a genocide against the island’s Protestants, though sectarian violence continued well into the 1980s and beyond. In contrast, Iraq and Syria may be witnessing a genocide now, despite the almost universal condemnation of ISIS and its tactics.

That is precisely the situation Bosnia was in, starting in 1992. The United Nations, appalled at the Serb nationalists’ tactics, intervened in the war (at least in theory) and declared the town of Srebrenica one of several safe zones. UN peace-keeping soldiers were placed on the ground, world powers condemned the violence, but nobody wanted to intervene directly. Instead, the United Nations designed a system that effectively blocked any nation from direct confrontation with combatants.

This is where I find it difficult to go on reading, sometimes. In 1995, Serbian nationalists, under the presence and observation of the UN, took Muslim men and boys from Srebrenica at gunpoint, ushered them into the surrounding woods, and slaughtered them. They buried them in mas graves, often with the intention of preventing the bodies from ever being found, proof that they were aware that the world would look upon them as criminals, proof that they wanted to hide the evidence of their crimes. But there is something wholly corrupt about a system that prevents peace-keeping soldiers from intervening in the slaughter of 8,000 men and boys.

Some UN soldiers express guilt, shame, and even sought treatment for PTSD afterwards. I should also note that this is not the only crime against humanity committed during the Bosnian War. The perpetrators also implemented a campaign of systematic rape against women and girls, a crime that victims report ISIS has committed in recent months (trigger warning if you open the link). But I have not been able to bring myself to read about these crimes beyond broad overviews. I simply can’t, unless I choose to tolerate the inevitable anxiety I feel from researching it.

Historical trauma does not continue only in a communal sense. Russia recently rejected a UN resolution to classify the Srebrenica Genocide as genocide, and right-wing Serbian organizations threatened to disrupt commemoration events. Many Serbs deny that Muslim casualties were as high as reported, and several mass graves remain yet to be uncovered and documented. The trauma persists daily; many perpetrators still walk among the victims’ families, and collective denial of the genocide, which is strong in many circles, is an active assault on the Muslim community in Bosnia.

Maybe, in some ways, I feel like one of those UN soldiers, unable to intervene but forced to watch. I feel helpless when I read about these and other crimes, and guilt can be overwhelming. It should not be debilitating, though I often let it become too much to handle. There is more that I can be doing.  There is more that I should be doing. But I will continue to engage these traumas as best I can, even if I leave historical research behind academically. It will haunt me no matter what I do, and I can invite the ghosts in or close the door on them. I’d rather leave the door open, because I believe that history’s ghosts have something to say, and it’s our responsibility to listen. Will these blog posts make a difference? Probably not. But I’d rather not be silent when the past is so loud.

Boots on the Ground

Civil War Soldiers

Statue Commemorating Civil War Veterans

Some of the best advice I received about historical research is that oftentimes the surest way to find sources is to have boots on the ground and look for sources in person. This usually involves going into public archives or getting access to private ones, but I’ve heard tales of finding rare documents forgotten in the trunk of a car or simply on display in a book fair. This week, while visiting family in Appleton, Wisconsin, I decided to experiment with boots-on-the-ground-history.

March to SocialismI discovered that historical research is more than just skimming through a few letters. It’s detective work, a methodological investigation, and I did not rise to the challenge. As I prepare to go to graduate school to study creative writing, I worry that I may leave history behind. History is close to my heart, but requires a patient diligence.


Statue of Senator Joseph McCarthy

The challenge of in-person research yielded a few interesting results. Appleton’s public history emphasizes its positive qualities, such as the fact that magician Harry Houdini claimed it as his hometown, though he was born in Hungary. There is a museum with an entire floor devoted to Houdini’s life and work. However, another famous man claimed Appleton as his hometown, Senator Joseph McCarthy, who engaged in congressional witch hunts during the early 1950s to remove suspected communists. Popular opinion has since turned against McCarthy, but as journalist Edward R. Murrow said in an open challenge to the Senator’s unethical methods, “He did not create this situation of fear, he merely exploited it.” Now that Red SpiesMcCarthy is remembered as an aggressive demagogue, his hometown has taken a statue of him that once stood in public view and placed it in a museum’s bottom floor, under the stairs.

Apart from some obscure anti-communist propaganda, one from 1950 and the other from 1967, a World War One Dough Boy memorial statue and a Civil War memorial statue, I could not find any major historical documents in Appleton’s history, simply because I did not look that hard. It is not surprising that they hide McCarthy’s image and highlight a still-popular celebrity. Any research on the Cold War in Wisconsin daily life would require interviews with those who remember it, access to radio and news archives, local newspapers, and other hidden sources. Perhaps I might be able to dig up a few rare pieces of propaganda if I looked deeper, or uncover a story of Cold War espionage, but such research requires more time and energy than I can offer. I’m not a specialist, or a driven detective. I am, for the time being, only an interested amateur.

Patriotic WWI Statue

Doughboy Statue Commemorating World War One Veterans

Perhaps I can one day conduct better historical research. Perhaps I will one day dare to dig deeper, open doors that should not be opened, find people who have answers. I was inspired by a year-old article about Amor Masovic, who has been looking for burial sites from the Srebrenica massacre in Bosnia-Herzegovina, in 1995. That massacre, part of the Bosnian Genocide, was the first act of genocide on European soil since the Holocaust, and one that the world ignored for years. Today, the perpetrators still live side-by-side with the families of the victims, and reconciliation is a great challenge. But Masovic pursues burial grounds, is still looking for the missing victims to piece together the community of Bosniak Muslims that existed before the massacre. He’s been working for nearly twenty years and there are still bodies unaccounted for.

Will I ever be such a researcher? Will I ever contribute to as admirable an effort as Masovic? It’s unlikely, but I do not want to leave history behind. I’m too compelled and too haunted by its ghosts to allow myself to give it up completely. History truly is obsessive, and maybe the only way to make a difference is to simply embrace that obsession, dig my boots into the ground, and dig as deep as the past will allow.