Constructing a focus statement may be one of the most difficult parts of a research project. As any researcher knows focus statements change and morph throughout the duration of a project. Here’s my first official attempt at constructing a focus statement for my project:
My research will focus on answering why and how World War I impacted and changed Virginia Polytechnic Institute between 1914 and 1924. I want to pay particular attention to how those changes affected Virginia Tech students, a group that is consistently overlooked in similar studies about the war’s impact on colleges and universities. This study will find student perspectives and add them alongside those of administration and faculty members by utilizing the Virginia Tech student newspaper, university records, correspondence from faculty and administration members, yearbooks, and student scrapbooks.
By centering students at the heart of my study I’m also continuing a trend and entering a debate that historians of the WWI era have discussed for years. That debate largely centers around how to look at the history of the era, should we look at it from the top or from the bottom. Put differently, how much emphasis should historians put on notable figures (like Woodrow Wilson, Pershing, or Haig) or on more “everyday” people (like President Eggleston or Virginia Tech students)? As you can tell from my focus statement, I tend to fall on the latter end of the debate. I think this is particularly important for me moving forward and is a driving motivation for me to complete my research. So far every major study of American colleges and universities during WWI I have found has focused on a small handful of elite colleges (like Yale and Chicago), government policy, and a very small number of college administrators and professors. The lack of student voices is disconcerting, especially when one considers that the vast majority of those on college campuses were students. Even more when you consider that college students were young men and women, the very individuals who would be directly impacted by the war because they could end up being the ones fighting it.
Anyway, I will admit, re-imagining my focus statement over the past month has been a challenge. I have a clear idea of what I want to study, but sometimes it’s difficult to understand what direction I want to go and how to articulate it.