Some suggestions for your major research paper (though feel free to come up with your own ideas).
Before naming specific topics, let me make some general comments: A very great deal of material is available in official and congressional documents available in the documents room. These materials are often listed in the LIAS catalog, but sometimes they are not. You need to spend a couple of hours familiarizing yourselves with the documents room in Pattee and its sometimes confusing cataloging system. Once you get into this, you will be surprised at what a powerful resource this offers for any research topic in this class, or any other graduate work in the social sciences. At some point, some agency or congressional committee will have done a study into whatever topic you are looking at, and they will provide a largely unsorted wealth of documentation for you to mine. It will rapidly become obvious to you that the newspaper materials you are finding are usually drawn from this official material, and often they are only scratching the surface of it. In summary, the message is: go to the Document Room, and become familiar with this resource early in the semester.
Possible topics for papers:
*Many observers spoke of “A Reagan Revolution”, but what did that amount to in practice? Certainly things changed during the 1980s, but they change during any decade. How far did Reagan policies have an impact on everyday life? One way to assess this is to take a community, a city or an industry, describe the transformation it experienced during the 1980s, and assess how far that had anything to do with Reaganism or Reagan policies.
*Reagan-era conservatism claimed to be especially devoted to building up the military and the national defense. Again, the question is, how far was the administration effective in sponsoring or driving real change? Assess the impact of official policies on a particular aspect of the military, whether a branch of the services, a weapon system or whatever. What were the politics involved in imposing this change?
*How were universities affected by the Reagan years? By that, I don’t mean how did (say) Penn State change between 1981 and 1989, but how far were developments related to wider social changes associated with Reaganism, by Reagan-era policies such as deregulation and the defense buildup?
*The Reagan years were rich in political scandals that in their various ways illuminated aspects of political life. Do a case-study of one of these affairs, but do not simply choose one that can be drawn from published books (eg Wedtech, Iran-Contra). Where possible, you should research the topic from official documents, but media sources are perfectly acceptable.
*Problems come and go in American life. Choose any one social problem that came to the fore in the 1980s, that was “new” in the sense of not having been viewed as terribly serious before, but which now was reconceived as some kind of ultimate evil. Describe and explain how the problem arose, what interest groups were involved in pushing the issue, and just how they did it. Analyze the interplay of mass media, news media and political inquiries. Be sure to take something that has not been thoroughly explored elsewhere (eg child sexual abuse, crack cocaine) though you might well use the methodology of such existing studies as a framework for your own. Joel Best’s edited collection IMAGES OF ISSUES includes some nice examples that might give you ideas.
*Take any one state or city and describe how its party politics changed during the decade, how for instance the two main parties became more “red” and “blue” respectively, how they were reshaped by new gender politics, debates over abortion, cultural politics, religion, etc.
*Choose a new form of technology that appeared in the 1980s or became massively more available in these years. Describe how and why it spread, how it was popularized, and its social and economic impact. (And of course, I don’t mean something as massively influential as the computer! Something more specialized.)
*Choose an overseas issue or crisis and trace how it was viewed in US politics through the decade, how it became a party political issue. Do not choose one of the very major and well-studied issues – eg the Euro-missiles affair or the ongoing Middle East crisis – and focus on using Congressional documents and inquiries as your major resource.
*Take one of the hotly contested cultural issues of the era – eg abortion, gay rights, teaching Creationism – and show how it played out in the politics of any one region, city or state. In this as in all topics, be sure to rely on primary sources, including news media and political inquiries.
*The 1980s witnessed a crisis for traditional industries and for the labor unions that depended on them. Describe this process in any one city, region or industry – though as always, do not choose a topic that is already well covered by a published study or book. How did one union cope with massive recession and industrial decline? How did one city? (Please note, Pittsburgh is if anything over-studied in this regard). Do note that the Labor Archives in Pattee/Paterno library offer wonderful resources for such an analysis, and especially for primary documents and oral histories.
*Describe and analyze a social movement that flourished in the 1980s, perhaps as a response to the Reagan administration, perhaps an environmental group, an AIDS advocacy group, or an immigrants’ rights movement. The group can reflect the views of the political Left or Right. As always, the only proviso is that this must not be a group that you can track readily from published books. Ideally, use the publications and periodicals of the group itself, as well as official investigations, if such exist. Again, Pattee/Paterno has a great deal of resources for such counter-cultural movements. Ask yourself: how did the group organize? What influence did it have? How effective was it in putting its views across? How did it gain publicity? Overall, do you think it succeeded or failed?
*One version of this social movement topic might be to take a movement that is very well studied – the nuclear freeze movement is a classic example – and write about it not as a national whole, but as it operated in a particular community or region, ie do a local case-study, and try to answer the same questions about effectiveness and means of mobilization.
*Choose a spectacular incident or a notorious crime that made major headlines, and discuss it in terms of the cultural messages it carried, how it was used in the context of the cultural politics of the period. You can get an idea of how this might be done by looking at a book such as David C. Anderson’s Crime and the Politics of Hysteria: How the Willie Horton Story Changed American Justice – though of course, don’t choose the Horton story as your example!