Independent Work in African American Studies

Guide Contents

The Field of African American Studies
The African American Studies Sub-Fields
Goals of Independent Work in African American Studies 
Grading Practices in the Department of African American Studies 
Departmental GPA Calculation
Evaluation of Independent Work
Important Benchmark Dates for Junior Papers and Senior Theses
Independent Work in African American Studies: The Process

     Fall Junior Seminar
     Methods of Inquiry
     JP Prospectus Guidelines
     Spring Junior Paper
          General Format
     Senior Thesis
          Finding A Topic
          Writing a Thesis Proposal
     Working with Your Adviser
Senior Comprehensive Examinations
Funding for Independent Work
     African American Studies Librarian
     Writing Center
     Junior Paper Title Page Sample
     Senior Thesis Title Page Sample
     Sample Senior Comprehensive Statement 

Updated for 2017-2018 

Imani Perry, Acting Chair

Naomi Murakawa, Director of Undergraduate Studies

Jana Johnson, Department Assistant

The Field of African American Studies

The Department of African American Studies offers coursework for undergraduates with an interest in studying the complex interplay between political, economic, and cultural forces shaping the historic achievements and struggles of African-descended people in the United States and their relationship to others around the world.

With a combination of courses and interdisciplinary research opportunities, students who complete the African American Studies concentration will be equipped with the critical and analytical skills that will prepare them for a range of professions. They will be highly qualified to pursue graduate work in the field or its cognate disciplines, and prepared to enter a society in which race continues to be salient.

The African American Studies Sub-Fields

The course of study is organized into three thematic subfields. Concentrators will take courses in each subfield and will then choose one as a primary area of inquiry.

1. African American Culture and Life (AACL): Students encounter the theoretical canon and keywords, which shape the contemporary discipline of African American studies. Accessing a range of interdisciplinary areas, situated primarily in the United States, students will learn to take a critical posture in examining the patterns and practices that order and transform black subjects and black life. Courses in the AACL subfield intersect with English, Religion, History, and American Studies.

2. Race and Public Policy (RPP): Students use and interrogate social science methodologies in examining the condition of the American state and American institutions and practices. With an analysis of race and ethnicity at the center, students will examine the development of institutions and practices, with the growth and formation of racial and ethnic identities, including changing perceptions, measures, and reproduction of inequality. Courses in the RPP subfield intersect with the Woodrow Wilson School, Sociology, and Politics.

3. Global Race and Ethnicity (GRE): Students use the prevailing analytical tools and critical perspectives of African American studies to consider comparative approaches to groups, broadly defined. Students will examine the intellectual traditions, socio-political contexts, expressive forms, and modes of belonging of people who are understood to share common boundaries/experiences as either: (1) Africans and the African Diaspora outside of the United States and (2) non-African-descended people of color within the United States. Courses in the GRE subfield intersect with Comparative Literature, Art & Archaeology, and African Studies.

Goals of Independent Work in African American Studies

Independent research provides students with an opportunity to develop skills as critical thinkers and careful readers, and to gain experience as creative researchers. Because African American Studies is interdisciplinary by nature, research for independent work may involve readings, archival research, literary analysis in primary texts, as well as work and methods from the Humanities, Social Sciences, STEM and other normative areas.

Grading Practices in the Department of African American Studies

Good work in the Department of African American Studies possesses three distinguishing qualities:

1. Reflects independent research and thinking

2. Develops and defends an argument

3. Exhibits attention to the craft of writing

The Undergraduate Announcement assigns each letter a verbal equivalent ranging from “excellent” to “failure”. When grading papers in African American Studies, the faculty takes seriously these stipulations. Our expectation is that theses and papers are to be carefully written and based on independent research and creative thinking.

An A or A- thesis, paper, or exam is excellent in that it is clearly written, develops and defends successfully an interesting thesis based on research, and demonstrates elements of originality in thinking and elegance in its execution. An A+ paper would have all of these features and exhibit in at least one way, a quality that lifts it above other excellent undergraduate work.

A B+ or B thesis, paper, or exam is very good in that it satisfies the stated expectations of the assignment and does so in a respectable manner. But the paper falls short of A- level work in either its organization, the clarity of its writing, the formulation and presentation of its argument, or the quality of research. There are moments of insight, and evidence of independent and creative thinking, but the argument is not presented clearly or convincingly.

A B- thesis, paper, or exam exhibits the characteristics of B+ or B work, but provides a less than thorough defense of the argument because of weaknesses in writing, discernable gaps in argumentation, organization, or some confusion in the use of evidence.

A C+, C, or C- thesis, paper, or exam is satisfactory in that it shows evidence of sustained effort to engage the subject matter, but demonstrates only modest or uneven success in defending and developing an argument. All too often C-level work offers little more than summary of ideas and information covered in the course (often a reflection of inadequate research), the writing is awkward and unclear, poor organization, and the main thesis has trouble surviving counter argument.

A D thesis, paper, or exam is minimally acceptable. Although D-level work shows some attempt to satisfy the basic assignment, it demonstrates serious deficiencies in the execution of the work. Careless writing, lack of an identifiable thesis, really poor organization characterizes this level of work.

An F thesis, paper, or exam fails to meet the requirements of the assignment.

GPA Letter Grade Percentage Grade

4.00 A 94-100
3.67 A- 90-93
3.33 B+ 87-89
3.00 B 84-86
2.67 B- 80-83
2.33 C+ 77-79
2.00 C 74-76
1.67 C- 70-73
1.33 D+ 67-69
1.00 D 64-66
0.67 D- 60-63
0.00 F 0-65

Departmental GPA Calculation

Departmental Courses = 50%
Junior Paper = 15%
Senior Thesis = 30%
Senior Exam = 5%

Evaluation of Independent Work

Concentrators in African American Studies work with a faculty adviser assigned by the Department. In the case of the junior paper, the adviser grades the work (with substantive comments) and offers suggestions for further research. The senior thesis is evaluated by the student’s adviser and by a second faculty reader. The adviser and reader, in conversation with the department faculty, determine the final thesis grade following the senior comprehensive oral exam. 

Important Benchmark Dates for Junior Papers and Senior Theses, 2017-2018

The department provides a detailed calendar for concentrators and their advisers each year. The following timelines for the JP and thesis provide benchmarks for the completion of independent work.


Fall term



Spring term

Monday, January 8, 2018

Submit JP prospectus to the Junior Seminar professor and your adviser
When you email your prospectus to your adviser, ask them to set a time to meet in the first week of class in the spring term.

Week 1
Meet with your adviser (no later than Friday, February 9) to 1) discuss your prospectus; 2) discuss how frequently you will meet, and best ways to check in; 3) plan your next research/writing task.

Week 4
Submit partial first draft (perhaps one major section) to adviser (no later than Friday, March 2).

Week 5
Students receive first drafts back, with comments from advisers (no later than Friday, March 9).

Week 7
Spring break.

Week 8
Submit partial second draft to adviser (no later than Friday, March 30).

Week 9
Students receive second drafts back, with comments from advisers (no later than Friday, April 6).

Week 11
Submit third and mostly complete draft to adviser (no later than Friday, April 20).

Week 12
Students receive third drafts back, with comments from advisers (no later than Friday, April 27).

Tuesday, May 8, 2018
FINAL Junior Paper due online by 5:00 p.m. You will receive instructions on how to upload the paper.  

** During the spring term, you are strongly encouraged to attend at least four of the 2- Page Lunch Writing Sessions designed to provide concentrators with group JP reading and writing time.



Fall term














Spring term

Classes Begin
Schedule to meet with your adviser in Week 1 or 2. (Meet at least once with thesis adviser absolutely no later than September 22.)

September 19
Senior colloquium begins. Note all additional deadlines from the colloquium professor.

Week 7
Submit five-page thesis proposal to adviser (no later than Friday, October 27).

The proposal should include:

– description of topic, scope of the project, and methodological approach you plan to take
– discussion of how your coursework at Princeton or elsewhere has prepared you to pursue the topic
– a brief survey of sources and discussion of the kinds of evidence you plan to use
– a discussion of the contribution your work will make to the existing scholarship in your area
– a preliminary bibliography
– a preliminary writing plan or chapter outline

December 15, 2017
Submit partial first draft (20 pages) to adviser, and cc the Director of Undergraduate Studies.

January 22, 2018
Submit draft of additional twenty pages to adviser 


Week 2
Submit draft of additional twenty pages to adviser (no later than Friday, February 16).

Week 8
Submit draft of entire thesis to adviser. (March 26 – March 30; Set the exact date with your adviser.)

Week 9
Receive feedback from advisers by April 6.

Week 11
Upload your thesis via the Thesis Central Senior Thesis Submission System to the University Archives, and submit two hard copies to the Department Manager (no later than Friday, April 20 at noon).

May 9, 2018
Submit Senior Comprehensive Statement by noon

May 14, 2018
Students receive comments from first and second readers

May 16-17, 2018
Senior Comprehensive Oral Exams


Extensions of independent work deadlines may be granted only under extraordinary circumstances, usually involving medical conditions. Students must petition the departmental representative in advance of the deadline. Individual advisers cannot grant extensions. For extensions beyond Dean’s date, students must consult their residential college Dean or Director of Studies.

Independent Work in the Department of African American Studies: The Process

The fall JUNIOR SEMINAR (AAS 300) is required for all AAS concentrators, counting for 35% of the final junior independent work grade. In the spring, juniors write an 8,000 – 10,000 word (excluding bibliography and notes) junior paper, which constitutes the remaining 65% of the grade for the junior independent work.


One distinctive feature of the concentration in African American Studies is the plan for independent work in the junior year. During the fall term, all juniors will participate in a seminar with a member or members of the faculty. This course will introduce students to theories and methods of research design in African American Studies. Drawing upon a wide-ranging methodological toolkit from the humanities and social sciences, students will learn to develop a research question animated by his/her own interests, and identify which types of evidence are most suitable for answering his/her question. Students will write several short exploratory papers to “write their way” to their junior project research question. The fall semester culminates with completion of the JP prospectus, which frames the research question, situates it in the relevant literature, and presents a plan of action for spring research. By the end of the semester, juniors will be in a strong position to begin your independent work.


Methods in African American Studies are highly interdisciplinary, therefore the methods of inquiry are determined by your research question. These may include textual analysis, historical analysis, philosophical analysis, and ethnographic or sociological fieldwork. Please note that some methods of inquiry, primarily those pertaining to fieldwork, require the approval of the University’s Institutional Review Board (IRB) that oversees research involving human subjects ( This process may delay the start of field research, so advance planning is required.


Excluding tables, figures, images, bibliography, and appendices, the text of the JP prospectus should be roughly 4,000 words. For additional specifications of prospectus format and citation

style, see below. The prospectus is due on the first day of reading period.

1. Title page, including working title; student’s name; department; date; signed honor pledge

2. Main body of the proposal, including:

     • Introductory section in which students present their topic and its significance and put forward the research question

    • Discussion of the state of the existing literature on the subject, and how the work contributes to this scholarly conversation

    • Consideration of the methods, and sources to be used

3. Tentative outline

4. Bibliography


During the spring term, juniors will complete independent research. Students are expected to complete new research and writing each week, and they will submit at least two rough drafts to their advisers over the course of the spring semester (see calendar on page 7). The final JP paper is due on the date set by the University. This year that is Tuesday, May 8th. Extensions can be granted only by your residential college dean. Failure to meet the deadline without permission will result in an F grade.

General Format
Excluding tables, figures, images, bibliography, and appendices, the text of the paper should be between 8,000-10,000 words. Your paper must be printed in black-letter type upon plain white paper. The text must be double-spaced, with one-inch margins on all sides. After the title page, all pages should be numbered. The title page should contain the title, name of author, and date. At the bottom of the title page you should certify that “This paper represents my own work in accordance with University regulations,” and sign your name.

All written work submitted should be properly cited and attributed to document the sources for any ideas and information that do not belong to you. Failure to do so constitutes plagiarism. Discuss the ideal citation style for your topic with your adviser. Unless otherwise specified, your documentation system should be Chicago style footnotes as detailed in the Chicago Manual of Style.

At the end of the spring semester, each junior concentrator meets with his or her JP adviser to discuss the student’s focus of study and plans for the senior year, including course selection and senior thesis topic.

The remainder of this guide focuses on Senior Independent work, but much of it will prove helpful to JP writers as well.


Writing a thesis over the course of a year can be an extraordinary challenge. But a clear research question, good planning, and regular meetings with your thesis adviser can make this a rewarding and manageable process. While the thesis is independent work in its conception, the following guidelines should offer some practical advice to students writing a work of this scope for the first time.

Finding a Topic
Finding a suitable thesis topic is one of the most challenging stages of writing a thesis. The problem of beginning is often the beginning of the problem. Whatever you do, start where you are most enthusiastic. The courses you have taken are good starting points. Building on a favorite course paper or elements of the JP are also useful ways of exploring a topic. Consider your best adviser in this process and which available faculty member has research interests that align with your interests.

The department assigns advisers at the end of your junior year. Students should plan to meet with their advisers before leaving campus for the summer. The Director of Undergraduate Studies will take into consideration your topic, and the advisers’ fields of interest. After that first meeting, throw yourself into the relevant primary and secondary sources related to your topic and work closely with your adviser. Together you will formulate a clear and concise research question that will focus your efforts.

Writing a Thesis Proposal
State clearly your research question, develop a bibliography of sources relevant to your topic, and describe your writing plan. The prospectus is not written in stone. It lays out a preliminary plan of where you think you are and where you wish to go. The actual writing may take you in a different direction. But, writing the prospectus helps you to refine your research question, and to formulate a clear plan for the work ahead. The proposal is typically five pages long, and should include at least:

– A description of topic, scope of the project, and methodological approach you plan to take

– A brief survey of sources and discussion of the kinds of evidence you plan to use

– A preliminary bibliography

– A preliminary outline of the structure of the thesis.

Your adviser may require that you submit a revised proposal before you move to the research and writing phase.

Thesis Length
The thesis length maximum is 100 pages. However, under special circumstances, this length can be exceeded with permission from your thesis adviser.


What advisees can expect of their advisers. Advisees should expect to meet with their advisers regularly to have drafts read within a reasonable, agreed-upon amount of time. Advisees should expect to receive detailed and constructive feedback. Although your adviser is your primary sounding-board in this process, you should take advantage of the human resources at Princeton and seek advice from other members of the faculty within the Department, the librarians in African American Studies, and beyond.

What advisers can expect of their advisees. Advisers expect an advisee to take initiative. Advisers expect an advisee to cooperate in setting up a detailed work schedule, and to keep to the general departmental schedule for the completion of independent work. Advisers expect students to show up punctually for scheduled meetings. Your adviser will expect to be given a reasonable amount of time to read and comment on drafts.

Senior Comprehensive Examinations

Senior comprehensive exams take the form of an oral defense of the student’s thesis. Three people will be present: the student, the adviser, and a second reader selected in consultation with the departmental representative. The examination will last approximately 50 minutes.

Students should be prepared to respond carefully to the written comments of their adviser and second reader. At the beginning of the examination, each student will be given a chance to present the argument of their thesis and to offer a response to questions and criticisms of the thesis. The adviser and second reader will then engage the student in a wide-ranging discussion of the research, as well as relevant course work.

The senior comprehensive statement consists of a form (see appendix) listing the departmental courses you have taken, the title of both junior and senior independent work projects and the advisers’ names. Additionally, your statement should include a two- to three-page description of the coursework you have taken in African American Studies. You should describe the development of your interests and focus in African American Studies in the context of the courses you have taken, including courses outside the department, and the papers you have written.

Funding for Independent Work

Concentrators who require research funding for independent work may apply to the Department of African American Studies, other individual academic departments, and other offices and programs on campus through the Student Activities Funding Engine (SAFE). The online application process requires a full account of your research proposal, a detailed itemized budget, planned itinerary, the name of your thesis adviser, and departmental representative. We encourage you to start working on your application materials early, so that you have ample time to meet the strict deadlines set by the various funding sources. In addition, make sure you list the correct adviser and departmental representative to prevent any unnecessary delays in having your request reviewed.

Following, are some of the research funding opportunities provided by the department:

AAS Undergraduates Summer Research Funding
Summer awards provide financial support to enable a small number of AAS Concentrators to pursue worthy projects that provide important opportunities for research and/or personal growth, foster independence, creativity, and leadership skills, and broaden or deepen their understanding of the historic achievements and struggles of African-descended people in this country and their relation to others around the world. Funding of up to $1,000 per summer is available.

AAS Undergraduates Senior Thesis Research Funding
Senior thesis research grants of up to $3,000 are available to AAS concentrators to supplement specific research needs. Research funds may be used to support travel and/or the purchase of books, supplies and materials needed to complete the senior thesis.

AAS Undergraduates Summer Study Abroad Support
The Summer Study Abroad Support supplements other funding provided to AAS concentrators as they study abroad over the summer. Funding of up to $1,000 per summer is available.

In order to apply for this funding, eligible students will need to complete a funding application in SAFE that includes a research proposal, a detailed budget outlining the proposed usage of the funds and a letter of support written by your JP or senior thesis adviser.


The African American Studies Librarian, Steven A. Knowlton, is available for guidance and to offer suggestions regarding resources for research in African American Studies.

Steven A. Knowlton
1-6F.3 Firestone Library

The Writing Center offers free one-on-one conferences with experienced fellow writers trained to consult on assignments in any discipline. Special 80-minute conferences are available for JP and Senior Thesis writers at any stage in the writing process, who may sign up to work with a graduate student fellow from the department of their choice at

Additionally, Independent Work Mentors from the Writing Center prepare workshops and programming to aid juniors and seniors in their research. Our department liaison, Maria A. Medvedeva (masha@Princeton.EDU), can provide programming on a range of issues to meet student demands. Students should also regularly check or subscribe to the Princeton Undergraduate Research Calendar (PURC) for upcoming programming, which cover topics ranging from preparing funding proposals, to note taking, and making an argument to draft review.


Junior Paper Title Page Sample
Senior Thesis Title Page Sample
Senior Comprehensive Statement Sample

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