All of you are now hard at work on your research for your final papers, and if the proposals and the conversations I have been having with you in office hours are any indication, I am really looking forward to see what you come up with. The next couple of blog posts will be general advice on research. I wanted to put some of my advice in a central location for you to look at, in case you are feeling stuck, overwhelmed, or lost.
Tip #1. You must have an argument
A research paper without an argument is like a Christmas tree without lights: not much to look at. Most of you have asked some really interesting questions in your proposals or outlined some interesting themes: now is the time to turn those ideas into an answer. Your thesis should be assertive, clear and strong. It should also be original and based on your own thoughts and ideas, though you will need to back up your thought process and concepts with the ideas of other experts. Your thesis should not include caveats like “I think,” or “it is kind of like this.” Your thesis should not try to straddle both sides of an issue: “This is both strong and weak,” or “this book is and isn’t a classic.” You should write your thesis as fact, and then spend the rest of the paper backing up that fact. As you continue through your paper, each time you have thoroughly demonstrated a point or explained a concept, you should be sure to pause and remind the reader how point 1 (or point 4), ultimately ties back to your overall argument.
In this class, you have already worked on two basic academic argument structures: a genre classification and a close-reading. Academic essays have a few basic argument structures. The first is a genre classification where you define the characteristics of a genre and then apply argue that a text (usually one that is classified in various genres) belongs in or out of the genre you have defined. For instance, one could write an essay based on the thesis: “The Hunger Games belongs in the category of post-colonial dystopia due to its use of ABC” or “The Water-Babies should no longer be categorized as a children’s book because it does not meet criteria X, Y or Z.”
Another basic structure is a close reading, where the essay makes a claim for a certain literary device, symbol or motif being used for very specific effects. For instance, a close reading essay might trace all the mentions of rings in The Princess and the Goblin and argue the ring stands for XYZ symbol.
Other common academic arguments can focus on author’s intent (Nesbit intends to critique the British forms of entertainment, as evidenced by her use of XYZ), form (The Water-Babies is not a novel but a fairy tale and here are the places in the text that demonstrate the formal differences), or comparison (The Wizard of Oz and Peter Pan both imagine children transported to an imaginary land, but one does ABC while the other shows XYZ.).
There are obviously other kinds of arguments, but the important thing is to HAVE ONE! A good rule of thumb: if you (or a friend/classmate) can not disagree with you, you are not making an argument. Also, an argument is not a collection of “the following things from the book are interesting/cool.”