The University 411/811: The ‘So What’ Factor

Continuing the series of student tips that I started here, today we’re going to be talking about research projects. You might need to turn in a research paper or presentation as part of your grade. While as a former university instructor I’ve seen plenty of students struggle to articulate their argument, I want to re-assure you that you’re not alone. It’s part of the process and I still see it as editor when we receive submissions for Fantastika Journal (and – indeed – in my own work!). You can’t – and shouldn’t – approach your research with a pre-planned argument. Even if you’re studying in the humanities, you should start with a hypothesis to test. But the hypothesis should be meaningful.

One of the main problem I’ve seen is when students/researchers struggle to distinguish their topic statement from a thesis statement. What do I mean by that? Let’s take an example from my own life. This November I (through Fantastika Journal) will be hosting a digital symposium on LGBTQIA+ narratives. The topic is important of course, but I also want to make sure that we’re making significant contributions to this discussion. So I’ve struggled for ages to come up with my own paper ideas. If you were following along with fantastikapress on twitter or Facebook, you’ve probably seen that there are hundreds of LGBTQIA+ Fantastika graphics (the symposium’s focusing on graphic forms). So, for the humanities, a topic can be any combo of theme plus text. “Non-binary identities in Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman“. “Transphobia in Futurama’s ‘Bend Her’ episode” “Censorship in the dubbed Sailor Moon”. These are all examples of topics. When someone asks you what you’re research is about, you can respond with “I’m looking at non-binary identities in Sandman“. But if someone asks you what are you arguing, you should not make the same statement: “I am arguing that there are depictions of non-binary characters in Sandman.” Of course there is. That’s not an argument. Most informed people (in this case, readers of the graphic novels), will not argue with this statement. As I’ve mentioned when I outlined the thought process for my own PhD proposal, even if an educated person does object to the statement (i.e in the form of a peer reviewed publication), consider the statement within the larger field. Don’t set out to pick a fight as your central objective.

So how can we turn a topic statement (‘I’m looking at LGBTQIA+ in Sandman”) into a thesis statement?

One of the ways to do this is to ask yourself “so what?” What are you hoping to achieve by researching this topic? What does your research tell us about LGBTQIA+ or Sandman? Be sure to consider the audience carefully when you ask this question. Let’s say you answer the ‘so what?’ question with the following: “It’s important to bring attention to these representations.” Agreed. But who’s your target audience for your research? Are you making this argument to other students and instructors? Or is your research directed to the industry (writers and creators), or maybe to audiences of these works? Think carefully about what information and pre-conceived notions your audience has and how your new research will fit into this. If your target audience is inclined to agree with you, then you haven’t answered the ‘so what’ successfully.

If you’re a postgraduate student, you may also want to consider your audience in terms of different specialities, especially if you’re planning on submitting an article for publication. If you’re setting out to research LGBTQIA+ narratives in Sandman your “so what” answer will depend on the topic of the journal. Is it a Fantasy-specific journal? A journal dedicated to graphic novels? The top journal in English literature? A journal dedicated to LGBTQIA+? Consider how your research will add substantially to that field. A paper that looks at the impact of Sandman for a Fantasy journal will be entirely different from one that focuses on graphics novels. Your topic stays the same (non-binary in Sandman) but you must adapt your argument and hypothesis to answer the ‘so what?’ pertinent to each field.

As I said above, don’t worry if you don’t have an argument when you begin your research. It’s perfectly acceptable (and expected) to start with “I’ve noticed x and I find it interesting.” But keep in mind that it’s just a place to start your research. Don’t stop there. Ask yourself ‘so what?’ until you’ve found an answer that contributes meaningfully to the field and doesn’t just make white noise.

Tomorrow we’ll continue the discussion of tackling the research process with a look at abstract-writing. Until then, take care!

2 thoughts on “The University 411/811: The ‘So What’ Factor”

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