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!
**Note that different countries use different terminology. In Canada and US, a grad student is someone pursuing further education after completing their undergraduate studies. In UK, a graduate is someone who has completed their undergraduate studies, full stop. So, in UK, a postgrad is someone who has gone beyond being a graduate. I’m more familiar with UK terminology, but if you’re not clear on the specific jargon I’m using throughout this University 411/811 blog series (which I started here), please comment and ask so I can edit the blog for other readers as well.
32 drafts. I don’t know why I decided to sit down and count my drafts. And by ‘drafts’ I mean some form of submission or completedness – i.e. I sent it to someone else to look at or I said to myself “I’m done for now. I’ll focus on my other chapters and come back to it.” So ‘drafts’ doesn’t even count the number of tweaks and changes I’ve made daily while I worked to achieve that draft. And I’m also not talking full manuscript here. I’m talking about one chapter. THEE chapter. The one that put me on this path.
Chapter 1 of The Shape of Fantasy from start to finish – from the initial kernel of an idea taken from a short undergraduate paper to published chapter in an award-nominated book – was a process that took 12 years and 32 drafts. The chapter plays an integral part of my life. But the profound impact it had on me probably doesn’t come across in the dry academic chapter description:
Chapter 1 – The Shape of a Hero’s Soul: Interrogating the Destiny of the Hero in Lois McMaster Bujold’s The Curse of Chalion (2001)
Prophecy or the idea of the ‘Hero of Destiny’ are essential motifs in Heroic Epic Fantasy fiction. This chapter argues that while prophecy may drive characters and events in a narrative, the hero’s free will is not limited. Drawing from a tradition of Stoic philosophy, chapter one explores that, while the shape of the hero’s nature is pre-determined by a metaphysical entity, it remains up to the hero’s free will to determine whether to fulfil the functions of their design. This analysis utilises Lois McMaster Bujold’s The Curse of Chalion (2001), the first stand-alone novel of the Chalion universe (2001-present), as a case study. Using the novel as a model of Heroic Epic Fantasy, chapter one demonstrates that in a narrative with prophecy and fate, the hero interacts with these devices through an assertion of free will.
The TL:DR version: in chapter 1 I look at fate and free will in epic fantasy.
I’m trying to determine if it’s coincidental or not that a chapter about fate ultimately determined the path I took in life. At some point in my undergraduate studies I became fascinated with the concept of fate. Being a thoroughly unreligious person, I instead fell into a deep dark hole of tarot cards, astrology, numerology, and all the other pseudoscience paraphernalia. I’m almost too ashamed to admit just how much money I poured into astrology books. (Although I don’t regret my tarot card collection because the art work is awesome and tarot is fun when approached with the right sense and humour, i.e as a tool for introspection).
It wasn’t until 2007, in an undergraduate Classics modules on Greek Literature, that I started exploring the rich histories and nuanced philosophical debates of fate versus free will at an academic level. Taken from a context of Greek theology, my final paper for the class compared King Croseus in Herodotus’ Histories with Phaedra in Euripedes’ Hippolatus and considered whether their falls were fated. Did the Greek Gods plan for these characters to fall? Or was fate outside of the control of the Gods as well? Does even Zeus have to follow its dictates? Or do humankind have some measure of control in their lives?
These were all questions asked but never fully answered in my undergraduate paper. But for the rest of my undergraduate career, I kept coming back to the question of fate and free will. (If you remember in my discussion of how to prepare for seminars and lectures I talked about identifying things that interest you; fate and free will was big for me). Later, in a Roman Literature class I was introduced to the phrase:
ducunt voluntem fata nolentem trahunt
Fate leads the willing and drags the unwilling. While the English translation adds “the” and “and” to the sentence, these words aren’t strictly required in Latin. As well, in English word order is important. (For example, subject verb object. I like books: subject, verb, object.) But in Latin, instead of word order the spelling ending of each word indicates its function in a sentence. Thus, in Latin the phrase is perfectly balanced:
Leads. Willing. Fate. Unwilling. Drags.
5 words with “fate” in the middle sandwiched between 2 possible choices: “willing” and “unwilling”. That phrase became everything to me. It combined fate and free will together in this beautiful perfect sentence.
This concept sat in my head gestating for years. And finally, three quarters of the way through my MA studies, I had my eureka moment. The eureka moment wasn’t a “I figured out the answers” moment. Instead, the eureka moment was a moment of “I’ve identified a gap and a possible method of addressing it.” If you’re considering postgrad/grad school, focus on that. Find a gap. A gap that you’re passionate about. A gap that makes you ask “WHY HASN’T ANYONE LOOKED AT THIS??”
Now, before you get excited, Stop. First ask yourself if the gap has an obvious answer, or if you’re attempting to answer it with something most people won’t object to. Your thesis shouldn’t set out to argue things like “the world is round.” Yes, I realize that, in a world where everyone has an opinion on everything, there will always be someone that refutes obvious statements like that, but most educated people won’t object to that statement so it’s not an argument for a research project. Even if an educated person does object (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 with just one person/publication. That may work for a small section of an article, but NOT for the entirety of your dissertation. Also don’t argue for the value of something: “We should be looking at x.” That can be where your start exploring what research questions to ask. But WHAT should we look about with x? “We should be looking at climate change and taking it seriously.” Yes. Agreed. Not going to argue that. But now what? What exactly are we looking at and how?
Do some preliminary research. First make sure there IS a gap. If you find someone else has addressed the gap, that’s okay too! Remember the second part of my bolded statement? “And a possibly methodology for addressing it?”. Does your proposed methodology give you a different insight into the gap? Something new and different from what’s already out there?
During my MA in Comparative Literature I was fortunate enough to take a module on Popular Literature and Culture. I was doubly fortunate to have an instructor who let us use any popular culture text for a final paper. I decided I wanted to do a paper on Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. I loved the trilogy of course, but part of my decision was pure spite; we had studied the first novel for an English Literature class in Children’s Literature and the instructor danced around talking about agnosticism/atheism instead of tackling it head on because he did not want to “open up that can of worms” when I broached the topic in class. (15 years later and I still remember his exact response, so yes, that is a direct quote.) So here was my step towards finding a gap, with an instructor that didn’t want to talk about religion/anti-religion in Pullman’s trilogy. Of course, when I sat down to do the research I quickly realized how WRONG I was. This wasn’t a gap at all. There is a ton of material out there on religion and Pullman.
But while reading these articles and chapters I noticed another interesting trend: a struggle to successfully marry fate and free will together. That is, most of these literary critics saw the concepts in opposition to each other, as mutually exclusive terms. Why did no one see the beautiful marriage of fate and free will? Maybe it was because they didn’t know about Seneca and stoic philosophy? I quickly noticed this opposition of fate/free will applied to Fantasy criticism in general (in what little of it that was available in 2011). Given that Epic Fantasy is rooted in Epic Literature, this baffled me. Hasn’t anyone looked at the theology and philosophy of classic and contemporary epic literature and noted the connections between them?
This idea launched my PhD proposal. It set me on a path to Lancaster University, a journey that included moving from Canada to UK, from my parent’s house where I lived my entire life to my own flat in a city and country where I knew no one. I went on to make some amazing friendships as well as meeting the man I would eventually marry.
Despite all that, while the gap I had identified launched my academic career and my personal life, it was NOT the research question I ended up answering or the methodology I ended up using for the entirety of my research project. My PhD dissertation, followed by my monograph, became so much BIGGER than that. My initial research question and methodology is still there for chapter 1. I examined the question of fate and free will using a comparative methodology that took Roman philosophy and applied it to a contemporary fantasy text. When I started my PhD, I have envisaged a dissertation that either: 1. answered the question of fate and free will using a number of different methodologies and perspectives, or 2. used the comparative methodology of comparing Greco-Roman philosophy and literature to contemporary epic fantasy literature in order to identify and see more connections. If you take a look at my chapter descriptions for The Shape of Fantasy, I did neither. My project shifted entirely from what I envisaged in 2011 when I planned my research proposal. And that’s okay. It’s okay if you’re unsure at any stage about your research. I know sometimes it feels like you have no idea what you’re doing, but that’s okay. You’re learning. If your research has not changed the slightest from proposal stage to submission stage, if your ideas are exactly the same at the end of your PhD as they were at the start, then have you learned anything? That’s the point of all this, right? To learn something new.
32 drafts. From start to finish, it took me 32 drafts to write just 1/10th of my book. So, whether it takes you 10 drafts or 100, don’t stop. Keep going. A new draft means you’re learning.
Today we’re going to start discussing how to tackle the dreaded blank page. Until then, take care!