Writing a dissertation in Literature [Archives:2007/1046/Education]

April 30 2007

By Dr. P.A.Abrham
Professor of English
Taiz University
[email protected]

Graduate and postgraduate students, studying literature courses are often asked to submit a Thesis/dissertation in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the award of their respective degrees. In the Universities in Yemen, at the postgraduate level, a dissertation/thesis on a selected topic has to be submitted for the award of MA degree. The following guidelines may also be used by candidates preparing for a PhD degree in Literature.

One of the questions that Research students often encounter is the selection of a relevant topic for their research.

What kinds of topics are useful?

The best topics are the ones that originate out of one's own reading of a work of literature; however, there are some common approaches to consider:

– A discussion of a book's characters: are they realistic, symbolic or historical?

– A comparison/contrast of the choices different authors or characters make in their works

– A reading of a work based on an outside philosophical perspective (For Example “A Freudian Approach to Hamlet” or ” A Study of the Feminist Consciousness” in writers like Margaret Atwood, Gloria Naylor, Toni Morrison etc

– Female Voices in John Keats' Selected Poems

– A Study of the sources or historical events that was the context of a particular work (Example: Comparing George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion with the original Greek myth of Pygmalion)

– An analysis of a specific image occurring in several works (Example: the use of moon imagery in certain plays, novels and poems)

– A reading from a Political Perspective (Example: Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels as a Political Satire)

– A reading from a religious/moral point of view (Example: Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter from the Islamic point of view)

– A Study of the social, political, or economic context in which a work was written – how does the context influence the work?

In fact, there are innumerable topics that can be considered and the intending student should never hesitate to consult with scholars and teachers before finalizing the topic.

Research Proposal

Before you start really working on your topic, a proposal has to be written and it should be approved by the committee appointed by the University. The research proposal will specify what you will do, how you will do it, and how you will interpret the result. In specifying what will be done it also gives criteria for determining whether it is done. In approving the proposal, the committee accepts the relevance of the research and agrees that the student may pursue the research with the guidance of the supervisor. The following sections may be adopted while preparing the research proposal:

1. Introduction: The introduction provides a brief overview that explains what the proposal is about. It might be as short as a single page, but it should be very clearly written and it should help the reader understand that the research is relevant. Briefly describe the general topic and quickly come to the question that your research will address. Explain why this is important.

2. Literature Review: The purpose of literature review is to situate your research in the context of what is already known about a topic. It need not be exhaustive; it needs to show how your work will benefit the whole. It should provide the theoretical basis for your work, show what has been done in the area by others, and set the stage for your work.

3. Research Question in detail: Here you tell what you have done so far. You may write preliminary studies that you have made to establish the feasibility of your research. It should give a sense that you are in a position to add to the body of the knowledge.

4 Methodologies: Here you explain the way that you intend to approach the research question and the technique and logic that you will use to address it.

5. Expected Results: This section should indicate what you expect from the research. It should tell the possible outcome to the theory and questions that you have raised. It will be a good place to summarize the significance of the work.

6. Bibliography: This is the list of tentative works that you are likely to refer. Some supervisors like exhaustive list. Others like to see only the literature that you actually cite.

How do I begin the Research

Once the proposal is accepted, you will be working more seriously and the best place to start is probably the internet. Here you can find the basic biographical data on the authors, brief summaries of works, some peripheral references, and even bibliographies of sources related to your topic. However, the internet rarely offers serious direct scholarship; you will have to use sources found in the library, sources like journal articles and other important references, to get information that you can use to build up your thesis. Amazon.com and google.com are good websites that give you a lot of information about books and resources.

Read, Read, Read (and note-taking)

You need to read in a much more targeted way, hunting for just those articles and books that are relevant to the answering of your question. As you read, you will be focusing and noting down specifically those parts of others' work that are relevant to your research. Your new reading may force you to refine or modify your research question, and this in turn may give your subsequent reading a new direction.

During the whole process of researching, reading and writing, it is important to take notes. There are many ways of taking notes, including annotating photocopies, highlighting key information(using different colors) filling in an outline, using reference cards and others. While doing this, you need to write down all bibliographical details and page numbers which are essential at the time of writing your drafts. This can save a lot of time and effort when you write the actual thesis. It is not a good idea to copy out large chunks of the original text. Doing so increases the temptation to patch together your paper out of the quotations of others, making it less of your own work

Some Hints

Remember that in a research you are making an argument that your perspective – your interpretation, your evaluative judgment or critical evaluation should be a valid one. To begin with, you must have a specific, detailed thesis statement that reveals your perspective, and like any good argument, your perspective must be one which is debatable. For example, you do not want to make an argument like this: Shakespeare's Hamlet is a play about a young man who seeks revenge. This is not a debatable sentence. A better thesis would be this: Hamlet experiences internal conflict because he is in love with his mother. This is debatable, even controversial. The rest of the paper with this argument as its thesis will be an attempt to show, using specific examples from the text and evidence from scholars, (1) How Hamlet is in love with his mother (2) why he is in love with her, and (3) What implications are there for reading the play in this manner.

How to use the information that I find?

As you develop your thesis, you can bring in the ideas of critics and scholars who have worked on the author and this is useful to support your argument in the thesis. For instance, you are arguing that Huck Finn is a Christ figure. Now, you need to give evidence from the novel that allows this interpretation, and you may state in the right context and place the following: According to Susan Thomas, Huck sacrifices himself because he wants to set Jim free (129). If the critic uses an important idea in a memorable way, you may directly quote from the critic: “Huck's altruism and feelings of compassion for Jim forces him to surrender to the danger” (Thomas 129).

Remember never to forget saying the obvious; but don't spend a lot of time on it- acknowledge its obviousness by using a word like “Clearly”. Then move on to something less obvious. You need not worry that something that you have just figured out will be obvious or familiar to someone else. A good general principle to maintain your confidence is that if you find something interesting enough to say carefully, it will be interesting for your reader. Avoid apologizing for what you say. It goes without saying that the views and interpretations you offer are yours, doesn't it? So, there is no need for such boring phrases like “It seems to me” or “In my opinion”. This does not mean that you must not use the first person singular. Use it where appropriate, remembering, however that your research work is not an autobiography. Similarly, the expression, “The present writer” is ludicrous and obsolete.

Use concepts and terms you have worked with (for poetry: tone, diction, imagery, paraphrase, metrics, etc, for fiction: characterization, plot, climax, symbolism, theme, etc). But remember to use them only when they pay off, not automatically. Paraphrase, for example should be used very selectively, when a line or a sentence has a tricky meaning, or a meaning that you are uncertain of but want to spell out as best as you can. It would be tedious to automatically paraphrase every bit of poetry that you wrote about.

In writing about fiction, you will find more interesting things to say if you focus on characterization rather than on characters. Focusing on characterization means studying how the writer has used the characters)what selection of detail is used, what mixture of direct “showing” to indirect “telling”, what implied valuations are being made, and the like.

While writing the thesis, be careful of using literary jargons. You cannot impress the examiners by using bombastic words and jargons. Avoid plot summary for its own sake. Summarizing content in order to make a point in your argument, on the other hand, is an entirely different matter and is very much an appropriate part of thesis writing. Compare the following statements:

a. Hamlet then goes to talk with his mother in her bedroom or “closet” and grows more and more angry as he talks to her. Finally, he has a vision of his father's ghost, and this restores him to some calmness.

b. When Hamlet talks to his mother in her bedroom or “closet”, his reproaches to her grow more and more angry and uncontrolled. Ironically, it is only his vision of the Ghost- which she interprets as his madness – that restores him to a certain degree.

In the first version, the summary is not sufficiently interesting to a reader who has read the play. In the second version, the summary is made to serve some point of interpretation or comment. In other words summary should always be offered as a way of supporting your argument.

Once your first draft is ready read it carefully, word by word, marking changes to be made and make corrections in grammar, spellings, usages etc. Your final draft should also incorporate comments you have received from your supervisor and other teachers whom you have consulted as well as changes that you want to make based on your own evaluation. Check with your supervisor if the information given are in proper order and logical and the especially the introduction and conclusion are clear and related. Check if the style, format, tone, diction are appropriate, concrete and accurate. Use the documentation style adopted in the MLA Handbook for Research which is internationally accepted. Once you are satisfied with all these, you are ready to submit your dissertation. See if the following are incorporated in the final draft of your thesis:

Title Page – It will contain the title of the thesis, author's name with the statement that it is being submitted for degree of PhD or MA in the Faculty concerned/the university and the date of submission. Example: “Topic” by author submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy/ Master of Arts in the Faculty of ))) in the University of )))))), (date).

Signature of the author; Certified by the Supervisor; Accepted by Chairman, Departmental Committee on Theses

Abstract: This should be drafted with utmost care, since this is the part that would be read the most, and would probably find place in many journals. This is a concise description of the problem addressed, the methodology adopted in resolving the problem, the findings and conclusions.

Acknowledgements: A line or a paragraph expressing gratitude to all those individuals and institutions that helped you in the process.

Table of Contents: The chapter headings, the subheadings, and their respective page numbers. You may use the Arabic numerals in numbering from the page of the introduction; the pages before it may be in Roman numerals.

Introduction: This should embrace the significance of the research and its place in the overall scheme of things in your vast discipline, the relevance of the study, and the problem statement that even a non-expert in the particular area of study can easily follow. The introduction should arouse curiosity in the mind of the reader that he /she is compelled to go through the rest of your thesis.

Literature Review: This would encompass genesis of the problem in your mind, the extent of knowledge already available, and a fairly extended list of research papers or works related to your area along with the summary of their relevant findings.

The Core Chapters

The structure of the core chapters varies widely with the discipline and the nature of the topic. It is not possible to put forward a pattern that may be accepted universally. Detailed descriptions of the theories and hypotheses involved, different problems and the methodology adopted in resolving them, the materials and methods used, the experimental investigation carried out, the diverse techniques resorted to during the long course of study, significant revelations during the period of work, and arguments that led you to the conclusions should find a place in the core chapters. Arguments may be conveniently presented as a series of numbered or bulleted points, rather than as one chunk in a crowded paragraph.

In the final analysis, remember that your own thesis naturally offers you much more freedom in terms of length, breadth, and depth of treatment. You are the judge. You have to make your product self-supporting. It can stand out in quality, without pressure from external constraints.

Defending the Thesis

Now comes the final stage – defending of your thesis. Remember, this is not a war where a group of experts are ranged against a solitary researcher. You don't have to take it as a defense, but just as a presentation of your ideas over which you have given your time and energy for the past few years. You are sure of the different aspects of the topic that you have worked on and perhaps you know better than the members of the jury before! (Don't tell them about it!). Your objective is to convince your audience that you have done your job well, your methodology is sound and findings are useful.

It is a good idea to know in advance the duration you would get for the presentation, so that you can plan ahead and make use of the time allotted most effectively.

You must have already discussed different aspects of your topic with others and have gathered possible questions that are likely to be asked. The comments should be taken as valuable. So also, any new idea coming from a member of the expert panel should be welcomed. Your listening and comprehension level should be at the peak.

Your clarifications should be clear and convincing. NEVER GET INTO ARGUMENTS. Your confidence will be boosted if you approach the situation with a feeling that the expert panel is there to help you. After all, your great effort is reaching its concluding stage of success. In fact you are not alone; your supervisor also has a role in the entire process of research and thesis preparation. So, have confidence and answer the questions confidently and precisely. You will come out successfully.