Dissertations: How to choose a topic

It’s been a little while now since I handed in my dissertation so I’ve had a bit of room to think about the process and evaluate what I got from it. Whilst it’s still fairly fresh in my mind I want to write a little about my experience of the process and in doing so I hope to reassure and help other students approaching their final year projects.

Having asked around on a few of my social media accounts the most common question that has come up is ‘How to choose a topic?’ so that is what I will focus on for this post. If after reading you have any more queries do feel free to ask.

Looking back I can remember how daunting it seemed at the beginning of the autumn semester – I had to write 8000 words on a topic that was completely unspecified. There were no instructions, no models, just ‘go!’ (like the final Great British Bake Off challenge when they were asked to ‘make a Victoria sponge’ without a recipe).

When I opted to do a dissertation I had no idea what I was going to write on, I just knew that I wanted the experience of doing one and the independence and research skills that I knew it would bring.

The best advice I was given on choosing a topic was to look at the modules that I wished I could have taken but couldn’t fit into my timetable or weren’t on offer this year.

In essence: what would your dream module be?

I took this one step further and started looking at the course catalogues of other universities and seeing what they offered. It was whilst browsing the website of King’s College London that I came across a module about Medievalism. As the start of a dissertation topic it was perfect for me; it allowed me to combine my two favourite modules: Romanticism and Medieval Writing.

I then began reading general texts around the area until I began to get a feel for the field. I noticed what ideas kept reoccurring, what was treated as gospel, and which writers/texts were most closely associated with it.

This eventually led me to choose Keats and his vision of the medieval as the topic for my research. He was a well-known figure who I loved but whose medievalism hadn’t been fully explored (in my opinion at least).

Throughout this process I was in continual discussion with my supervisor. Along with being a fantastic champion and all round morale booster my dissertation supervisor was able to help me get a feel of what was the right size for the range of my work. 8000 words seems a lot at the start but as I soon found out you run out of space very quickly. So rather than trying to cover ALL of Keats’s poems which utilised medieval aesthetics I instead chose just two texts – and even then I struggled to keep myself under the word limit.

Although committing to a dissertation topic is daunting it should also be exciting. It’s a chance to spend a term researching something you love. And remember, however overwhelming it may feel at the start, you will be fine. Just keep putting one foot in front of the other and eventually you’ll look back to see you have climbed a mountain – or written a 8000 word dissertation at least!

diss-and-me

Everyone needs a photo of them posing with their diss before handing it in

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‘Know thyself’

Confession time: Up until the age of about seventeen, I saw revision as fairly optional.

I’ve always been one of those prats who is content to rest on their laurels until about three weeks before the exam and then frantically work to catch up. Unfortunately for me this largely worked, and it wasn’t until Year 12 results day that I got the kick in the teeth which had been a long time coming.

University, however, is a whole new ball game.

Even on modules which are 100% assessed at the end of the term, it is very difficult to coast. If you don’t do the required reading then you won’t really understand the lecture in full and seminars become a tedious task when you have nothing to bring to the table. So figuring out where and when you work best is very important.

#TheWhen

Personally, I work best between about 11 am and 2 pm. I realise this probably sounds like a very dull thing to have spent time working out, but when you have a stack of reading to do it’s important to take into account the chances that you will fall asleep at your desk if you try to keep going until midnight. There’s also a significant difference between reading something and actually processing it. Any reading done after eleven at night has a tendency to go in one ear and out the other with me.

#TheWhere

I’ve tried studying in the library. I really have – but for some reason it just doesn’t appeal to me. I usually only study in the library if I want to eliminate all distractions and power through a piece of work, but as you might have guessed, that’s not really my style. For me, my essays come together best when I give myself adequate dithering time. I type two hundred words or so then go and make some toast or make a cup of tea, then I come back and tap away a few more hundred words, etc. This dithering time lets me organise my ideas better, but it’s a bit annoying for the person sitting next you in the library, so I do most of my work in my room.

(I have also tried studying in Unio, the union run café, but other people’s conversations are often more exciting than essays on literary realism, however hard you try to concentrate.)

#TheMotivators

Beyond the obvious (getting a good degree), it’s important to have small motivators to keep you working when you’d much rather be in the union bar. This can range from allowing yourself to take a break every hour to watch funny cat vines, to finding that 80’s playlist that gets you pumped. Each to their own.

This probably all sounds rather dull, I know that 17 year old me didn’t care about such things. But once you get to university it’s vital to understand how you work if you want to keep on top of all your work. And because frankly, it makes your life a lot easier, which is what all students want right?

So, to steal one of the Delphic oracles maxims; ‘Know thyself’.

Snatching Defeat from the jaws of Victory

As a child I had such a habit of messing things up that I didn’t realise the real phrase was, ‘Snatching victory from the jaws of defeat’ until I was well into secondary school; frankly it’s a miracle I made it as far as university.

But I digress.

This week I discovered I had made what may be politely termed; a monumental cock-up. To cut a long story short, my smugness in handing both my midterm essays in a couple of days early was completely unfounded as, after tweaking one of my essays and resubmitting, I accidentally loaded it into the wrong box on e-vision – In other words, I handed the same essay in twice and now I have to fill out an Extenuating Circumstances form to ask the lovely Examining Board to not dock my marks for the other essay.

Uuuuuuugh.

The good news is that my grades this year don’t count towards my final degree, but it’s still bloody annoying. It also worries me that the deadline for these essays was over three weeks ago and the problem was only flagged up at the end of this week.

Still not sure how I made such a mistake, but what’s done is done, and my Reading Texts (the module the missing essay was meant to be in for) tutor has been nothing but supportive. We can but hope the board shall show me mercy.

In other slightly better news, I have a meeting with the head of English Literature next week to discuss my transfer to the single honours degree, fingers crossed for that as well.

We’re on the downhill slide to Christmas now and energy levels are beginning to lag. I love uni but a break sounds divine. Just two more essays to go.

Fairylights have been put up around campus and are so lovely at night that for once UEA actually looks pretty (we’re a great uni, but if you come here you have to accept the brutalist architecture). A Christmas tree has been put up in the square and nearly all the residences have some sort of garish tinsel arrangement in the window. (Personally I try to keep all decorations down until the 1st December, but maybe I’ve just become a Scrooge in my old age.)

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I’ll be putting my thinking cap on to try and come up with a suitable end of term summary post soon, but in the meantime what I can say is this, I hope that if nothing else my blog has shown that you will get things wrong and you will get things right when you start uni, but you don’t have to panic, because the chances of you failing completely are almost zero. Almost nothing is beyond repair. I promise.

Plagiarism and Plays

What is originality?

Well according to William Ralph Inge, it is undetected plagiarism (but that quote isn’t plagiarism because I cited it, kind of).

Anyway, it is the “P” word that has been on my mind all week after a particularly terrifying lecture from our Plagiarism Officer on Monday. Now I know that she didn’t mean to scare the pants off us, but put the fear of God into us she did.

To recap, I have just handed two essays in, and I am 99.9% certain that I have not committed anything that might be termed as bad practice, but it’s like during A-Level exams when they ask if you have your phone on you, and you know you don’t, but you still have a ten minute panic wondering, “what if…”.

But the talk turned out to be immediately beneficial to me, as I went straight back to my room to reread my essay, and discovered that I had in fact put two of my references the wrong way around – a close save.

The rest of the lecture was far more enjoyable, including such wonderful lines as, “we’re literature students, it’s our job to be pretentious… so go forth and be pretentious”. It also turfed up the old history vs literature debate – what is the difference between them if we view history as a narrative (other than that historians claim to be more scientific), or as Alan Bennett puts it, “Just one fucking thing after another”?
But now that I’ve handed the essays in I have promised myself to not look again until I get the marks back, because I know I will just stress over what I could have improved, etc.

I’ve also been working on improving my studying habits, as I’ve settled into the term my fresher’s enthusiasm for going through all the further reading given us has waned, and I admit my reading of our actual texts may have become a little sloppy too. But, after a few days spent with the Significant Other in Oxford, I’m feeling a little more invigorated. When you’re surrounded by people who have to turn in two essays a week it puts your own studies in perspective, and creates an environment more beneficial to working than sitting alone in front of your laptop, where the siren call of funny cat vines is strongest. So, if my friends are up for it I think small study groups might be the way forward, but we’ll see. Everyone has to find what works for them.

(Pro-tip: Audiobooks mean you can get through the more meaty texts faster, and tidy your room at the same time!)

In other news, the Minotaur Theatre Shorts ended last night and it would be remiss of me not to congratulate all involved, and to not give a special shout out to the cast and team of “Maggie” who were, as always, wonderful. It’s exciting to see just how much talent exists in our relatively small community, and very flattering to know that the staff have deemed you worthy of being a part of it. (Our alumni include the, late, Doctor himself, Matt Smith, and others such as Radio One DJ Greg James)

So that’s it for another week. It’s scary to think that we’re more than half way through the first term already, and before we know it, it shall be Christmas…

essay desk
My desk mid essay frenzy

‘I balanced all, brought all to mind’

Dear Reader,

You may be pleased to hear that I’ve actually got some work done! One essay is just about done (59 words short of the word count -_- ) and, although I have yet to actually begin, I’m feeling slightly more positive about the second one that’s due in three days later – You’ve got to love bottleneck essays.

The one problem with actually knuckling down to some proper study is your social life tends to suffer. I realised one night that I’d gone several days without seeing my friends because I’d become caught up between moving from one seminar to another, to a rehearsal for the Minotaur Theatre Company’s Shorts Season, and on top of that I was still behind on my reading, and desperately needed to do the laundry.

To make things even more hectic, my significant other was visiting this week, and trying to act as host/tourguide/student was a bit of a juggling act. So I suppose that’s what this post is really about – juggling.

Well not the literal circus act – but I what I have learned about uni so far is that it’s a crash course in priority management, and I think that extends for the whole three years by the looks of it. Knowing what is too much to take on, knowing when to rain check a social gathering, but also knowing when to shut the laptop and actually go outside for a while. So that’s my resolution for the coming week, get work done whilst making time for friends and social gatherings, starting tonight with the Pub Quiz (Go team ‘Universally Challenged’!)

In other news I’ve tried to get involved with the academic life of the university as well as the social – earlier this week I went to a research seminar given by a visiting Oxford lecturer on ‘Translating medieval Quarrels: La Belle Dame Sans Mercy’, now I can’t pretend to have understood all of it, but it was a great to see some of the English Faculty in their roles as researchers as opposed to teachers and educators which is what I usually see. The visiting scholar, Dr. Liv Robinson, was much younger than I had anticipated, and with her pixie haircut and facial piercings, a lot more “trendy” than I had perhaps been expecting. This typifies my experience of academics so far, true some of them have elbow patches and look like they rarely leave the library, but a great deal of them are young and approachable, without the intellectual snobbery that I hadn’t realised I had subconsciously been expecting. Which makes me feel a lot better about wanting to maybe be one of them in the future…

Although clearly I’m not ready for the seriousness of academic life just yet as I did have a good giggle after realising that the abbreviation of La Belle Dame Sans Mercy, which is commonly used in academic papers, is BDSM.

Like I said, not quite an adult yet.

The Queerness of Literature

Autumn’s fingers are finally stretching across campus now, and in the morning we are all feeling the chill of her “mists and mellow fruitfulness”; woolly hats and long coats are beginning to appear, and the feat of removing them in the tiny space allotted to you in a lecture theatre is an acrobatic one. From my large bedroom window I can watch the flocks of birds depart south for the winter, and they provide a welcome distraction from the work at hand… the dreaded first essay.

Having only been given it the day before last I can probably be forgiven for still feeling a little intimidated. It’s been over a year since I last wrote anything academic and I rather feel that I may have lost my spark, I read the various scholarly articles recommended to me but can’t imagine ever being able to sign my name at the bottom of one – I’m certain that any day now they’re going to realise I’m a fraud who definitely shouldn’t have been let on the course. But for now we beat on.

It is perhaps only now that I realise what a ridiculous subject literature is; the subject of my essay is the dialogue between Chaucer’s “The Pardoner’s Tale” and its historical context, but what most of the secondary material available to me concentrates on is the sexual identity and sexuality of the Pardoner, and I can’t help but feel that it’s all a bit ridiculous.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m all for applying Queer Theory to texts, but this speculation is all based on one line and it is never mentioned again. I think it says more about the preoccupations of our generation than it does about Chaucer and his time – but then again my frustration might stem from the fact that none of these essays help or advance my own so I may be being unfairly critical.

Moreover, as I trawl through various databases of literary articles and works, sifting through the bizarre in search of the enlightening, I keep being overcome by just how small and yet detailed the academic world is. It may be heretical to say so, but I read some scholarly works and think, “Really, who cares about this?” A lot of people apparently, it’s a profession after all (Strange the things people will pay you for). But still I think of all the people I know who went to uni and wonder why they didn’t warn me just how strange and pedantic it all could be – so consider this my warning to you now.