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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Reading ‘the right stuff’

Hello All!

Goodness, August has been a busy month. I’ve been the literal length and breadth of the country over the last two weeks and am now quite exhausted.

However, during that time I have received a few interesting emails from readers (all soon to be Literature students) asking about how best to prepare for uni. One question that particularly struck me was from a UEA fresher who was worried that they hadn’t read ‘the right sorts of books’ before coming to uni.

This question particularly stayed with me because it made me realise that before coming to university I was one of those people who might be perceived to have not read, ‘the right sorts of books’. It had never really occurred to me before that that was something I could have been potentially worried about when I arrived as a fresher.

It’s probably worth outlining now what people usually think of as the right kind of books for literature students to be reading; Classics such as those of Dickens, Eliot, the Bronte sisters… you get the gist.

Now, I have always been a book worm. As a child my teachers used to complain to my parents that I read too much and wasn’t playing with other children enough. I used to get in trouble for staying up past my bed time reading, and right up until sixth form I was happily getting through at least one book a week (then A-Levels and being able to go out at weekends began to take up my time a lot more). But at no point during that did I worry I was reading the right stuff.

Since I was very little I knew that I wanted to study English Literature at uni and so I always supposed that I would get around to reading the classics then, when I was older, wiser, and would understand them better. This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t read classics when you’re young, just that you shouldn’t feel like you must or that otherwise you’ll not be qualified to be a literature student.

I read handful of classics before starting uni but they were all ones I was interested in. Other than that I read what I liked, and I am pleased to say that it has not hindered me at university at all.

We study literature at university because we enjoy it and because it interests us, so there’s no point slogging through something in your free time just because you feel you have to.

Every literature student arrives at uni with a different reading history behind them and it is meeting all these different people who have been exposed to different kinds of books (don’t even get me started on how a lot of the books we’re told we’re supposed to have read were written by dead white men) that makes it an exciting and interesting environment to be in.

Long story short, read what you want and enjoy it to the max.

Summer 2016 Plans

Hello Everyone,

Apologies that it’s been a little while but I’ve been out of the country for a bit (Florida to be precise) but now I am back, complete with sunburned feet.

Today’s blog is just to give you a little context for what I will be doing with my summer holiday, my FINAL summer holiday (!!!) before I head back to Norwich this September to start third year.

As I have opted to do a literature dissertation this autumn term I am currently surrounded by piles of books which require reading. I’ll try and keep giving updates about how my dissertation is progressing, both to give some context and advice for any other students reading but also to document for myself how it developed.

I won’t go into the details too much right now, but essentially I have had a think about what it was that I really enjoyed studying this last year, to which the answer is Medieval Writing and Romanticism. I was also advised by Karen Schaller, the Convenor of the English Literature BA, to look around at modules that I would like to have taken but can’t for whatever reason. This inspired to me have a root around the websites of other universities and see what final year modules they offer which I would have been interested in. The long and the short of it is that I’ve decided to research Medievalism, specifically Romantic Medievalism which is the 18th century reimagining of what the Middle Ages were like.

Looking back I realise that later interpretations of medieval life have always fascinated me. Even as a child my favourite books were historical fiction (I read The Other Boleyn Girl when I was 10 which on reflection was definitely too young!).

dissertation reading 1

The very beginnings of the dissertation research

On top of all this reading I also have an interview lined up at my local museum to see whether I can do some work experience with their admin team for a few weeks. As I think I have previously mentioned, I really enjoy doing the behind the scenes work for UEA Drama Society, but looking ahead to the future I think that I might be interested in doing similar work in the heritage sector. Fingers crossed they take me on, if nothing else it will keep my CV up to date and diverse.

And last but by no means least, I will of course be heading up to Edinburgh in August to take the show which I am producing (‘Death and the Data Processor’) to the Fringe Festival. More on that later!

As we are approaching A Level exam results I am aware that a lot of students will be anxiously waiting and worrying about life at uni. As always, if you have any question please feel free to comment on this post or email me at h.armstrong@uea.ac.uk

Best of luck!

‘Reading Matters’ Conference 2016

One of the many benefits of being an English literature student at UEA is the absence of end of year exams. By the end of second semester all of our essays are handed in and summer stretches ahead of you – however, this does leave the question of how you can go about filling the final few weeks of the academic year.

Well for the first year literature students this conundrum is answered in the form of the ‘Reading Matters’ Conference, a few weeks long project in which small groups of students research and write a presentation on why their book should be on next year’s first year syllabus. At the end there is a vote and the winner is added to either the Literature in History or the Reading Texts modules.

‘But Hannah, you’re not a first year!’ I hear you cry. Sadly this is true, however, having had a great time working with my team and our tutors last year I was delighted to be asked back to help out as part of a student run social media team.

Niamh and Dougie, the wonderful duo who I worked with on this, did fantastic work creating graphics and setting up a twitter account for the event. This meant that on the day we largely spent our time tweeting coverage of the event and making memes to share with the participating students and tutors – the twitter battles are one of the best parts of the conference.

155vjc

The books being put forward this year were:

  • The poetry of Sappho
  • Antigone by Sophocles
  • Paradise by Toni Morrison
  • Metamorphoses by Ovid
  • Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift
  • Jacob’s Room by Virginia Woolf
  • Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe
  • The Play Boy of the Western World by John Synge
  • Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine

All of the teams gave well-argued reasons for why their book should be chosen, and the choice was very hard indeed, but ultimately ‘Citizen’ won.

citizen

It’s not a book I have read yet but I will certainly now make an effort to track down a copy and I’m delighted that we are gradually seeing a diversification from the usual white male writers who take up so much room on our syllabuses.

I hope this year’s first years enjoyed the conference as much as I did, I hope they made new friends and got to know their tutors at least a little bit more, and if nothing else I hope they enjoyed the free wine and nibbles at the after party.