Choosing a Humanities Topic
Your assignment is to plan and write an eight- to ten-page paper on some topic having to do with the humanities during the European Enlightenment. Choosing and developing a topic requires more more work than you might think—relatively few undergraduate classes require students to do this. Nevertheless, topic development is an important skill, especially if you plan to attend graduate school, and the satisfaction you will feel when you complete a project entirely of your own design will more than justify the extra time and trouble it takes. I suggest that you take the following steps.
- Decide on an area that interests you. Are you a history major planning on graduate school? There is no rule against your writing a history essay. Are you a sociology major who always wanted to write about music? Then write about music. You will be spending some time with your topic, so find a broad area with some interest for you—it doesn’t really matter which area, as long as you like it.
- Do some basic research. Scholarly essays generally do not use encyclopedias and dictionaries as sources, but that doesn’t mean you can’t use them for background knowledge. Do a quick search for something, or someone interesting. You can use anyone in the syllabus as a starting point, or look through the Longman Anthology and get a sense of a particular area.
- Narrow your focus to a particular person (or small group of people), a particular work, a particular historical event, or a particular concept, then narrow it even more. You would be surprised how narrowly you can focus a topic and still find more than you have time to read. Narrow early, and your research will be that much easier and your essay will be that much more in depth. For instance, if you started with "David Hume," you can narrow it to "Hume’s theory of identity"; if you started with "Sir Joshua Reynolds," you can narrow it to "Reynolds’s portraiture," and then to "Reynolds’s ‘Mrs. Abington as Miss Prue in Congreve’s Love for Love’" (the portrait on the cover of the Longman Anthology). Yes, you can find plenty of material on a single painting.
- Find material from a variety of sources: books, journal articles, contemporaneous sources, recent scholarship, historical and biographical material, criticism, and so on. Your chances of writing an excellent essay increase dramatically with the breadth and variety of your sources. Don’t make the mistake of using only what can be found in Pegasus and on the Internet—journals and different kinds of books will give different perspectives on your subject. Skimping on the research can easily leave you without the resources you need to write effectively.
- Set priorities and read systematically, taking notes as you go. Good research notes can save you an enormous amount of time and trouble, and the act of taking them will help you assimilate the material. Write down the bibliographical information for the book or article you are reading, then paraphrase or copy out significant passages, listing the page numbers as you go. That way, you can write the draft from your notes, rather than the books and articles themselves, and save a lot of time digging around for that great passage you saw two weeks earlier.
- Set a schedule for tasks and stick with it. This is the hardest piece of advice to follow, but it might also be the best.