The Research Essay option provides an opportunity to develop an interpretive essay on a challenging topic of your own devising.

The process includes the formulation, research, composition, shaping and polishing of an 8,000-10,000 word essay that poses a significant literary question and sustains for its duration a strong and clearly argued thesis, followed by a public presentation at the departmental symposium. 

The key to success lies in defining a workable topic with a broader scope than papers for courses allow. It is an opportunity to “join the critical conversation” about the chosen topic and requires a broad and deep grasp of primary texts, a thorough knowledge of the literary era and milieu in which chosen authors worked, a familiarity with relevant and influential secondary sources, including criticism, and development of the essay-writer’s own critical perspective.

A. Prerequisites:

  1. You must attend the required Information Literacy and Research Methods session for English Majors offered early Fall term by the Literature specialist in the Gould Library. 
  2. You must have done prior work related to the topic through courses, independent study or other avenues.
  3. You must have taken an advanced seminar in the major by the end of Fall term of your senior year.

B. In choosing and refining a topic:

  1. Select an area of interest;
  2. Narrow that area down to a sufficiently focused topic in which you have a firm enough grounding and are capable of working on independently over an extended period; and
  3. Meet with a faculty member to discuss the topic, possible approaches and resources, and how to develop a research proposal for an essay on that topic. This should happen in spring term of junior year so that thinking and research can continue over the summer between junior and senior years.

C. In the Fall of the senior year you submit a written research proposal.

The goal of a proposal is to provide a clear and persuasive rationale for the proposed research. No one sits down to write a 30-page scholarly essay without extensive planning and preparation. The proposal is written only after you have completed the preliminary stages of your research; it is the means by which you establish the viability of your proposed essay. In sum, the proposal should provide—to the best of your ability—a detailed “road map” or plan for your research. The proposal must be typed and double-spaced, cogently argued, coherently organized, and carefully written.

The submission packet should include:

  1. A completed Research Essay Comps Proposal Cover Sheet.
  2. A proposal of at least five pages (excluding the cover sheet and bibliography). The proposal must include the following elements (not necessarily in this order):
    • Your Student ID [NOT your name]
    • A working title
    • A description of the topic, paying careful attention to scope and feasibility.
    • A precise statement of your research question. Remember that your question is not the same as your topic. For example, if your topic is lyric poetry written during World War I, then you need to think carefully about the specific question you want to address. For example: What were the effects on the poetry of war of the early twentieth-century industrialization of military technology? Your question must also be something you can answer with the evidence you have at hand. For example, the corpus of First World War poetry, histories of industrialization, critical and historical studies of early twentieth-century literature.
    • A statement of your working thesis—i.e., the probable answer to your research question.
    • A description of the importance and significance of your proposed essay. (i.e., What will this study add to our understanding of the chosen topic? Why will this be worth the time to write and read? How does your argument contribute to the larger critical conversation about this topic? ) In this section you will need to identify the primary critics who have defined the parameters of the conversation you are entering.
    • A discussion of the evidence and approaches you will use to develop the essay’s argument. With regards to literary evidence, what details/patterns do you notice in the primary texts that make your topic promising? What kinds of historical or other evidence will you use? With regards to approaches, what methods of analysis will your essay employ? Will certain theories be central to your methods?
  3. An annotated bibliography of relevant materials (primary and secondary). At this stage, you should have considered at least eight sources. Your annotations should briefly describe how the sources are relevant to your research/argument. You must also indicate any potentially relevant sources not yet read.

Things to consider in writing your proposal: Style (including the strategic and judicious use of first-person voice to underscore your intent); Audience (intelligent, well-read peers and faculty who may not necessarily be familiar with your specific texts); and Organization (including an effective introduction and conclusion, and a logical way of addressing the elements of #2 above).

Examples of previous proposals are in Dropbox.

D. The final Research Essay Comps will consist of:

  1. An 8,000-10,000 word essay due at the end of winter term of senior year.
  2. A public presentation at the English Comps symposium in spring term.

E. What does an ideal Comps Research Essay look like?

  • Defines a significant but manageable literary, critical and/or theoretical question or problem
  • Articulates a cogent and insightful thesis in answer to this question or problem
  • Develops this thesis into a coherent and illuminating argument
  • Argument is based upon well-chosen evidence drawn from appropriate sources
  • Shows the pertinence of such evidence by sophisticated analysis, close reading, and/or careful exposition
  • Shows mastery of relevant literary, critical, methodological and/or theoretical concepts
  • Economically and insightfully locates its argument in relevant literary, critical, and/or theoretical contexts
  • Paper clearly exhibits an extremely effective organizing structure
  • Is precisely and/or eloquently written.
  • Is almost entirely free from mechanical error

Examples of successful Research Essays are in Dropbox.