Chapter Fourteen: Avoiding Plagiarism / Additional Resources / Foundational Materials Assignment

Foundational Materials Assignment

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Turn in your proposed title, research question, thesis statement, abstract, and annotated bibliography for your final research project. This assignment is a major step on your way to the research project.

Your Foundational Materials work may only end up being a couple of pages long, but we are going for quality not quantity here. You will use this material as the basis for your research project. Not all of these elements necessarily appear in your final research project, however. Some research projects do not require abstracts or annotated bibliographies, for example, but these elements are useful to you as you put together your research project.

This foundational material project is intended to give you a template for your final research project. Completing this foundational work requires adequate time and attention, and a clear idea of how to complete the assignment’s demands. It is ok to revise it as you are working on the research project; scholars do this all the time. But we must begin with an assessment of audience and purpose, a provisional “problem,” research question, thesis, and overview of an argument. We must have some sense of the existing scholarly discussion on a topic for any chance of our contribution to have relevance.

Most important is to develop the contents of the paper – your arguments, use of sources, etc. Your arguments need specificity, strength, support, and coherence. As one of my former professors used to say, writing arguments is not “natural” and is extremely difficult to learn. But the power of arguments is immense and worth the effort. Professional scholars sometimes rework their argument dozens of times before they are happy with it. Most of the time we cannot create a strong, coherent argument in one or two drafts.

Please ask for your instructor’s feedback or help if you need it before turning in this assignment. They are here to help you (it’s literally their job!).

Further instructions are below.

  1. Be sure to indicate which prompt from the project assignments you are referring to. By choosing one, you are choosing the “frame” for your work. Make sure you incorporate key terms in your proposal. If your research is about metaphor in a literary work, you need to explain which metaphor(s) in particular you are addressing. It shouldn’t be about metaphor in general.
  2. The parts of the assignment, such as composing a title, developing a research question, writing a thesis statement, and so on, are explained in our course units. Following the advice in these units will help you stay away from many common yet avoidable mistakes.
  3. Titles: If a key word appears in your title, it needs to appear somewhere else in your proposal. The title should indicate which text is your object of study. It should also indicate which theory, methodology, or method you are using to discuss the work. Your title needs to give the reader some guidance on what to expect in the paper. Imagine that your title is listed among twenty other titles in a journal – how will readers know which text you are discussing? Which theory or perspective you are taking? You should capitalize all words in your title except for prepositions (unless a preposition is at the beginning of the title, in which case you capitalize it). Your own title does not go in quotation marks. It is a mistake to imply that a particular writer is using a theory in their writing (as in this made-up example: “Judith Williamson’s Myth Structure in Poe’s ‘The Masque of the Red Death’.” The word “in” here implies that Williamson’s theory is in the story itself. Instead, you could say you are doing a reading of the story using Williamson’s theory.
  4. Research questions: The assignment prompt is not the same thing as your research question about the text you are studying. What is it you want to know about this text? Don’t make your research question too broad. To avoid writing a paper that makes little contact with evidence, make your research question about a specific text and specific things (such as particular metaphors or paradoxes, etc.) in the text. The question should be answerable with an arguable claim. Make sure your research question is relevant to your audience (of textual scholars). What do you want to know that isn’t answered adequately by available studies? Why should the question you raise matter to others? Don’t ask whether we can apply a theory to a text. I’m sure we could apply almost any theory to almost any text, but what is it you want to know about the text? Is there something specific about it that can’t be understood by other means?
  5. Thesis statement: Writing a good thesis statement is one of the most difficult tasks in academic writing. Your thesis statement should be an answer to your research question. It needs to be about a specific text or texts, rather than about a topic (like paradox) in general. Because you are stating an arguable claim, you should do more than claim you will discuss or analyze a text (these terms imply an explicatory paper, which is “about” something, and not an argumentative one that makes a claim). Avoid making vague claims that we can “understand” a text. Tell your reader the text’s meaning. Avoid making claims that are already known or generally accepted, such as that Ernest Gaines’ writing is about injustice. Tell us what actions are unjust and explain why. Avoid vague language. Stating that something is “different” or “unique” is not an arguable claim. Don’t claim that a text is an “example” of a theory. Most theories are general enough to cover a potentially infinite number of examples. Tell us what is special about a text and why it matters. Don’t claim to prove that a theory (like Cleanth Brooks’ theory of paradox) is true. Many literary theories are fairly well accepted; you can add research showing how other theorists have amended and extended their work. The theory should tell us something about a text that we can’t learn another way. Don’t claim that Mikhael Bakhtin’s theory shows us that Gaines’ work is about race because we already know that without help from the theory. Instead tell us how Gaines’ text represents discourses of race, how these discourses conflict, how a character navigates them, and so on. Keep your thesis statement as short as possible and put longer explanations in the abstract.
  6. Abstract: Explain how your research contributes to the scholarly conversation. Your abstract should explain the argument in more detail and provide an idea of what support you are using and why your claim is significant.
  7. Annotated bibliography: How are you positioning your argument in relation to that of other scholars? Which ones do you agree with or disagree with? Of the ones that agree, how will your work differ from theirs? Are you deviating from other scholarship in some ways? Building upon it? Providing meta-commentary on it? Which sources are you using for evidence? How does your work contribute to the scholarly discussion? If your proposal refers to a theory or method, include something in the bibliography about it. Sometimes one source you found will be closest to the paper you are writing. You can use it as your primary jumping off point – how does your work differ or supplement this work? Each work listed in your bibliography should have a full citation. Make sure your citations are properly formatted (MLA, APA, etc.).
  8. Stylistics: Keep proposals in present tense (unless it’s specifically about the future or the past). In other words, avoid writing “this paper will . . . ” Avoid passive voice sentences, especially agentless ones that don’t tell us who is doing what. Make sure your arguments are strong and clear and that there are few or no mechanical or style problems to slow down your reader. Your reader wants to learn and enjoy – they do not want to struggle to figure out what you mean, how your ideas are connected, or to confront style problems. Writers work harder so that their readers don’t have to. Short story titles go in quotation marks and book titles go in italics. Avoid using “this” as a stand-alone pronoun, which leads to vagueness.

If your project uses a theory outside of its normal application, then explain why it is doing so and how you are making it work. For instance, Vladimir Propp’s morphological theory is about folktales. If you are applying it to a modernist literary work, explain why Propp’s theory is relevant outside of folktales. Your reader may think, for example, that modernist works don’t follow the narrative structures of folktales and that applying Propp to one will just tell us what we already believe – that folktales and modernist literary works are different. But if applying Propp to a modernist literary work reveals something about that work we could not have understood otherwise, then by all means, use it!

Research projects take time to prepare and write. Be sure to schedule time regularly each week to do this work. Start with something very manageable like 15 minutes a day, and then if you go over that time it’s a bonus. The hardest part is starting.

Plagiarism is a serious academic offense that can lead to expulsion from the university. You must properly cite your sources, using quotation marks (or offsetting longer quotes) and providing proper citation.


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Strategies for Conducting Literary Research Copyright © 2021 by Barry Mauer & John Venecek is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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