Understanding the Assignment

Barry Mauer and John Venecek

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Be sure you fully understand your instructor’s assignment before you begin your research. If there are terms in the assignment you don’t understand or methods you don’t yet know how to do, you will need to obtain this knowledge as soon as possible. The best source for information about your assignment is the person who gave the assignment (usually your instructor). For additional help understanding the assignment, visit the UCF Writing Center and/or the Student Academic Resource Center (SARC).

Jada’s assignment was to write a 10-12 page paper that analyzed a work of literature (she chose James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues”) while employing two schools of criticism and citing five scholarly sources using the MLA format. This is a fairly common but deceptively complex literary studies research assignment. Instructors might also stipulate that your research includes biographical or historical information about your chosen subject. Other kinds of research can include textual analysis, comparative readings, genre studies, or theory-based approaches. We discuss various theories and methods in future chapters. For now, we will discuss four major types of research projects: interpretive, critical, historical, and creative.

Intended Audience for the Project

Audience awareness is an important aspect of good writing (and one we will discuss many times throughout this course). If your instructor does not stipulate an intended audience, assume you are writing for a journal of literary studies and that your classmates, or other students and literary scholars, are your imagined audience. It can be tempting to think of your instructor as your audience since they will be reading and grading your paper. However, you should avoid doing so, unless told otherwise. Rather, think of your instructor as an editor who gives an assignment and evaluates your work for publication. The true “audience” in this case would be the readers of your real or imagined journal.

Different journals and conferences favor certain kinds of research over others and you should explore a few journals to see what kinds of research they publish. It is useful to review the submission guidelines for various literary journals and conferences to find out what kinds of research they prefer. Many journals publish articles with very specific formatting and methodology requirements, and learning about them can provide insight to beginning researchers. By studying the field, you can also be more prepared if, or when, you’re considering graduate school or thinking about writing beyond class assignments. Publishing and presenting on a more professional level awaits!

Purpose of the Project

The typical purpose of a research project in literary studies is to convince an audience to share your conclusion about a work of literature (or about a genre, a historical period, an author, a theory, etc.). Thus, you want to make a well-supported case to convince your reader to adopt your understanding, and not some other understanding. The research method you choose (and your effectiveness in using it) will determine whether you succeed.

Understanding the Assignment Prompts, Guidelines, and Expectations

It’s common to begin a research project with a broad topic that you refine and focus throughout your research. Jada’s journey started with a general interest in James Baldwin’s short story, “Sonny’s Blues,” but became a more clear, complex, and focused question that drove her research.

First, Jada needed to know the parameters of the assignment. Instructors may provide a specific prompt focused on a particular literary work, an author, a literary form, a historical period, a theme, a theory, a method, or some other aspect of literary studies. Or, the instructor may offer a choice of prompts. The instructor may require that your project argue for or against a certain proposition. Alternatively, the instructor may leave the assignment open-ended, requiring students to identify their own topic and produce their own prompt (otherwise known as a research question).

In addition, the instructor may list other requirements for your research project such as page length, number and type of sources, citation format, style guidelines, etc. Be sure to familiarize yourself with all these requirements before you begin your project; you don’t want to get to the deadline only to realize you needed five more citations, your paper is five pages too short, and you don’t know the difference between MLA and APA formats. The best source for information about the research project guidelines is your instructor. If you have questions about the assignment or just want to go over the requirements before you begin your work, please ask your instructor for help. They are there to help you!

For more advice on How to Read an Assignment, consider the following from Harvard College Writing Center:[1]

  • Beware of straying. Especially in the draft stage, “discussion” and “analysis” can lead you from one intrinsically interesting problem to another, then another, and then … You may wind up following a garden of forking paths and lose your way. To prevent this, stop periodically while drafting your essay and reread the assignment. Its purposes are likely to become clearer.
  • Consider the assignment in relation to previous and upcoming assignments. Ask yourself what is new about the task you’re setting out to do. Instructors often design assignments to build in complexity. Knowing where an assignment falls in this progression can help you concentrate on the specific, fresh challenges at hand.

The Role of Analysis in Research Projects

Research projects should make an argument, which should not be confused with an analysis. An analysis does not necessarily pose any arguments. Any research project must include some analysis, but this analysis must be used to support an interpretive, critical, or historical claim/argument (or to give a creative work some rhetorical function).

Analytical work will help you better understand a literary text. The goal of analysis is to describe what type a text is, how it functions, what its parts or elements are, and how it achieves its effects. You must do an analysis, but you should not stop there; an analysis is a necessary part of creating an argument. Later in this course, we will discuss how you use analysis to build your arguments.

Key Takeaways



Understand all key terms and instructions in your assignment. Start work without a clear idea of what the assignment requires you to do.
Communicate first with your instructor to get clarification and advice about the assignment. Begin by asking other people (not the instructor) to help you understand the assignment.
Determine the type of research project you will be conducting: Interpretive, critical, historical, or creative. Write a purely analytical or descriptive paper that lacks an argument.
Imagine your audience as readers of a journal in which your research article will appear. Imagine your audience as your instructor; the instructor is more like an editor than an audience member.
Write to convince/to persuade. Write to (merely) inform.
Determine if the assignment is limited in terms of subject or topic, or open-ended. Assume that the assignment is open-ended, unless clearly specified.
Familiarize yourself with requirements such as page length, citation format, and style guidelines. Wait to figure out things like page length, citation format, and style guidelines.

The following pages will include more details about types of research projects and Jada’s project, including short videos of her discussing her approach to finding resources, establishing relevance, refining and evaluating her research question, and managing her research.

Understanding the Assignment [Refresher]

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  1. Rice, William C. “How to Read an Assignment.” Writingcenter.fas.harvard.edu, 2022, https://writingcenter.fas.harvard.edu/pages/how-read-assignment.


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