Your major paper/project is your opportunity to work through a question or set of questions, a historical problem, or a critical or textual puzzle. The Research Question exercise requires you to articulate your guiding questions for that project and begin to put them in the context of the critical field.
Having you submit your question and bibliography before the final paper/project is due gives me an opportunity to help you refine or redirect your question(s) if/as necessary and to point you towards other useful sources. I’m looking mainly for evidence of a concerted effort to pose a viable question whose answering claim may (with some revisions) make an original contribution to the study of early modern London’s literature and culture. Hint: I more frequently encounter research questions that are too broadly framed than questions that are too narrowly framed.
Writing annotations helps you organize the criticism meaningfully and helps you summarize it in preparation for writing “state of the art” footnotes.
- To have some experience of articulating and justifying a research question (or guiding question) or cluster of questions
- To test your research question against the critical field and determine if it is an as-yet-unanswered question that will make an original contribution to the field
- To obtain and respond to feedback (as you will have to do in thesis proposals, grant proposals, book proposals, reviewers’ reports, and other exercises in your future)
- To learn to write annotations that may become part of your critical overview and/or endnotes in your final project.
- Come talk to me about your project! Discussion is a crucial first step.
- Write one paragraph in which you set out the problem you wish to explore, the question(s) you wish to answer, and/or the historical and/or critical oversight you wish to address. Indicate your methodology and your answering claim (however tentative they may be at this point). The claim (i.e., thesis) will likely change as you do more research and begin writing, but it’s useful to have a tentative thesis early in the research process.
- Provide a working bibliography in which you list at least one primary source and at least five critical sources. Format your citations in MLA style, Chicago style, OR MoEML’s style (which is a modified version of MLA).
- Annotate three of the critical sources with summary-style annotations.
Finding Your Question(s)
Samuel Johnson wrote that “To talk in public, to think in solitude, to read and to hear, to inquire and answer inquiries is the business of a scholar.” We spend a great deal of time talking about formulating a thesis statement in response to a topic. But a thesis statement is ultimately no more than an answer to a research question (or a guiding question). I believe that our first responsibility as scholars is “to inquire” – to ask the questions to which we and our fellow scholars want answers. We need to approach our subject with genuine curiosity and open-mindedness, rather than with an agenda or a preformulated argument. If you do a good job of formulating your research question, the answer will be the natural product of your research. Of course, there may be many answers to one research question, depending upon the sources we look at, the critical approach we take, the theory we apply, and the ineffable factors of the scholar’s individual inclinations and background. But we cannot formulate a thesis statement until we have worked out our answer to our research question. In Johnson’s statement, the business of inquiring precedes the business of answering inquiries.
If you begin with a question rather than a topic, you will find that your research is both more pointed and, ultimately, more exciting. You won’t be blown off course by articles and sources that look interesting but don’t help you answer your question (although “reading” and “hearing” – taking the time to understand fully someone else’s point of view or argument – are also important aspects of scholarly work). You may even have one of those glorious “Aha!” moments in the library, when you find the very source that opens up a new aspect of your question and leads you to answer your question in a wholly surprising way.
So how do you find your questions? We have questions all the time as we read. Sometimes we forget those questions because we don’t make a note of them. Or we might hurry over them because we feel uncomfortable with our own bewilderment. Read with a pencil in your hand. Sometimes an inarticulate marginal “?!?” is all I can muster when I read, but at least I know there’s something I want to revisit at this point in the text. Note anything that seems odd, that invites comparison to some other text, that challenges a received paradigm, that requires you to consult a reference work, that puzzles you, that challenges your sense of what early modern literature or London is all about. Further questions develop as we compare texts, assess the criticism, dig up new primary materials, and reconceptualize primary materials. Has the textual criticism overlooked something that deserves comment?
If you are committed to a topic and want to develop questions that belong within that topic, try a “question-generator” table. For example, if I were committed to writing a critical introduction to an edition of The Merchant of Venice (as I am, in fact!) and determined to challenge the current critical paradigm that aligns usury with Shylock and mercantilism with Antonio (as I am!), I would first generate a list of keywords. I might start with merchants, moneylenders, Jews, Gentiles, interest, usance, for example. Then I would put the keywords on two axes and start putting the keywords in apposition/juxtaposition to see what questions I can generate that will help me interrogate the received notion that the merchants are Christians and the usurer is Jewish. It does not matter which axis you consider first, as long as you are consistent. If, in cell B1 you think about merchants:usurers (X-axis first), in A2 you think about usurers:merchants (again, X-axis first). Sometimes the apposition/juxtaposition is non-generative. I won’t fill in the entire chart, but you’ll get a sense of the kinds of questions that you might generate just by thinking about these terms:
|A. merchants||B. usurers||C. Jews||D. Gentiles||E. Interest||F. usance|
|Do merchants lend to merchants?||Do usurers lend to merchants?||Are there any Jewish merchants? Jews versus/and/as merchants?||Are there any Gentile merchants? Gentiles versus/and/as merchants?||How much interest do merchants charge?||How much usance do merchants charge?|
|Are there any merchants who function as usurers? How do merchants interact economically with usurers?||What’s the relationship between usurers? Is there competition, collaboration?||Are all the Jews usurers? What’s the relationship between Jews and usurers? Do Jews self-identify as usurers? Who calls Jews usurers?||Are any of the Gentiles usurers?||How much interest do usurers charge?|
|Are there merchants who are Jews? How do merchants interact economically with Jews?||Do the Jews all have the same eco practices? Are Tubal and Shylock comparable?|
|Are all merchants Gentiles? What’s the relationship between merchants and Gentiles?||Think about the term “gentle.” Who uses the term? Does it have economic valence as well as religious valence?|
|Do merchants charge interest? pay interest? When?||Do usurers ever charge legitimate interest or is it always “usance”? Think about definitions and terminology.||What makes interest “interest” and not “usance”?||What’s the difference between usance and interest? Does it matter who is making the judgement?|
|When do merchants use the term “usance”? What does it mean?||When do usurers use the term “usance”? What does it mean?||How can you tell if interest is usance or not? Who gets to decide? On what grounds?||What makes usance “usance” and not “interest”?|
Suggestions: do the same thing with characters, add more terms, combine terms, and combine questions that you’ve generated.
90% of these questions won’t merit a scholarly article, although for me some of these questions have led to great classroom material or footnotes in articles. And sometimes you need to ask the question in order to know that it won’t lead you anywhere or that it’s already been answered or that it can’t be answered right now or by you. But the other 10% become your intellectual capital, the ever-growing collection of questions that you want to resolve in your scholarly work.
The kinds of questions that you will be posing for our class discussions will prepare you to pose the question(s) for your major paper/project . Many of those questions would serve as the beginnings of a term paper RQ, although I suggest you check with your colleagues if you want to develop a question that someone else has posed. In addition, the research paper offers you the opportunity to address a gap in the criticism, or to rectify a trend in the criticism that you think misses the mark somehow and/or doesn’t fully make sense of some aspect of the text(s); some projects even take the gap in the criticism as their research problem.
How to Write an Annotation
A general rule of thumb is that your annotation needs to paraphrase the research question and thesis of the critical article, indicate its methodology, delineate the scope and nature of the evidence presented, and summarize the conclusion(s) (if different from the thesis). Note that sentence fragments beginning with present-tense verbs are the norm; the fragment always begins with the unstated but implied “This article….” Some useful verbs include: asks, interrogates, queries, argues, juxtaposes, invokes, claims, studies, surveys, deals with, traces, employs, adheres to (an approach), emphasizes, compares, outlines. For more information, consult James L. Harner, On Compiling an Annotated Bibliography, 2nd ed. (New York: MLA, 1991), 8-9 and especially 22-27 on how to write the annotations. I have a copy in my office.
You may also wish to have a look at some annotated bibliographies. Check out the Z section of the Reference collection. You will find several thousand annotated bibliographies shelved there. Year’s Work in English Studies (YWES) provides prose-style overviews of the work in each subdiscipline, including reviews of new journals.
Sample bibliographic entries (MLA 7th ed.) and annotations for articles and book chapters, with explanations below of the parts of my annotation.
Kahn, Michael. Prologue. Teaching Shakespeare Through Performance. Ed. Milla Cozart Riggio. New York: MLA, 1999. 19-29. Print. Explains how a director moved from cutting texts to produce reductive readings of plays to being willing to explore the contradictions. Taking Merchant of Venice and Henry V as examples, focuses on “Let all of his complexion choose me so” line, and issue of whether or not the latter is pro or anti-war. Argues that “fixed points of view” make a production “more the artist’s play than Shakespeare’s” (28).
My statement of the research question: Explains how a director moved from cutting texts to produce reductive readings of plays to being willing to explore the contradictions.
My statement of the methodology: Taking Merchant of Venice and Henry V as examples, focuses on “Let all of his complexion choose me so” line, and issue of whether or not the latter is pro or anti-war.
My statement of the thesis and conclusion, which, in this essay, both come near the end (which is point-last writing, but it’s not your job in an annotation to rewrite the essay): Argues that “fixed points of view” make a production “more the artist’s play than Shakespeare’s” (28). [Note that brief quotations are acceptable in an annotation. Always give the page number(s).]
Osborne, Laurie E. “Antonio’s Pardon.” Shakespeare Quarterly 45 (1994): 108-14. Print. Asks how actor-managers of the nineteenth century handled the problem of Antonio’s unresolved status in the final scene of Twelfth Night. Acting editions show the addition of a six- or eight-line pardon. Stage directions in these texts show that the productions anticipated and often tried to contain what modern critics have identified as homoeroticism between Antonio and Sebastian.
My statement of the research question: Asks how actor-managers of the nineteenth century handled the problem of Antonio’s unresolved status in the final scene of Twelfth Night.
My statement of the methodology and nature of the evidence: Acting editions show the addition of a six- or eight-line pardon. Stage directions in these texts…
My statement of the thesis and conclusion: …show that the productions anticipated and often tried to contain what modern critics have identified as homoeroticism between Antonio and Sebastian.