Academic myths and stories circulate from teachers to students and supervisors to postgraduates. As a young PhD candidate, I was told how Stuart Hall managed the doctoral programme at the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies. I never found out if this story was true or simply repeated to frighten would-be researchers. But – so the myth goes – in his interviews with prospective research students, he would ask one question that would determine whether or not a student would gain entry into the university and the centre.
After a discussion of qualifications and expectations, Hall asked his prospective student: “What is your area of research interest?” Supposedly most students were so in awe of a masters or doctoral qualification (and probably Stuart Hall) that they would often reply “Whatever you think” or “I’ll be guided by you”. Considering the radical nature of the centre’s project, this was the wrong answer. The students – as a demonstration of commitment and ability – needed to know their own minds and have an already existing issue that they were burning with the desire to understand.
I have retold this apocryphal story to doctoral students through the years, and they agree with his killer question. They know their own perspective and passions. They (only) need me to help with “the how”. Finding research topics and being inspired by scholarship is not their problem. But there is another group that is not yet part of – and may never reach – our doctoral programmes. What about coursework masters students and their dissertations? Can Stuart Hall’s mythic interview-stopper (“What is your area of research interest?”) apply to them? Frequently they are managing an interdisciplinary field, burgeoning coursework modules, a new university or country and often a foreign language. In the frantic framework of one-year masters, it is useful to ponder how these students can be initiated into a research culture.
If students do not hold a commitment to ideas and argument, then they should not be in a postgraduate programme. But our new (to) research students require some scaffolding and support. The issue is if (and then how) we can teach students to find an idea strong enough to propel a 20,000-word thesis.
This is not an abstract concern. Many of us run induction programmes for our masters students. When I planned my orientation day, I left a 30-minute slot to discuss their dissertation. When writing the induction materials to fill this timetable, I was confronted by the “Stuart Hall question”. Should my new students have passionate ideas bursting from their brain, or should I explain in rational and controlled terms how a research topic can be managed?
I took the latter option. At its most basic, I wanted to help these new postgraduates locate and isolate a great idea that would inspire, motivate and challenge them, while also leaving space for their metaphoric answer to Stuart Hall’s question. But perhaps one of the consequences of widening participation and the internationalisation of the British academy is that it is increasingly important to reveal and discuss our expectations and hopes. If we – who have had the benefits of an elite, aloof, sink-or-swim, supervise-yourself-I-am-busy-with-my-own-research postgraduate experience – want to make sure that the generations that follow do not waste time remaking our mistakes, then we need to share the knowledge we have naturalised in our daily working lives.
To help my MA students structure their ideas, I wrote two lists to help them translate their past experiences into a current research environment. One list assisted the framing of a dissertation topic, the other warned of “Titanic moments”, the icebergs/issues to avoid and recognise.
How do I pick a dissertation topic?
1. You make a connection between two different modules. That connection or link may be the basis of a research idea.
2. You read an inspiring article and want to apply it “out there”. The application makes a great dissertation.
3. You read a great piece of research, but it is dated. Updating these ideas for current conditions forms a strong dissertation.
4. There is a gap in a field. The best research emerges when we note an absence or silence in a book, article or discipline.
5. Writing about the “how” of research creates a fine thesis. If one of the research methods interests you, then write a dissertation on that approach to scholarship.
6. You read an article and want to retrace and reconfigure the ideas on to another platform. Perhaps you read an article on fandom or popular culture and then wish to extend and trial this topic through sound, vision or a convergent web platform.
7. You read a case study about one city, region or nation and want to apply an approach or policy to another location.
8. You completely disagree with a particular writer or idea. You construct a research project providing a detailed engagement and response to their views.
9. You are interested in writing, so you construct a thesis that expresses and explores the strengths and limitations of academic writing and/in research.
10. You wish to base your work around a particular text or artefact of popular culture. It may be a song, film, poster, blog or photograph. You take this small component of culture and read something large – class, race, religion, terrorism, war, nationalism – through it. Great theses are produced this way.
These options seemed to help them discover and shape a research question and dissertation topic. But the second list seemed to help even more in the year following that orientation day. It logged the icebergs of research at the start of their journey. They have followed this map and it has guided their journey through the coursework units.
Ten tips to avoid the Titanic moments in dissertations:
1. Make your dissertation topic as small as possible. This thesis is not your life’s work. It is a masters dissertation.
2. Work out your argument. What are you trying to say? You should be able to answer the question “What are you writing your dissertation about?” in one sentence. If you cannot explain your project in a few words, then your research project is too large.
3. Write strong notes throughout the modules and log your references and quotations with accuracy.
4. Open a file for your bibliography and/or references today, rather than before you start writing the dissertation at the end of the academic year.
5. Work out the structure of your chapters and project as early as possible. The traditional masters normally has an introduction, three chapters, a conclusion and a bibliography. Open files on your computer with these headings.
6. Every idea or concept of relevance to your thesis should be inserted into these headings/computer files. These small sentences and quotations will assist your writing process. When you start your dissertation in earnest, you will have a file brimming with ideas waiting to be expanded into considered prose.
7. Be innovative with form and structure. Take risks. Challenge the limitations of academic writing and MA dissertations. Read other dissertations, but decide how your research will be different.
8. Plan your time. High grades are given to the most effectively drafted scripts. The best dissertations will require a month of drafting before submission.
9. Ask librarians about the databases and information that may be available to you and for your area. They have expertise in this field. Similarly, talk to your supervisor about any worries you have.
10. Write about something that is pertinent to you. That passion creates the best dissertations. If you are not enthusiastic about the thesis or research, then how can you excite anyone else?
Tip No 10 is a homage to Hall’s mythical question. The previous nine points move students to a place where their passion and commitment for ideas are rewarded.
At the famous 1990 Cultural Studies Conference in Urbana, Illinois, Hall told a gathered audience gripped by his words and life: “I think anybody who is into cultural studies seriously as an intellectual practice must feel, on their pulse, its ephemerality, its insubstantiality, how little it registers, how little we’ve been able to change anything or get anybody to do anything. If you don’t feel that as one tension in the work that you are doing, theory has let you off the hook.”
The subsequent 20 years have only increased the disconnection between the object of study and the rationale for study. By structuring and acknowledging the early stages of research and revealing our assumptions of scholarship, some of the ephemerality and insubstantiality of our passionate and powerful paradigm may register, change and transform. Such a project can start with our coursework masters students, but it must not end there.