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Writing the Research Paper

Unit I: Selecting the Topic

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Course Syllabus for Writing the Research Paper

Unit I: Identifying the Research Paper Subject

In the fall semester of her junior year, the Humanities student shall write two research themes of at least 2000 words each, on some aspect of a single area of the humanities, such as history, literature, art, music, religion, or the history of science. The themes should discuss the current context of a modern issue, and its roots and development in the ancient, medieval, and Renaissance periods. One of these themes must be written in the foreign language she is studying. In spring of her junior year, the student shall write a research paper of at least 7000 words on an interdisciplinary theme relating two or more fields in the humanities.

...Successful completion of the Core Curriculum in Humanities is required for graduation...

Paraphrased from the requirements for students in the Core Curriculum in Humanities, Scripps College for Women, 1968, devised by Philip Merlan

Introductory Remarks

The dread moment has arrived, when you are assigned a research paper. Not a homework assignment, which would cover only material in books you already own or material listed in the course syllabus. Not an exam essay, which, having mastered the techniques of the first year dialectic student, you could now dash off in an hour or two after studying the material covered by the essay subject. A research paper means wracking your brains to find a topic that you can stand to think about for six or seven weeks (or, if you are going for your Ph.D., six or seven years) and that will also be something your instructor will approve. A research paper means setting your own boundaries for the topic and hoping you covered enough material, because 40% of your course grade rests on the paper. A research paper means trips in the rain to the library to look at material that doesn't circulate, endless hours waiting for web pages to load, smudged 3x5 cards full of notes you may not need, and actually cleaning up your room to find that blue Sticky Note with the page number for the final citation you need to footnote before you can turn the thing in and get some sleep.

A research paper can also be fun. Research is about answering questions. If you ask a question that interests you, find the answer, and share it with others, you've given something of yourself to others. If you ask a question that also interests others, you've helped them in their job, whatever it is.

Points for this Unit

Defining the subject of your research

As with writing the essay, the first step in writing the research paper is to determine its purpose. Research involves asking a question and looking for the answer, but questions are never asked in a vacuum. You need to be aware of the context of the question. What assumptions will you make to start with?

Other factors affect the context of the question you may ask. Are you writing on an assigned subject? You will probably still need to limit your approach to it. Are you free to chose your area with some broad parameters? Then you may need make more decisions. Either way, start with listing the possibilities facing you.

Suppose that you are taking a course on filmmaking, and you need to write a paper on the American movie. That's all the teacher has specified for the subject matter; but he's added the requirement that your paper cannot focus on a single movie, actor, or producer. The context of the question then is to some extent dictated by the instructor and the course material so far, which presumes that such a thing as a distinctly American movie exists, and that it is definable. [If your course has defined this, then you need to stick to that definition or explain any deviations from it as you move along.]


Now you need to generate ideas. This is a creative process; you may want to do a little research ahead of time, and review class notes or check a couple of definitions. Then you need to find a half-hour or so when you can think about the possibilities for addressing the subject assigned and write down all of them — no matter how silly they sound — for later analysis.

First brainstorm. Ask yourself questions about the proposed subject and give some suggestions for answers). Make lists of things that go together. If you have a hard time doing this by yourself, find another student and make it a word association game. Move quickly from one idea to the next, and don't criticize anything yet.

  1. What is the American movie? What makes it "American"? (location, story, purpose, marketing techniques, conventions in presentation, actors?)
  2. Are there themes, trends, techniques that have developed during the history of movie-making in America?
  3. Where are American movies made? (location, studio vs. independent films)
  4. How does the American movie reflect American culture? — and what do we mean by “culture”?
  5. Development of genre films (mystery, science fiction, horror, war movies, westerns, cops, action, musicals, danced)
  6. Techniques (color, black & white, sound, special effects, computer animation, musical scores)


By now, you should have gone from one extreme to the other. Instead of wondering how to come up with one subject, you are going to have to make a decision. Which of all the fascinating ideas you've written down do you have the time and energy to pursue, and which of those will fit the requirements of the assignment? Usually, there is an overlap between what you want to write and something you have to write.

Here, a survey of multiple movies seems most suited to the teacher's aim. Let's say that you are interested in genre movies like musicals and science fiction. Perhaps an interesting research subject would combine points of questions 1, 4, and 5 above.

Refining the Purpose of the Research

Now look at your ideas in terms of the purpose of your paper. This may be something that you choose, but it is often something dictated by the instructor.

For our example, we can combine some aspects of each of these. We will need authorities on how film affects and reflects culture; we'll need to look at particular examples of genre films and the periods that produced them, and we'll need to ask a question about the relationship of those films to the culture that we can try to answer.

Recognizing “bad” research subjects

Just as there are poorly stated essay questions, so there are also bad research subjects.

  1. The subject must involve a question to be solved by research and analysis. Some kinds of subjects are appropriate for written work, but don't involve research. For example, an essay in which you express your own opinion, or argue for a specific interpretation of a theological or philosophical work, does not easily translate into a research paper. Other subjects are too narrow: a close reading of Sonnet XXV by Shakespeare is not a good research subject....but an investigation into interpretations proposed by different people, into the context in which the Sonnet was written, or into the influence of the Sonnet on other writers are all good research possibilities.
  2. The question must be answerable. Asking whether planets orbiting Sirius B have atmospheres is interesting, and the answer will have a profound impact on our understanding of the formation of planets in our own and other star systems, and on the question of whether there is life elsewhere in the universe, but we currently don't have the tools at our disposal to answer the question2.
  3. The question must be answerable by the resources available to you, including time. It may be possible to write the history of the Civil War (a lot of people have tried), but you won't have the time to do the research in one semester. You will need to limit the scope of your research to something doable, say, the course of a given battle and its significance or effect on the outcome of the war. Or you might want to explore the population of an English village over a two hundred year period, but don't have the funds to travel to England and work your way through the parish registers...unless you happen to choose a village whose data has been digitized and made available over the Internet.
  4. Apply the appropriate limitations for the subject at hand. Limit your history subject by geographical area, time period, or nationality or to a specific group of people or a single event. Limit your literature paper to specific but related works, perhaps by one author and to one kind of analysis (close reading, comparison of characters, structure, themes). Limit your science paper to related objects that can be investigated using the same techniques.

Here, the teacher has limited movies to "American" ones, so we should stick to those produced in or by American studios or independents. We cannot survey all of the thousands of movies made, so we'll pick a couple with which we are already familiar, and which are related to time periods or aspects of American culture that are easily defined. We want to ask something about how genre movies like musicals and science fiction reflect American culture, and we will need to say something about why these are more likely to be distinctly American than a general drama movie (maybe by comparison with some foreign films).

Writing the Research Proposal

Having gone through the analysis of possible subjects and narrowed them down, you now need to explain the context of your question, state the question, and propose how you will answer it. Notice that you don't yet give the answer, because at this stage, you should not prejudice your research by assuming that you even know the answer!

Assumptions/Context: Movie-making is a primarily American form of art, having originated in Holywood during the early 1900s. Even with the spread of movie-making efforts first to England (which adopted it early, because of its own fascination with and traditions of stage drama) and then to other countries, most movies still come from studios in the United States. Some movie genres remain primarily an American effort even now. Westerns, of course, reflect a specific period in American history. But the genres of the musical and the science fiction movie, which are not necessarily bound to specific historical incidents, appear to be peculiarly American.

Research Question: Why are most musicals and science fiction movies American in origin? What aspects of American culture do they reflect?

Proposal for Solving it: Identify and examine several typical musicals from the big MGM period (1940s-1960s) and several science fiction movies from the 1950s-2000. Identify common themes and show how they are related to contemporary events or issues in American history. This will require looking at the scripts or viewing the movies, researching chronologies for contemporary events, and looking at political and cultural implications of those events and their possible relationship to the ideas and themes expressed int he selected films.

1The mystery Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey is in fact the story of a Scotland Yard Inspector's attempt to solve the historical question of whether Richard III killed his nephews; no one knows for sure.

2Since this unit was originally designed, significant work has been done and as of December 2021, nearly 5000 exoplanets discovered, but none so far in orbit around Sirius B with mass as great as 10 Jupiter masses. There may be smaller planets, but we still don't have the ability to determine their atmospheres.

Assignment for this Unit

  1. Consult with your other teachers and find out if you need to write a research paper for their courses, when such papers are due, and whether a paper for this course will be acceptable. If so, you will need to work with both your subject matter teacher and with me to come up with the research question.
  2. If you do not have an assignment for a research paper from another course, chose your own topic, or one of the following as the basis for your proposal:
    • What elements of European mythology does Tolkien (or Lewis) use in his works of fantasy? How does his use of these elements differ from their appearance in the original mythology?
    • How is the imagery of the forest used in early American literature?
    • Compare the women's suffragette movement in England with that in America.
    • Did Richard III kill the princes in the Tower? (best guess based on historical evidence)
    • Choose a Hall-of-Fame baseball player or other major sports figure and write a history of his or her career.
    • How did Robert Hooke's education and personal philosophy of nature enable him to make specific scientific discoveries? (Or chose some other scientist, such as Isaac Newton, Antoine Lavoisier, Joseph Priestley, Robert Boyle, Michael Faraday, Maria Mitchell, or Marie Curie)?
    • Write a biography of one of your great-grandparents. (The web has lots of genealogy information.)
    • How did the image of the scientist in advertising change between 1945 (the end of World War II and the successful detonation of the atom bomb) and 1965 (following the Surgeon General's report that scientists could not find conclusive proof that tabacco consumption caused cancer in specific cases)?
    • What is the significance of a key (the physical kind, that opens doors) in medieval and Renaissance art? Use specific examples. [or chose some other widely used symbol].
  3. Brainstorm for AT LEAST 30 MINUTES and write down everything that occurs to you about the possible subject.
  4. Analyze your ideas and identify THREE that particularly interest you and fit the assignment.
  5. Reformat your ideas as a research question. Check to make sure that the question is answerable by resources available to you (you may need to do some checking!) and appropriately limited.
  6. Write your research proposal in the format given above, including the assumptions and context of your question, the question itself, and your proposal for solving it.

Enter your response directly into the Scholars Online Writing the Research Paper Moodle forum for this unit. Review the submissions from your fellow students and offer constructive criticism to help them refine their ideas.