Choosing a Topic
In your course, you have been—or will be—exploring a number of topics related to "collaboration and violence among Islamic, Christian, and Jewish communities" in Spain and Spanish cultural representations. That is, you already have a number of topics from which to choose, but each of these is too large for a focused research assignment.
By homing in on specific sub-topics within these larger categories and/or by grounding these topics in a particular text or even a particular passage from a text, you can narrow your focus enough to sustain a research project. However, this process is rarely so linear. Describing research as the act of choosing a topic and then investigating a text based on that topic misrepresents how research often unfolds. More frequently than not, we approach our topics from the opposite perspective: we are captivated, confused, or troubled by a passage, event, or theme and want to answer the questions that arise from our immediate responses to those experiences. Articulating those questions for ourselves is often the first step in research.
Broad topics, though, remain very useful because they reveal a critical dialogue (e.g., about "Morisco resistance") in which our questions might find answers. Conversely these critical dialogues can teach us how to ask good questions in the first place.
Questions that occur to us as we read are not yet focused research questions. To move from curiosity to research question we must understand a few things about our project, including (but not limited to):
- Scope — can this question(s) be adequately answered in the space allotted for my essay (12 pages)?
- Originality — does your research offer new insights on your topic? This doesn't mean that your idea must be disconnected from everything that's been written on your topic before—in fact, it should be connected—but you also don't want to tread the exact same ground that's covered by the published literature. Think about how your idea can extend, contradict, or amplify existing research.
- Relevance — does the question or problem that you address reveal something central or otherwise important about your topic or sub-topic, or does your answer have only marginal or esoteric significance?
- Audience — for whom are we writing?
Wayne C. Booth's classic The Craft of Research offers further discussion of this process and is worth exploring before you begin your research. (However, his conception of research is more linear than I view it.) See, in particular, these chapters:
- "From Topics to Questions" (connect from Haverford or Bryn Mawr)
- "From Questions to a Problem" (connect from Haverford or Bryn Mawr)
Even though Booth et al. describe a linear movement from topics to questions to problems, you should keep in mind that research doesn't always move smoothly in this direction. Sometimes research results can reveal—not merely answer/solve—questions or problems. By remembering that research is iterative and recursive—i.e., that you might shuttle back and forth between planning and research—you can feel less intimidated to start your research, understand where your interests intersect with the published literature, and how you might best refine your questions to respond to an existing scholarly dialogue.