Sophia A. McClennen’s Guide to Dissertations (and Theses)

in Comparative Literature

Or, How to Tell the Difference between an Idea and an Argument

[N.B. The ideas expressed in this document are mine and they are not meant to reflect the department’s views.  As always the best course of action is to consult with your advisor on all matters relating to the formation of your research questions.] 

Students writing dissertations in cmlit face a number of challenges. They work across languages, regions, cultural forms and historical periods. The dissertation should reflect their intellectual formation and future fields of research, while also being specific enough to allow them to develop a coherent argument.

In my experience students tend to start with an idea and sometimes have difficulty turning that idea into an argument.  If asked what is your dissertation about? They will answer with a description of the areas they are working in.  They might say, I am working on women’s prison literature or I am studying representations of the environment in colonial discourse or I am interested in pre-modern travel narratives.  When I hear answers like these I suspect that they may not actually have a thesis, but are still at the stage where they have a general field of interest. This problem becomes especially visible as students prepare for job interviews. When they can’t quickly, clearly, and intelligently explain the thesis of their dissertation it is often an indication that they themselves are still not sure what their thesis argues.

According to Robert Pape, you should ask yourself five questions about your proposal and thesis: •What is your question? •Why is it important? •What are the existing answers? •What is your answer? •How can you show that you are right and others are wrong?

Getting to Know the Field:

If you want to determine whether you have moved from an idea to an argument try this exercise:*

1.      Describe the subject area(s) of your thesis. (Here you might have answers like the ones I mentioned above).

2.      What are the central concerns, approaches, and debates that have shaped research on these areas?

a.       What are the chief critical texts that have shaped these areas of research and what are their main arguments? 

b.      To be sure you have a handle on this try to fill in the following blanks:

If you do this exercise you should be able to see how your research grows out of an already existing field, how it makes an original contribution by positioning itself within existing research, and how it proposes an argument that will advance understanding of your topic. Saying that you are working on something that has never been studied is a bad sign.  It means that either you don’t know the already existing research in your field—or worse—it means that you have no field. Every argument no matter how innovative has its precursors. You need to be aware of them and of your work’s relationship to them.  One of the tendencies of comparative research is to put discrete fields of research into dialogue.  If that is your project, then make sure that you have an argument about why putting them into dialogue is intellectually valuable.

Irene L. Clark suggests selecting three to four “text partners” that can narrow the critical scope and allow students to focus their questions (147).* The idea is to imagine these texts engaged in a conversation about the topic you are writing on.  Your role is to participate in that conversation and that means showing respect for the texts you are dialoguing with, showing how your ideas connect with theirs, and explaining how your ideas are of interest to them.  If you imagine this scenario then you are less likely to commit another common pitfall for early dissertation writing: Some students assume that everything anyone has ever written about this topic is absolutely inane and that their brilliant work will rescue this group of imbeciles from listening to themselves.  I don’t doubt your brilliance, but I would caution against taking a hostile view of all existing scholarship that relates to your field.  Even if you are taking a radically different view of the field, it is a good idea to recognize how your own ideas are indebted to previous scholarship.

Selecting Primary Sources:

Another tricky area for cmlit students is justifying/explaining their primary sources since very often students have a fairly wide range of texts from which to choose.   It is essential that you explain how and why your texts advance your argument.  There are a number of directions these arguments can take:

1.      I have chosen these texts because they are canonical, because they have been overlooked by scholars, or because they best represent the topic I am pursuing.  In each case, though, you would have to explain yourself because those are pretty vague “reasons”.  Saying that you are comparing certain texts because they have not been compared before is not an argument either.  In fact, if they have never been compared before there may be a good reason. (Sometimes the real answer is –because I really like these books, but you will have to find a more sophisticated way of explaining yourself.)

2.      Then there is the question of why the particular array of texts.  Here you are making an argument about why this range of works helps advance your argument.  This is where your position as comparatists comes out. What are you comparing and why are these the best texts to represent what you are comparing?   If you have one canonical text and one lesser known you will have to explain this or if you have four Latin American novels and one Canadian one, you will have to make a clear justification for the logic of this selection. I think that comparatists have to be especially wary of making the mistake of suggesting that the one text they use is paradigmatic of a larger phenomenon. Of course, we tend to make these generalizations and we need to make them for our work to have resonance, but when you analyze one novel from French Canada, for instance, you have to be wary of whether your argument suggests that that one novel is meant to stand in for all French Canadian novels.  Comparison should lead to nuance –not to stereotyping.

Answering the Big Question:

As far as I can tell cmlit students at Penn State are fortunate to work in a fairly supportive environment of collegiality.  When I was a student the common dissertation question one heard most often from peers was: Who cares?  It always felt hostile and nasty—but actually it was pretty good practice for academic life. If you really want to know whether you have moved from an idea to an argument you should be able to answer “the big question:” Who cares?  Why is your work of importance? Why would anyone besides your committee and your mom want to read this? The answer may be modest.  You may say that your work will be of interest to a small group of scholars worried about a particular issue.  Or you may have a more ambitious answer that your work will change the way we all study literature. It is most likely that your answer falls somewhere along this spectrum.  Regardless of the degree of ambition, you need to be clear about who cares and why they should care.  Once you can answer “the big question” the rest is easy. (OK maybe that is an exaggeration…you still have to write the thing.)

Here are some more websites with valuable advice on Dissertation writing:

*These questions were adapted from an article by Irene L. Clark “Entering the Conversation: Graduate Thesis Proposals as Genre” Profession 2005: 151.

Other Links:

This page was last updated on 15-05-2006.