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4.3 The Research Essay -- "Imaging" Your Topic

Once you have the topic under control, now is the time to use the powers of your intelligence and "image" the topic. We've discussed "imaging" already. You must be able to see your topic in your mind--you must conceive before you can execute. What does the topic look like? Does it interest you? Will it interest anyone else? Can you see certain sections of the essay? Do you have a mental image? This is important.

To get you started quicker, ask yourself what it is that you are most intent on finding out about the subject. In other words, you have already selected a general topic. Now is the time to narrow it down to something more specific (that is, something which better meets the confines of the research essay). Will you be describing something? analyzing? comparing? criticizing? Have you decided to investigate a large block of historical time? or just a small episode embodied within it? Ask yourself as many questions as you can. Write them down if that helps. Conceptualize the topic as much as possible and the execution of the essay will be that much easier.

You also need to look at your topic realistically. Obviously, no one would contemplate a topic so broad as "A History of Europe, 1648-1996," for an essay only twenty pages in length. Not only could you not condense 350 years of European history in twenty pages, fifteen weeks is hardly enough time to do the research for a longer study, even if it were possible.

If you know very little about your topic, your first task is obviously to learn more. Suppose your general topic is the Age of Enlightenment. This a broad topic. Consult an encyclopedia. You will run across names (Diderot, Rousseau, Voltaire, Paine), events (Lisbon Earthquake, French Revolution), and ideas (scepticism, deism, liberty). Perhaps one of these things strikes your fancy. Suddenly, you find yourself attracted to Tom Paine's essay The Age of Reason, in general, and his ideas on deism in particular. You begin to ask yourself questions: who was Tom Paine? what is deism? who were the deists? why did deism appear when it did? what effect does deism have on the movement for parliamentary reform in England in the 1790s? Then, for whatever reason, you are led to an entirely different topic, say, English political radicals in the age of the French Revolution. Through your discovery of Paine's Rights of Man, you encounter the radical philosopher William Godwin. He was an anarchist which is odd because he was writing at a time (1790s) when most English radicals were trying to reform Parliament, not abolish it altogether. You then thumb through a brief biography of Godwin and soon discover that he married Mary Wollstonecraft, an out-spoken feminist who wrote the first critique of Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France (Paine's Rights of Man was a response to Burke's Reflections as well). You also find out that Godwin and Wollstonecraft produced a daughter, Mary, who later married Percy Bysshe Shelley, and wrote Frankenstein. Quite a jump from your first initial interest in Paine's deism, isn't it? And all of this could have taken place in a week or two. I mention this example because using this same technique, I arrived at a topic for seminar paper which happened to be about the notion of human perfectibility in the thought of William Godwin.

To conclude, with a little investigative work on your part, which means a trip to your library, you must narrow down your topic to something which (1) can be discussed in the required twenty pages (or whatever length has been specified) and (2) still interests you, hopefully even more than the original nebulous topic.

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Last Revised -- April 13, 2012
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