Saturday, 22 November 2014

Research-based education (2): foregrounds and backgrounds and the fear of a blank page

One of my two areas of expertise is eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century British art, and I often find that students who write on subjects from this period tend to preface their discussion of, say, Constable's paintings of the coast with some 'broader context'. This 'context' often takes the form of a potted history of how the period witnessed dramatic social change (but which period doesn't?).

The problem with starting an essay or dissertation by setting a 'background' is that it reduces the object of your study - let's say it's Constable's Weymouth Bay, Dorsetshire - to an illustration of whatever your social history says about the period. It also means that your voice is lost right at the beginning and you are in danger of becoming a spokesperson for whichever survey text you have reverently cited.
David Lucas after John Constable, Weymouth Bay, Dorsetshire, 1830, mezzotint on paper, 144 x 182 mm (image only), from Various Subjects of Landscape, Characteristic of English Scenery.

An alternative approach is to start your enquiry with the object itself, or with a specific point taken from the literature, and go from there. The difficulty with this approach is to know where to start, and funnily enough it seems that the smaller the piece of writing, the harder it is to know where to begin. Matters are helped if you have an essay question to be getting on with. If this is the case I encourage anyone to begin by addressing the question in relation to a specific object or text.

If, on the other hand, you've been asked to devise your own question or title, I suggest you identify something that interests you, and jump right in. Perhaps it will be a feature of the object itself, or perhaps it will be something specific mentioned in the secondary literature. A passing comment that 'such-and-such a subject is under-researched' is a real gift and should be followed up. Whatever happens, I suggest that any question you formulate should make specific reference to the object or literature which you are taking as your starting point.

The challenge in not relying on 'context' to set the scene for your essay is that it can seem you are groping your way in the dark. The reward - and what a reward it is! - is that you'll arrive at an understanding of the topic that is wholly your own. This will leave you in a position to address the background literature, but on your own terms, rather than on theirs.

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