Friday, June 5, 2015

Choosing a Topic for the Research Project in English Studies: Some Tips

Many students request me to suggest ‘some topic or an area’ for their post-graduate research projects. More often than not, such queries come from the assumption that post-graduate research is the ‘Third Year of MA’, that is, the teacher suggests the texts, authors and reference material, the students go to the library and basically Google the topic, followed by Control C and Control V and presto-the assignment is ready!

This conception is fairly popular, not merely with the students, but also with their teachers. In fact, the teachers have a lion’s share in spreading ‘the Third Year MA syndrome’. You only have to look at the explosive growth in the ‘Peer-Reviewed Journals of International Research with ISBN numbers’ to publish tonnes of pseudo-research based on the Third Year MA syndrome brought out by college and university teachers to publish their crap and earn ‘API or Academic Performance Index’ points that are mandatory for advancement and promotions in their careers and make some easy money. When teachers follow this model, no wonder the students also emulate their peers.

The defining characteristic of this ‘Third Year MA syndrome’ is the desire to follow the path of least resistance: to read and think as little as possible and finish that damned paper or dissertation with minimum intellectual efforts. The outcome is usually the re-re-re-invention of the wheel and coming up with clich├ęd and stale work on obvious themes in the canonical writers that adds nothing to what is already known about the subject. There are full-fledged Shashi Deshpande, Girish Karnad, or Diaspora factories at work in academia producing plenty of garbage.   At its worst, this model is plagiarism of earlier bad research, and at its best, it is plagiarism of good research work with one’s own cosmetic surgery added to make it uglier.

I have already written about the basics of research, research question and about the format and fundamentals of writing a research proposal. Hence I am not going to rehearse these things again: Click on- A Beginner’s Guide to Doing a PhD in English Literature and Writing a Research Proposal for English Studies: Some Hints. The tips given here are for those not interested in The Third Year MA model, in short, those who are serious researchers, and are based on my earlier entries. These are not rules, but basically rules of thumb for those beginning their life as serious researchers and hence, are also obvious at times.

You have to keep in mind is that coming up with a viable research topic requires plenty of exploration (reading, thinking, discussing) and may take months. There is no short-cut here. You have to follow your own intellectual preoccupation and curiosity.

1) One of the simplest and obvious tips to start with is to consider the author, genre ( Fiction, poetry, Drama), literatures (like Gujarati literature or Indian Writing in English) or a critical idea (e. g. Gender, or Caste consciousness or both) that appealed to you the most during your BA or MA studies.  However, this is not a strict rule as there is always a possibility that there are other less explored authors, literatures and ideas which you may not be very familiar with. You may also begin by exploring authors, genres, literatures and ideas you have very little idea about.

2) The ideas and texts that appeal to you are not ‘accidents of taste’ but have links with your own life, the things that have happened to you and the relations you have with others and yourself.  Remember, research in literary studies and humanities is very often search for who you are: your own gender identity (the self awareness as belonging to a particular gender), caste identity, class identity, regional or linguistic identities play a significant role in your research and intellectual life. My own research is shaped by my identity as a bilingual- male -middle class poet writing in Marathi and English, born and brought up in Gujarat and trained in study and teaching  ‘Eng. Lit’ as a profession. ( Have a look at my thesis and research work by clicking here)

Again, while the self consciousness about your identity will definitely make your life as researcher more interesting and may also be a valuable contribution to the identity politics, this is not a strict rule and there is absolutely no reason why a Dalit student should not explore science fiction or cyberpunk or a gay researcher should not explore the questions of indigenous/Adivasi culture and literature.   There is no reason why an upper caste and upper class man not research Dalit women’s writing.

3) Researching literature and culture of the society in which you are born and brought up is far more valuable than going for the American, the British or the Continental literatures. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, because plenty of good quality research has already been conducted on these literatures, there is very little one can contribute as an outsider, unless you are going in for a comparative framework. They have already done excellent work on writers like Keats and Bernard Shaw or the themes like the Absurd or Love in Hemingway or Sex in Jane Austen, for instance, and there is very little left for us to add.

 Unless, of course there is a comparative angle. Reception of Keats or Jane Austen in Marathi or Punjabi is indeed a very good idea. But then, so is the reception of Namdeo Dhasal or Arun Kolatkar in Tamil.
Secondly, the research which contributes to your own society and culture is in my view more relevant and necessary than the research which would contribute to the American or Canadian society. As ours is a multilingual, casteist, patriarchal society with a history of colonial experience and globalization, exploring the questions of literary historiography, translation, caste, genders, modernity, regional identities, technology, and consumerism in cultural texts ( not just the literary ones, but also popular cultural texts like films, TV serials and bestsellers) in Indian languages (including English) using comparative frameworks of postcolonial studies, gender studies, Dalit studies and cultural semiotics will make your research interesting and relevant to present times.

So these are my ‘tips’ for the beginners, and I would love to hear more from you and other scholars about what you think of these. You can also check out my blog on  Translation Studies in India and Comparative Literature and you can also check out my blog on Literary theory .

Read my blog on using Semiotics of Culture as a Theoretical Framework for Indian Literatures and Cultures.