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English research paper?

I did my undergrad in a non-traditional, interdisciplinary program where I studied a hybrid of several different non-disciplines. I took five years off, and I am now in a more traditional English M.A. program. I am only now discovering that I don't always know how to work within the confines of the English discipline...in all my papers I seem to be doing *something* wrong, but no one will tell me exactly what, because I'm sure I was supposed to have learned it eight years ago.

So the question is...what exactly distinguishes the research element an English research paper? Is it enough to engage with scholarly articles and criticism on the subject, or do I have to directly address some aspect of the author's biography the way most of my fellow students seem to be doing? What percentage of the paper should be directly addressing the research? My professor seems to prefer pretty straightforward analysis, and the Marxist Formalist method that got me through undergrad hasn't really worked for him in the earlier papers I've written.

I would ask my professor, but I'm already afraid he thinks I'm sort of an idiot.

cross-posted to gradstudents


Nov. 8th, 2010 05:27 pm (UTC)
It's hard for me to answer this question because I feel that the very term "research paper" is not a particularly enligsh-y one. Most of the papers I've written, as an undergrad and a MA student, have been "seminar papers." I think for one upperlevel undergrad class we had a "research paper" due at the end of the semester. The way I approached it (and it worked well) was to think of the paper as a more meaty version of the close reading I would normally do. For this class, my prof actually had us turn in some things mid-research stage, and the most helpful part of this was his insistence on us coming up with 5 questions. Each question had to ask something different from the last, and eventually the fifth question's possible answer would lead you on your way to creating a thesis (this is the only time i've used this system, but it's a good idea if you're stuck, and asking questions that I don't necessarily have the answers to is still a useful way for me to start papers).

I think what you need to remember for any English paper is: do a close reading. No matter what the other requirements are, if you have a smart close reading at the heart of your paper (and it is accompanied by whatever the prof wants...analysis of theoretical work, article, etc) it will be successful, because you're actually supporting your claims/finding evidence for them in the text. If you concentrate more on the idea of a close reading, then you can break away from needing the same theoretical frame every time you write. Hope this helps!