Saturday, July 05, 2014

Writing a Humanities Paper (1): Introduction and Conclusion

Suppose you have discovered a hitherto unknown precursor of Franz Kafka. You have come into possession of a personal letter from Kafka to one of his friends, perhaps, in which Kafka raves about the work of this Mr. X. Examining X's oeuvre, you can identify a distinct influence, both in the style of the sentences and the themes dealt with. Such a discovery, I think we can agree, would warrant a paper. As I said yesterday, this month I want to see if I can provide a general structure for such a paper—one that would be as useful as my 40-paragraph outline of a social science paper, but suitable for research in the humanities.

Today, I want to propose a three-paragraph introduction and a two-paragraph conclusion, using our imagined paper about Kafka as an example. Like a social science paper, I propose you begin with a paragraph about the "world" in which the discovery you have made is salient, then go on to a paragraph about the current state of scholarship, one that introduces the central analytical concept you will be using. Finally, I would write a paragraph that begins, "I will here show that…" It will provide an overview of your sources, a summary of your analysis, and a synopsis of the implications of your discovery. The key sentences for the paragraphs, for example, could be as follows [some notes for the content of the paragraph in square brackets]:

§1. Franz Kafka is widely regarded as one of the most original writers in the canon. [Remember that there is a very specific tradition behind talk of Kafka's originality, namely, Borges' suggestion that, like other great writers, he "creates his own precursors", which reverses the conventional direction of "influence". Since your discovery suggests a very conventional influence indeed, you must demonstrate awareness of this way of assessing Kafka's "greatness", which, paradoxically, is probably the "conventional" view today. However you do it, make sure that this paragraph describes a world that is intensely aware of Kafka's originality.]

§2. Harold Bloom has argued that originality is the result of a prolonged struggle with the "anxiety of influence". [Strong poets, says Bloom, "overwhelm and subsume" the tradition that came before them. They struggle with the tradition through strategic acts of "misprision", and it is those acts that define them. Bloom's "theory" of misreading offers a rich apparatus for the study of influence. But it's not without critics, and "misreaders" of its own; Bloom himself identifies the Foucauldian "school of resentment". This paragraph would position your reading somewhere in this body of critical scholarship, which should of course be a body of Kafka scholarship. One might begin with Bloom's reading of Kafka, for example. But one should ultimately cite prominent Kafka specialists, whether Foucauldian archaeologists of "the author function" or Bloomian cartographers of misreading.]

§3. I will here show that Mr. X has had a strong influence on Kafka's writing. [Begin with your "method"—what have you read? Obviously the letter to his friend will be important here, perhaps a sentence or two on that. Then go on to cite the key works of Mr. X, the influence of which you have observed. Now, summarize your "analysis", i.e., your interpretation both of the letter and the correspondences between Mr. X and Kafka. Finally, make a bold statement of the "implications" you think this discovery should have for Kafka scholarship. The strongest would be: "In light of this discovery we have to revise our assessment of Kafka's originality and poetic strength."]

What about the conclusion? Well, it could consist of two paragraphs. My standard advice of simply lopping off the "I will here show" to give you the key sentence of the first paragraph of the conclusion (§39) applies also to a humanities paper. And the second paragraph can, likewise, be constructed by cashing out the implications, by re-describing the world of paragraph one or the scholarship of paragraph two. For example:

§39. Mr. X has had a strong and undeniable influence on Kafka's writing. [This paragraph should stick to adducing the strongest evidence for that influence, summarizing the strongest parts of your analysis.]

§40. Kafka is not as original a writer as we generally assume. [Remember that this will be shocking news to Kafka scholars. As you describe this "new world" to them, remember to make it an exciting place, full of new research opportunities. What other beliefs about Kafka now need revising? How should we teach Kafka in the classroom? Do our anthologies need to be rethought? Might this have consequences for Borges' capsule study of Kafka's "precursors"? Etc.]

Well, I hope that can help scholars in the humanities get started drafting their papers. I always recommend writing these five paragraphs in exactly 2.5 hours (27 minutes each, with three-minute breaks), ideally spreading the work over two or three days. That's what I've done with my paper. Tomorrow morning, I'll move on to the body of the paper, writing some paragraphs towards a five-paragraph "background" section. It will be fleshing out the world of §1.

I'll keep you posted.


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