Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Writing a Humanities Paper (2): Background

If you're writing a paper about Kafka's influences you are obligated to do so against a background presumption about his originality. In my last post, I made this point by saying that you have to demonstrate your own awareness of a world that is intensely aware of how original an author Kafka was. There are many ways of doing it, and your efforts do not actually have to be confined to any particular parts of the paper, but the simple solution to the writing problem is to imagine a section of the paper in which you acknowledge the common knowledge that frames your papers contribution.

Let me emphasize the word "common". It's not just Kafka scholars who think Kafka was an original writer. (On the contrary, ordinary members of the educated classes are probably more likely to exaggerate Kafka's originality than the scholars who have a vested interest in it. Consider Jonathan Mayhew's efforts to put Lorca appreciation in proper perspective.) Everybody knows Kafka is a great author and it's this knowledge that you have demonstrate that you share. When I talk to social scientists, I tell them they have to know stuff like "The Internet has changed the way we do business" and, more specifically, "Steve Jobs was an asshole". But they have know this in a particularly interesting, detailed way. The same goes for the fame of famous authors. Your expertise overlaps with lay knowledge, but it also makes you a much more interesting expositor of "what everyone knows".

Your paper has to demonstrate this knowledge. To put it terms that will be familiar to readers of this blog, there have to be parts of your paper that demonstrate this competence. As a rough gesture, let's say you should devote six paragraphs to problem, namely, the first paragraph of the introduction and five paragraphs in the first section that follows the introduction. These paragraphs should not be based on "close reading" of the author you have studied, nor should they engage critically with the opinions of your peers. They should merely bring together widely available, representative statements about the author or issue in question.

I normally say that the background section should be "informative", i.e., it should tell the reader something the reader presumably does not know (about the industry, or region, or organization under study) but will find useful to know in the course of the investigation. Something similar applies here. You should adduce facts that the reader does not necessarily know simply because he or she is your peer. In our imagined paper about Mr. X's influence on Kafka, you probably need to be informative about Mr. X. And you should put this in the context of what is generally known about Kafka and his reading habits. This, i.e., the absence of Mr. X from our background presumptions about Kafka's originality, is a good thing to write a section on.

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