Help with undergraduate research: advanced essay techniques

After my last post, you understand why you shouldn’t write a sandwich essay and what to do instead. But those tips were pretty basic. In an upper-level class, you’ll want more guidance. In this post, we’ll review the three most important advanced research techniques for undergraduates: asking a question, finding sources, and incorporating your research into your paper.

In lower-level undergraduate classes, you typically receive a variety of essay topics to write on. That’s because deciding on a research question is actually a really difficult task. It seems pretty easy (what am I interested in? I’ll write about that!), but the ancient record makes things a bit more complicated. For any research question, you need to make sure that it is

  • arguable: you can take a position — you don’t want to write a narrative;
  • defensible: there are sources that support you;
  • scalable: you can start out with a broad idea, but you’re going to need to narrow it down to something you can discuss in 8-20 pages; and
  • answerable: we’re probably never going to know how Romans felt about certain topics, or how custom X came into being. Some professors will let you get away with a well-researched, extremely speculative paper; others won’t. You should make sure you know your professor’s preferences first.

Let’s say you’re taking a course on Roman history, and you’re interested in the politics of the mid-first century BCE. A topic that seems pretty easy is something like “female participation in politics” We know that some did, so this question is defensible. (An example of an indefensible argument would be ‘Calpurnia was sad when Caesar died’. Maybe? Maybe not!) As it’s currently phrased, this question isn’t arguable: you haven’t set a benchmark for what you’re going to prove. But that’s an easy fix. If you phrase your question as a question, you’ll automatically get an arguable answer: here, something like ‘how much did women participate in politics?’ Because you’ll need to quantify your answer, you have a position. Your new question is also scalable, simply because we don’t have a lot of information about women in late Republican Rome. But if it becomes unwieldy, you can usually fix problems of scale by limiting your date(s) and location(s).

The real problem here is whether this question is answerable. And the answer is probably ‘no’. That’s something that you might not figure out until you’re well into your research, because it’s a problem of source material (and this is why professors often tell you to get independent project approved first): there just isn’t enough information about the amount of female participation to answer your question. A question that isn’t answerable can often be altered into an answerable question (in this case, maybe ‘was Clodia more active than other Republican women?’) — but that process is time-consuming and might be frustrating if you have a short deadline. That’s why students are usually advised to start on their assignments early!

TIP: Don’t be afraid to narrow your topic! You can always make it broader if you need to, but usually you won’t need to.

TIP 2: If you’re answering a question that was given to you as an assignment, make sure you actually answer the question. For example, if you’re asked about female political participation in the Republic and your essay is about Livia, you’re probably not going to do very well…


Once you have your question defined narrowly, you can start researching your topic. Your first instinct will be to google it. Resist. I know it’s hard, and I promise that you can google anything else you want. But academic research, at least in Classics, and Google just don’t get along very well. You’ll get a lot of sources that you can’t use (Wikipedia, Encyclopedia Britannica, etc.), and not very many that you can.

Instead, start with your course materials. Many textbooks offer short bibliographies, either at the back or at the end of each chapter. Read the titles: can they help you? For our topic, for example, you might find Skinner’s Clodia Metelli useful, and Fantham’s Julia Augusti less so. You won’t always be able to tell from the title, but it’s a good starting point. From there, you can move on to databases like JSTOR, TOCS-IN, and APh. You may also want to check major review sites, like the BMCR and  CJ online. If you use multiple sources, you’ll have the best results (even though there will be overlap).

Make sure to give yourself time to do this. A good bibliographic search should take at least an hour. On JSTOR, at least part of that time should be spent reading the introduction of articles you’re not sure about to see if they will actually help you. You can also check your library catalogue for books that show up in TOCS-IN.

After you’ve done your first round of research, you can check the bibliographies of your articles/books to find more materials. Depending on the length of your project, you may want to iterate this process a few times. An honors thesis, for example, will probably require more than one pass-through. A four-page term essay might want to stop here. Regardless of how long you spend researching, you should remember that you want to cite only material that you’ve read and understood and you shouldn’t cite all of it. An essay is a curated collection of the articles and books that you’ve found. It’s not a dumping ground.

This last point is understandably hard. You’ve done the work of researching; now you want to show it off. Believe it or not, your professors understand this. And they would much rather see five relevant, well-used sources than the top ten hits for your keywords on JSTOR (and yes, we do check). But we also run into false starts in research. We also read articles that we don’t end up using in a finished product. That’s how scholarship works. So you’ll end up impressing us more by acting like a scholar than you will by acting like a student.

Of course, that’s not to say that you can’t include more sources that the assignment calls for. If your paper requires 5 sources and you have 6 that are really relevant to the topic, you should include them. And that brings me to the last point, which is how to incorporate others’ research into your own. This is not a guide to avoiding plagiarism or the mechanics of citation (although we’ll cover that in a later post). Instead, this is a guide to what you might call ‘engaging with’ your sources.

Here is an (invented) example of the way I usually see undergraduates cite research. “Clodia was the sister of Clodius (Skinner, p. 19). She appears in Cicero’s Pro Caelio in an unfavorable light, but later on they reconciled (Skinner, p. 67). Scholars disagree on whether she is the ‘Lesbia’ of Catullus’ poems.”

There are two different problems here. The first citation is unnecessary; it’s a fact that’s obvious to anyone who understands Roman nomenclature. (The same is true of most dates.) If this citation were the only time that Skinner appeared, I’d assume that the work was cited to inflate the bibliography — never a good idea.

The second citation is more complex. It’s used as a way of ‘verifying’ an interpretation, rather than ‘engaging’ with it. To engage with an idea means that you understand it’s neither true nor false; it’s an argument, just like you’ve made an argument. That should be your goal whenever you read a work of scholarship. Once you verify it, you treat it as a fact — you haven’t recognized the difference between the first two sentences. But these two sentences in reality express two very different types of ideas.

The first sentence is indisputable. Roman women took the female form of their father’s nomen; a Clodia is obviously the sister or daughter of a Clodius. (We can leave aside the people who aren’t related.) The second sentence starts out the same way: there is a Clodia in the Pro Caelio. In the second half of the sentence, we get the argument: it isn’t entirely clear that Cicero ever disliked Clodia (he wanted to win his case), or that they ever made up (he also wanted her house). From ‘but’ onwards, this is an argument and should be treated as such. Do you agree with the interpretation? If so, you can rephrase it: “but later on, according to Skinner (67), they reconciled.” Maybe you’re not so sure — that’s okay. You can explain why: “later on, they may have reconciled, but the evidence is not clear. Skinner (67) cites a letter Cicero wrote to Atticus about Clodia’s house, but Cicero also refers to her by the code name ‘Ox-eyes’ in this letter. The reference to Juno is unflattering and may indicate that tensions remained.”

Obviously, the second statement takes more work than the first. You need to have read Skinner’s book, as well as the relevant sources (some of Cicero’s letters, Pro Caelio, and maybe also some Catullus). You need to have read other interpretations that disagree with Skinner’s. You need to have understood the differences between your sources and taken good notes. And then you need to have considered what you think the most likely interpretation is — which may very well be different from any of the individual works you’ve read. If so, congratulations: you’ve proved you can think critically. And ultimately, that’s what your papers are meant to show.


One final note on writing your essays: it really, really helps to read through a draft (out loud and/or in hard copy) before turning it in. Skidmore’s classics page offers some good questions to ask yourself; there are more resources collected at Queen’s (although I would not advise you to look at the professional guidelines until you’re at least an MA student!). Your home department may also have links to help, either online or on campus.




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