Tips on Writing a Prospectus for a Dissertation on Literature
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By Alan Liu, last revised February 11, 2005
Establishing Your Audience
A deceptively simple question: what kind of audience should you have in mind when writing your prospectus?
- Write for an intelligent, well-read panel of non-specialist scholars. (Note that a prospectus is commonly also the basis for many subsequent other applications.)Define or embed jargon, specialist assumptions, methodology
- Layer the narrative (general —> special —> general)
Establishing Your Context
A good prospectus creates a shaped context for the topic it wishes to present:
- What are the chronological, national, sociological, generic, or other relevant parameters of your project, and why? ( Also: what other periods, nations, classes/genders/ethnicities, genres, or other contexts are necessary to situate your topic, whether by comparison or contrast?)What is the map of relevant criticism on the topic? What is the methodological context of your project? Put another way: what debate, methodological or otherwise, in your field (or in the profession generally) are you making an intervention in?What is specifically "literary" about your project? That is, why is literary study (as opposed, for example, to sociology, political science, history, philosophy, psychoanalysis, film studies, etc.) the right context for this project? How do formal/aesthetic issues contribute centrally to your project? What is the important underlying issue? What is at stake? What would motivate someone only casually interested in your specific topic (e.g., an academic from a different field) to read your project?
- Possible strategies of context-making: mini-survey of scholarship, general formulation of the state of the field, genealogical explanation ("how I arrived on this topic . . .")
Defining Your Topic/Thesis
- A prospectus is not a critical essay. You are talking about your argument, not arguing the thesis itself in miniature.
- The topic should be defined with analytical precision. The key concepts of the project should be implicitly or explicitly defined; and their relationships mapped.
o Beware of empty or assumed premises (e.g., the "traditional")
o Beware of equivocations of the sort: "modern" vs. "modernist"; "enabled vs. determined," "mental labor."(Transform equivocations of this sort into deliberate conjunctions that do conceptual work in your thesis.)
You should indicate the nature and scope of the materials you are working with; and the format of the project.You should indicate any special archival materials, site research, interviews, etc., that will give your project a special provenance (and/or rationale for Graduate Division funding) For the purposes of a dissertation prospectus, a topic statement does not always need to be a thesis, but it should at least suggest a main direction of investigation or a focal problem.
- Write in present tense and in the indicative
Outline of Parts
- Include part and chapter titles
- Beware of the "miscellany" effect (e.g., the appearance of a loose collection of essays on different auhors). There should be a "through line" (see William Germano)
- Ideally, a chapter description is neither too brief (overly dependent on the preceding narrative overview for its rationale) nor too long (usurpative of the preceding narrative overview).
--Bshockey 07:54, 22 August 2007 (PDT)