Shaping an American Studies Research Topic

Jennie Kassanoff and Elizabeth Esch, American Studies Program, Barnard College

Most of the time, topics (questions) are made, not born. You begin with a fuzzy notion of something that interests you, something that seems worth investigating, and you proceed from there. But how? How do you get from something broad and incoherent to something defined and doable? Follow your curiosity. Conceiving your topic in the form of a question often helps. Work continually to focus your question. You can never produce the whole answer to any large historical or critical question – nor should you try to. Think of yourself as making a finite, limited, yet trustworthy contribution to the larger field of your subject.

Once you have your topic, begin to recognize its parts and to break it down into manageable pieces. Visualize how it can be divided into chapters [or sections] and what the headings of those chapters [or sections] might be. It is almost always easier to work on a topic part by part than to attack the whole directly.

Your question needs to be one that can be asked and answered both critically and historically. It helps, for all sorts of reasons, if you locate your subject in a period that has, in some sense, “closed,” so that what you’re writing about is not completely open-ended and lacking in form. In fact, “form” and “shape” are aspects that you should be considering when constructing your topic.

Practitioners of American Studies are generally less concerned with discovering universal truths and constructing seamless systems than they are with investigating disjunctions: pieces that don’t seem to fit; evidence that raises questions; beliefs and actions that have a certain strangeness to them and thereby indicate shifts in social, political, intellectual and cultural life in the United States over time.

Critical argument is different from the political and courtroom argumentation we see so much of in our culture. Our job is not to construct an air-tight brief or to discount and devalue evidence that does not fit. Our job is more difficult: to capture the richness and complexity of our topics while at the same time working to isolate and clarify particular aspects of a particular inter-disciplinary subject. Once we have isolated and clarified, we are in a position to suggest how the pieces fit together or work together in their historical context. Good American Studies scholarship proposes and tests hypotheses – it makes a case for the answers it provides – but it doesn’t presuppose that there is only one “right” answer, or only one way to read the pieces, or only one way to reconstruct the way they worked together in their original context.

It is likely that the full outline of your topic will emerge only after you have had a chance to familiarize yourself with the primary and secondary sources. The more you do this, the more you are likely to see what areas require further
examination and explication. This recognition, in turn, helps you to sharpen and focus the questions you are asking. You start out with a question, a problem, an issue, on a subject that you’re interested in, and then proceed to refine it by working dialectically. You approach your sources; the sources as it were talk back to you, and the process continues until you sense that you have arrived at a question that is working for you and leading you into interesting territory.

Some general considerations of a practical nature need to be taken into account from the outset. If you are planning to use primary sources (and all of us will for this project), ask yourself whether they are locally available and accessible (and in a language you can read). What about the secondary literature? Is it available and accessible? And, of course, how much do you know about the subject? Is it something you’re going to have to learn from the ground up? If so, do you have the time to learn enough of the basics before you proceed to the more sophisticated aspects of the topic? Or is it something you already know about in some detail (perhaps something you’ve studied in an introductory course or seminar) and can approach from a position of less than total ignorance?

The best American Studies papers always give the reader a general idea about the body of sources available on the particular question as well as the sources actually consulted. This can be done either in a series of notes as each particular source is introduced, or in a general historiographical and/or theoretical [discussion] within the text itself, or both. A section on historiography, for instance, might consider the following: What are the particular questions raised by this body of sources? Which sources are most trustworthy; which have to be approached with caution and why? Through which lens(es) should the modern reader look at them, and why? It is good to begin thinking about these historiographical questions right from the start of your project.

At some point (and it is better if this happens sooner rather than later), you will come to the realization that you cannot afford to reinvent the wheel. You don’t have all the time in the world, and you need to find an efficient and economical way of getting at your subject. Don’t spend your time and energy simply recapitulating the information you have gotten from your secondary sources. Rather, look for openings, questions, points that have not been considered to your satisfaction, problems that have been raised by the information you have found in the primary and secondary sources. Often your reader will need some broad, preliminary information in order to understand where you are coming from and where you are heading. Providing contextual information may be necessary at various points in your paper, but get to the meat of your topic and your interpretation as soon as and whenever possible.

We understand your desire to tell the “whole story” of whatever aspect of American culture you choose to discuss. But resist this temptation. It is necessary for you to learn the general terrain of your subject in order to do your work, but it is not your task to reiterate this information. You’ve got to choose one limited aspect of the story on which to focus – one focused area in which to make a real contribution to the subject through your particular reading of available primary sources. The most successful papers work from the particular to the general. Think of yourself as a contributor to a much larger project. You are responsible for illuminating your piece of the puzzle, and for getting it right so that others coming after you can use it.

You will not be able to exhaust your subject if it’s a good one. Selection is the key: pick a topic that is defined enough so that you can say something about it in detail (the history of women in the nineteenth century, or the city in American literature are good examples of bad topics in this sense). Consider your topic in relation to the length of the paper you are going to write, and don’t worry if the topic you end up with is not quite what you had in mind when you began.

The questions you ask may not be resolved in any ultimate sense; indeed, your conclusions may be fairly tentative. American Studies critics often use language that can seem maddeningly evasive – “on the whole,” “for the most part,” “nevertheless,” and so on. That is not to say that you should avoid taking positions but rather that all positions are provisional, and it is appropriate to recognize this and be fairly upfront about it. If you have done things correctly, you will find that not of all your research can be used. Do not regard this as a mistake; it is a normal part of the process. Trying to stuff everything you’ve found into a paper can lead to real problems. . . .

Remember that this is a process. Persevere and you will see your topic gradually take shape around your interests, your sources, and your understanding. . .