Processes of study in the arts and humanities
Processes of study in the arts and humanities

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Processes of study in the arts and humanities

8 Making your own enquiries

8.1 Project work

Many courses in the arts and humanities now include a substantial project work component, which involves research even if it is of a limited and guided kind. This is an opportunity for you study a topic of your own choice in depth, working independently and extending interests and ideas of your own. It involves:

  • setting your own targets

  • posing central questions to explore

  • seeking out the primary and secondary source material you need

  • analysing and interpreting your material, and assessing its value

  • producing a substantial text of your own.

These activities remind you that knowledge doesn't just appear in books by magic, but results from someone recognising the importance of a particular question and setting out to find some ‘answers’ to it. They give you an idea of how knowledge is created in your subject. When all goes well, this kind of independent work increases your enthusiasm for your subject, brings a great sense of achievement and produces a deep kind of understanding. But it is very demanding. It can be very interesting and satisfying, but it can also go badly wrong.

The biggest pitfall is that almost everyone is too ambitious to begin with. Things always turn out to be more complicated than they seem and every aspect of project work is more time-consuming than you anticipate. There are several stages involved, each of which takes time and effort. One of the keys to success is recognising the importance of each stage and spreading your time and energies across all of them. These stages are:

  1. Formulating a question to explore

  2. Planning the enquiry

  3. Carrying out the research

  4. Writing a project report.

At first sight, the third stage looks like the bulk of the work. But deciding on the question to investigate, narrowing it down sufficiently, and designing and planning the project always take a lot of thought. You can easily let these early stages eat too far into the time you have for the project as a whole. Then that third stage almost always throws up plenty of unexpected problems – sometimes quite minor, but enough to slow your progress. However, the writing phase is the one that really catches people unawares. You have to present your research in the wider context of the subject it arises out of, and also work out how to structure the report so that your line of argument is clear and leads to your conclusions. And you have to keep the forward momentum of that argument going while also introducing what you have discovered – of which there is plenty. All this takes several draft stages and a lot of time.

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