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How to Write a Term Paper

Choose a Topic

"Do not hunt for subjects, let them choose you, not you them."

— Samuel Butler

1. Choosing a topic is the first step in the pursuit of a thesis. Below is a logical progression from topic to thesis:

a. Close reading of the primary text, aided by a reading journal

b. Growing awareness of interesting qualities within the primary text

c. Choosing a topic for research

d. Asking productive questions that help explore and evaluate a topic

e. Creating a research hypothesis

f. Revising and refining a hypothesis to form a working thesis

2. First, and most important, identify what qualities in the primary source pique your imagination and curiosity, and send you on a search for answers. This process of identification can be facilitated through the use of the reading journal.

a. A reading journal is a permanent record of your immediate and candid responses to a piece of literature.

b. In your journal, record spontaneously those quotations, ideas, questions, observations, and associations that move you, the reader. Also record the page where you can later find the source of your responses.

c. Excerpts from a journal kept while reading Toni Morrison's Beloved:

p. 3: "124 was spiteful. Full of baby's venom." Why is the house identified as a number? And where did the baby venom come from? "Baby venom" interesting oxymoron! Why is 124 never referred to as a home? Sethe's sons have fled the house because it "committed" some horror. The house sounds scary. A woman's identity is often so tied up with her home that I wonder what Morrison is implying about Sethe. on p. 4: when she refers to the house's "Outrageous behavior": for example, it "turned-over slop jars ... and [emitted] gusts of sour air." Drivers whip their horses when they pass 124. Clearly outsiders are also afraid. Like Shirley Jackson's Hill House or Poe's House of Usher, 124 seems to be "vile."

Note: This journal entry reflects the reader's growing interest in the house itself. A possible topic?

3. Below is a brief description of productive questions asked by critical thinkers. Each question is followed by a definition and a response. These kinds of questions may be used to explore and evaluate a topic.

a. Knowledge: Who, what, when, where, how.

Question: Where is 124 located?

Response: 124 Bluestone Road is in Ohio, on the route taken by fleeing slaves.

b. Comprehension: Awareness of a work's organization and pertinent ideas and facts.

Question: Why is Sethe's story told in bits and pieces rather than in clear chronological order?

Response: Sethe tells a sliver of memory and then retreats from the pain of remembering. The reader has to wait for the story of Sweet Home, where she lived as a slave, and of 124 to unfold gradually. Beloved calls these memories Sethe's "diamonds," an implication of her place in Sethe's past and of the value of memories.

c. Analysis: Separation of the whole into parts.

Question: Why are there so many seemingly disconnected female voices?

Response: There seems to be a variety of female voices in Beloved: Sethe's, the living black community's, and dead slaves'.... I wonder how the voices will join and how they will affect life at 124.

d. Synthesis: Combining those parts into a meaningful whole. Synthesis is especially effective when it results in new insights.

Question: Are the voices in the yard of 124, those voices that wash over Sethe, the combined voices of all black women in the novel? Have they come to save her and exorcise the horror from 124?

Response: p. 261: "... the voices of women searched for the right combination, the key, the code, the sound that broke the back of words. ... It broke over Sethe and she trembled like the baptized in its wash."

e. Evaluation: development of opinions, judgments, criticisms, or decisions

Question: Does the story begin and end at 124 because it is the unifying element in the novel? Is this where Sethe's damnation or redemption is told and played out? What role does Sweet Home play in shaping lives?

Response: I think I'll explore the role of 124 and of Sweet Home in the lives of the women as a possible thesis for my research.

f. Application: Use of information, ideas, opinions, insights to create a research product that offers new, interesting, and personally satisfying knowledge.

Question: How can I use my journal entries to guide me in my first steps towards formal research?

Response: Because my journal entries focus on the role of 124 in the narration of Sethe's story, I'll

1) reread Beloved for more details regarding the house

2) research views on the role of 124 and Sweet Home in the novel

3) see if I have enough pertinent and interesting information to create a paper that explores available scholarship and offers new insights.

Conclusion: Topic — The role of houses in Beloved and the way they shape women's lives

4. Skimming reference works such as encyclopedias, books, critical essays and periodical articles can help you choose a topic that evolves into a hypothesis, which in turn may lead to a thesis. For an example of a relevant encyclopedia, use a key word search as you explore Merriam Webster's Encyclopedia of Literature.

a. One approach to skimming involves reading the first paragraph of a secondary source to locate and evaluate the author's thesis. Then for a general idea of the work's organization and major ideas read the first and last sentence of each paragraph. Read the conclusion carefully, as it usually presents a summary (Barnet and Bedau 19).

b. Below is an example of skimming the first and last paragraphs of a critical essay found in the Literature Resource Center's Source Database: Contemporary Literary Criticism Select.

1) Locate the essay about Toni Morrison's novel, Nameless Ghosts: Possession and Dispossession in Beloved.

2) Skimming the first paragraph produces words like "ancestry," "matrilineal," "mothers," "daughters," "memory," "biblical," "myths," and "folklore" Promising words, as the topic is; In Beloved, the role of houses in women's lives.

3) The essay's thesis seems to focus on the relationship between generations of women: enslaved, freed, alive, and dead.

4) The last paragraph begins with the phrase "how to live in the present without canceling out an excruciatingly painful past." The essay may relate to the topic. Writing a bibliographical card and reading the essay more carefully appear to be sound decisions.

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