University of Portsmouth's History Blog

“Let’s start at the very beginning”: an attempt to explain the dissertation and provide reassurance

By James Farrar, final-year history student at the University of Portsmouth.  James’s supervisor Dr Fiona McCall writes:

James was an exemplary dissertation student, always ahead of schedule in planning and carrying out his dissertation work, making him ideally placed to advise others on how to go about it.   

James’s dissertation, ‘“This creature not deserving mother’s name”: Female Transgression and Cheap Literature in Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century Britain’ investigated how the different degrees of female transgression, everyday and extraordinary, were perceived and written about in cheap literature of sixteenth and seventeenth century Britain.  He found that everyday female transgression, like scolding, was often treated with humour and even gave women apparent agency, despite the reality of their subjection.  But, as James argues, literature and reality were not synonymous and the attitudes expressed in cheap print towards certain types of female transgression, like crossdressing, greatly differed between literature and reality. Serious female transgressions like murder and infanticide, although rare in real life, were latched onto by the media, demonising these women and characterising them as inhuman monsters. 

This blog is about the dissertation. Hello? Still there? Good. You’re now already on the right track.

Yes, the prospect of 10,000 words is daunting at first but remember these words encapsulate your research interests and give you the best chance to shine. The History team is fantastic at breaking-down each element of this assessment from conception to conclusion. You will never be left in the dark about how to complete it. Unless you have a power cut of course.

“Let’s start at the very beginning” (thanks Julie Andrews). Don’t worry about choosing a firm topic too early. Before I started my degree, I thought I would write about Stalin as I was fascinated by totalitarianism from my time at school and college. What I hadn’t anticipated was studying a module about the underworld and deviant behaviour during my second year. The frankly thrilling nature of this module changed everything. The content covered eventually inspired the topic of my dissertation to be about transgressive women and cheap literature in early modern Britain. A bit different from comrade Stalin, right?

She is bound but won't obey, ballad c. 1674-9, © Bodleian Library, 4o Rawl. 566(14)

She is bound but won’t obey, ballad c. 1674-9, © Bodleian Library, 4o Rawl. 566(14)

What this demonstrates is that you do not need to have a firm idea of what to do and rigidly stick to it. Changing your topic from an initial idea is not a bad thing; in fact, it can be a sign of progression and a realisation of what now stimulates you more as a degree student. Look at the content of the modules you have been studying and see if there are any particular areas that inspire you. This can be a good way to go. However, this is not the only path to choosing a topic. Some students write dissertations about parts of history barely covered in their modules. So, don’t think just because you haven’t learnt about something means you cannot write a dissertation about it. Therefore, talking to lecturers is vital.

Lecturers know you and always have your interests at heart. My dissertation would not have been what it is without the constant support from the very beginning to the very end by my tutor and then supervisor, Fiona. No question or idea is stupid. Rome was not built in a day. Lecturers will help you develop a topic that stimulates your interests and that is also viable regarding the research you will need to carry out.

Now that you have picked your topic, research is required. This will make you feel like a true historian. To quote our very own Thomas Rodgers, start with the “big books”. These are the works that provide the best concrete overviews of your topic. For instance, a ‘big book’ for my topic was Joy Wiltenburg’s Disorderly Women and Female Power in the Street Literature of Early Modern England and Germany. You see how this hit the nail on the head for my topic? You should be able to find these types of books from reading lists of the module(s) that are relevant to your dissertation. Your supervisor will be able to recommend them too, as Fiona did for me in this instance. Another idea is, to quote Thomas again, “follow the footnotes”. If you read a point in a book or article that you think is perfect, look to see where it came from and the chances are you have found another very relevant secondary reading. I would also suggest jotting down any reading that may be relevant even if you have some doubts. This way you create a sufficient reading list which you can prioritise as you see fit.

From secondary reading comes the hunt for primary sources. Look at the primary sources from appropriate modules and recommended databases and archives from reading lists. Your supervisor will be able to guide you to the right places. It can take a while to find sources that fit the description of the Holy Grail but they are out there. Patience and perseverance are key here. I am naturally impatient but by logically going through, found the sources that resulted in my dissertation being what it is. Don’t be daunted by this process, it can just take time.

Writing the dissertation is an adventure. Artefact 1 is what you will tackle first, outlining what you will argue, how the chapters will be structured, and highlighting key historiography. Planning well will see you through this. Chapter one discusses much of your historiography. I found it challenging to talk about everything, so this is about prioritising. Some historiography sets the scene whereas other parts support it. Chapters two and three involve the primary sources and place them in a framework of historiography. Initially, I got bogged down on chapter two as I wasn’t sure whether to structure the chapter source by source or thematically. Fortunately, Fiona was able to advise me the latter.

Not all the points I concluded with were the ones I thought I would end with. It is good to remember the dissertation is a malleable entity. For instance, I found that certain primary sources did not feature the punishing of transgressive women. With Fiona’s encouragement and support this became a very important revelation for me as this only came to my attention from analysing and writing. The final product will not be exactly what you imagined but you will be glad of this.

The whole process of the dissertation can be scary, especially writing it. However, you must remember that the entire degree up to this point has provided you with a solid foundation; the skills and knowledge to step into, what is for you, uncharted territory. However, all lecturers have come out the other side and possess the ability to guide you. The fact that you are now here proves you have got it in you.

Now go out there and show the world what historians can do.

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