I was reading through the prospectus reflections, and I noticed that many of you said that you weren’t quite sure how broad the scope of your topic should be. It’s very likely that you have made some progress in this direction in the intervening weeks, but it’s also possible that I can offer some assistance in this regard.
Clearly, this question is too abstract to be answered directly. There is no absolute sign that I can point out that will prove that your topic is or is not appropriate to your paper. However, I can take you through part of the process through which you might make decisions about what you want to cover.
Starting with Work(s)
The easiest thing to do is usually to start with one or more works of literature that you will use as primary sources. In general, secondary sources about literary works are much easier to find than, say, secondary sources that discuss some theme or answer a more general question you have. So if you have a work or two in mind, it’s often useful to start there.
The first thing you need to know is how much information is available on the author or work of interest; obviously, only some of the books and articles about that work will be relevant to what you want to say, but it’s good to get a sense of how much is out there that might be relevant. In some cases, it’s obvious. If you are working on Shakespeare, you already know that there will be a huge amount of information to dig through before you find what you really want. Otherwise, you should look around to see what is out there.
The two best sources for this are the CUNY+ Catalog and MLA International Bibliography, for the very simple reason that both of them make it possible to look explicitly for secondary sources related to a primary source. One student voiced his frustration with JSTOR, which often brings up many irrelevant results which are difficult to sort. This means that when you do a search in JSTOR, it doesn’t really tell you much about how much relevant material exists.
However, for CUNY+, you can do a subject search for the name of the author, and see how many books we have on his or her work. With MLA, you can be even more direct and search for information on the specific work in question. In many cases, this is also a good strategy for locating good articles, but the first thing you want to do is think about the number of results that you get.
If you get a lot of results, you can easily write about a more specific subject. If there is less about your author, writing with a broader scope may be easier than writing about something very specific. That doesn’t mean you can’t write about very specific aspects of less-studied works—only that it is more difficult, and you may need to use some sources that may not deal explicitly with the work of interest.
Starting with Ideas
If you’re starting with a broad theme, rather than a particular author or work, you have a more difficult task. If you already have some ideas about which authors best embody the theme that interests you, you may want to start by searching for information about those works.
It also depends on what sorts of ideas you are considering. Let me use a couple examples, both of which are too broad for a real paper, but which I think are illustrative.
If you are interested in, for instance, the category of Asian American literature (rather than particular works which might be considered part of Asian American literature) as part of your topic, you can do a search of that sort in the catalog. You’ll notice that while this is too broad to actually serve as a topic for a paper, there are books about it that you can use, and in fact it’s often useful to search the catalog for topics that are more broad than the ones that you are actually writing about. In any case, once you’ve found books about a topic of this sort, you can look to see which works are most often discussed in that context.
If, on the other hand, you are discussing a theme, like dishonesty in twentieth century American literature, that’s a little more difficult. There are various “in literature” subject headings that can often help you to search the catalog for literary themes, but the one you want doesn’t always exist. JSTOR is not much help either in this regard. A search like this would likely turn up as much material on psychology as on literature. MLA is an option, but not a very reliable one. In a few cases, Literature Criticism online may be helpful, since they do have some articles based on themes, but it’s hard to predict before you search which ones they will have.
Nailing down a topic
The question of how certain you should be about exactly what you want to write is very similar to the question of how specific your topic should be—it’s quite difficult to answer in the abstract.
What you really want is to have enough ideas to generate a good search, but not to be so strict about your idea that you cannot adapt to what you find in your research.
Early in a search, you should try to generate the search terms, synonyms and related words for your search. Use your prospectus to help you come up with these terms, and at this point in your research, you may even want to consider including things that are somewhat tangential. For instance, if you are interested in gender, you may want to consider using search terms like “man” or “masculinity” if it makes any sense for the paper you are writing. This will change the results, and in some cases you may begin finding articles that are a little different from what you were writing about.
Most searches will generate some results that are definitely not interesting, some that are certainly or probably interesting, and some that might be. If you are getting too many articles that fall in the first or third categories, take a look at the ones that might be. Read the subject terms and the first paragraphs to see how close they are to your interests; you may end up shifting your topic slightly if you find something interesting. That doesn’t mean you should abandon your topic immediately if you don’t see things that are interesting on your first pass, but you should be open to seeing how other people’s research may fit into it. All this is part of the research process. It’s difficult to know exactly what you are looking for until you find it.
(And yes.. this requires multiple searches. Don’t be surprised or frustrated if you need to search several times before you start finding what you really want.)