Final Projects: Next Post: Topic > Question > Problem

For your next final project post, you should pose a research question. It will be due on Friday, November 13. This is in advance of your (required) meeting with me the following weeks.

The following exercise is cribbed from Wayne Booth (et al.)’s The Craft of Research. There are two relevant chapters: “From Topics to Questions” and “From Questions to Problems.”

Your “Problem” posts should step through each of these steps in an explicit way, documenting your revisions and how you’re thinking about them. Show your work. This may seem tedious, but it won’t take very long, and I suspect it will help you get to a good question quickly and clearly. The goal in this exercise is a really pointed, very specific agenda to get you started on your research.

First: Good Topics

Let’s get a clearly, concisely specified topic. Booth tells us that if the topic can be stated in four or five words, it’s not specific enough (39). You’ve got to add some form of elaboration and specification. Their types are: conflictdescriptioncontribution, and developing.

So let’s say I’ve decided my topic is “sexuality in network games” (I think I’m not duplicating anybody’s research project). Note that we can restate this as a claim: “There is sexuality in network games.” That’s not very interesting.

To elaborate this, we should add language of conflict, description, etc. from above. To which I will add, also specify some actual sites of research. Here’s a better topic: “The development of sexuality in network games from text-based MUDs to 3D worlds like Second Life.”

A few things are good about this. First, you can state it as a claim: “Sexuality in network games has developed from text-based MUDs to 3D worlds like Second Life.” Notice, too, that there’s a subsidiary claim there, which is that a game’s interface affects the way sexuality is a problem for, or in, it. Second, it’s got a few obvious points of reference in our course: Neveldine + Taylor, Dibbel, Bersani, Cooper, Hodge.

Second: Topic/Question/Significance

We’re not done. Booth gives us a three-step sentence that will help enormously in figuring out what you’re working on and why. It goes like this: topic, question, significance.

Topic: “I am studying…,”

Question: “because I want to find out why/how/whether…,”

Significance: “in order to help my reader understand…”

A few notes:

Notice that there is a genuine question! This is not the same thing as a topic.

Notice also that the significance is about teaching the reader something. Presumably you’ll learn something, too, but it’s important to understand that all this work is targeted at readers—in this case: your classmates, me, your very dedicated friends and relatives, and the internet at large.

In the above example, we could parse this out a couple of ways:

Perhaps the most straightforward way is to keep the topic very specifically focused, and then to add layers of generalization from there: “I am working on sexuality in early MUDs and Second Life, because I want to find out how game interfaces affect how sexuality works in games, in order to help my reader understand how game design can have effects on networked sexuality.”

But you could also run this a bit more theoretico-historically (and more specifically): “I am working on changes in how sexuality works between early MUDs and Second Life, because I want to find out what online sexuality and fantasy teach about sexuality in general, in order to help my reader understand how differing mediations of virtual and physical involve transformations in sexuality.

In each case, notice that there are implicit questions that get us places: How do game interfaces affect sexuality in games? How does game design influence networked sexuality? What do online sexuality and fantasy teach us about sexuality in general? How do different mediations of virtual and physical life involve transformations in sexuality?

Each of these is, of course, also a claim—”Different mediations of virtual and physical life involve transformations in sexuality.” So you might think that your thesis is baked in, and that’s the thesis. But actually, that’s just the starting point, the communicative context, for your research. You’ll discover your thesis in the elaboration of the how question.

Third: Research Problem

This is a fairly radical redaction of what Booth (et al.) have to say, but it will help.

First, we’re dealing with conceptual problems: what we do or do not understand. So let’s get explicit with one of these topic/question/significance sentences. Neither of them is done yet.

Let’s make explicit the conceptual consequences embedded in one of these two sentences by specifying the entailments between these levels—in reverse.

“In order to understand how game design can have effects on networked sexuality, I have to (it helps to) understand how game interfaces affect how sexuality works in games.” That’s not bad! And “In order to understand how game interfaces affect how sexuality works in games, I have to (it helps to) understand sexuality in early MUDs and Second Life.” This isn’t quite right. The scope of the problems doesn’t fit—and your intuition is probably exactly wrong. You could make the topic broader, but that’s exactly the wrong direction.

This is where we loop this back into specifying the topic even further. What you’re studying is not, then, sexuality in early MUDs and Second Life, but rather the consequences of textual vs. visual interfaces for sexuality in early MUDs and Second Life. “In order to understand how game interfaces affect how sexuality works in games, I have to (it helps to) understand the consequences of textual vs. visual interfaces for sexuality in early MUDs and Second Life.” That’s better, the scope matches.

We could get more specific than this, and will learn how to as our research progresses. But now we actually have some real agendas to start working on reading and research: textual mediations of sexuality in early MUDs, visual mediations of sexuality in Second Life. What we discover there will help us figure out how to connect the dots. And what we’ve arrived at is our goal: a really specific agenda as you start your research.