InstructionsThe essay should be about 3000 words long. It must both be based on research (going beyond the course readings) and make an argument (e.g. about what explains a certain policy decision, or about the facts where they are in dispute, etc.). Clear, coherent organization is also very important.
Fuller advice on how to write a term paper
This advice elaborates on the brief guidance given in the announcement on this topic. In grading a term paper, I look first for two key elements: research and an argument. Then I look for good organization and clear, stylistically correct writing or presentation.
Setting up the argument
The essay should have an argument to make: i.e. an explanation of a certain phenomenon (the most common type), or setting the facts straight about a certain issue (this can include a comparison of two phenomena, if it reveals features of them that are significant and contested, relatively unknown, or novel.) In this course, normative argument (that some policy is good or right, for instance) is not what I am looking for. However, even a factual or explanatory argument is usually better if it is related to something that you care about; and such an argument can be used to buttress a normative one (e.g. if free trade does not cause a right-wing extremist backlash, that is one more reason not to oppose it). And of course you should try to argue for a position you genuinely believe is the most convincing, regardless of what you think the instructor may believe.
An argument is often better if it is set against an opposing argument. This may not be possible in a new area of research, but you should strive wherever possible to find an argument to oppose. This will sharpen your focus by leading you to concentrate on the points that make your argument superior. If your search of the literature on a topic reveals two or more clear scholarly camps, you have a real advantage, as you can argue for one of them against the others. (In general, as an essay-writing strategy you should avoid coming down in the middle unless you can make clear exactly what this middle position is and specify why it is the best – don’t just do so on the grounds e.g. that both sides have strong arguments to make.) On occasion, you may be able to construct an opposing argument using for instance one of the theories of European integration. Another advantage of looking at opposing arguments: it avoids the danger of a one-sided paper. If there are arguments against your position being made in the literature or in public debate, you have to take account of them and rebut them.
Another excellent way to find an argument is to identify a puzzling phenomenon – something that goes against most people’s expectations (or those of a major theory in political science). If you can account for the phenomenon (your explanation will be your argument) you will have achieved something significant. The phenomenon may be puzzling in the light of a particular theory or set of expectations. For instance, why did the EU member states not react to the onset of globalization with a protectionist response? Here looking for an alternative explanation (an opposing argument) is not always necessary.
The research (see below) should be directed at finding evidence that backs up your argument. In practice you may need to do some reading in the subject before formulating the argument, but it is better if you can begin the reading with an argument already in mind.
Choosing the topic
The topic you choose should be, therefore, one that makes an argument that is not obvious or uncontroversial. If it incorporates a new or novel discovery, so much the better. And as suggested, solving a puzzle or problem is a good starting point: look for phenomena that interest you and seem to need explanation because they don’t fit our expectations.
Of course, the topic must be within the subject matter of the course in its central argument.
The topic should be of manageable size: not so specialized that there is no literature or primary evidence about it, but not so broad that there is a plethora of material to wade through. At the undergraduate level, an essay that does not refer to all the most significant literature on the topic may be acceptable, so the caution about over-broad topics may be interpreted flexibly – I don’t want to discourage you from thinking about big topics – but very broad topics risk parallelling the course readings and lectures and thus not being really original (though a critique of some of the key readings or arguments of the lectures, if well done, would be excellent); as a practical matter, they also present the student with the task of choosing the best literature to use from a wide selection (vis-à-vis this paragraph, see below on research).
Avoid multiple topics. Don’t choose, in general, to study e.g. both the causes and the effects of a certain phenomenon – focus on one topic and one argument, to keep your paper unified. A multiple topic suggests you have a broad subject area, but not an argument. Sometimes however two topics may be so closely intertwined that it makes sense to deal with both, but if you have to divide the paper into two halves, then you probably should choose only one of the topics.
Making the argument
The body of the essay should then consist of evidence supporting your argument. This is where the research comes in; but you should also try to be sure your evidence and individual arguments are strong – that is, are strongly related to your main argument and clearly support it. You should also consider the main arguments that could be made against your point of view, as suggested above, and rebut the most important or obvious ones.
Most term paper assignments involve research. In the context of an undergraduate paper, this means in the first place going beyond the course material (lectures and assigned readings) and finding new material on your chosen (or assigned) subject. This advice should be followed in substance, not just formally: in other words, do not write an essay whose main argument or thesis is the same as one made by a lecture or course reading. Even if you embellish it with some outside sources, this is not original. One of the most common negative comments I have written on student papers has been “nothing new” (i.e. nothing that goes beyond what we already know from the course material) or “thin research.”
Who are your audience?
This question is related to the definition of “research.” You should assume that your reader is an intelligent classmate who has attended all the classes and done all the assigned course readings (to the end of the course). So you do not need to lay out in detail concepts, facts, etc. that are set out there (unless you are perhaps dissecting them as part of your main argument) – you can take them as common knowledge (e.g. you can just use the term neofunctionalism and assume the reader knows what you mean). But you must explain concepts, facts, etc. that go beyond this course material and are not part of a “common pool” of political science knowledge – do not just allude to them: your writing will seem obscure, and I won’t know if you really know what they mean.
How do you find source material?
Primary sources vs. secondary: The use of primary sources may not be required by the essay assignment, but it is always very good to use them in your essay – and they impress the marker quite a bit. With the internet, they are easier to find than previously, but perhaps harder to evaluate for quality and reliability. It is best to use well-known, reputable sources (e.g. major newspapers) by preference, even though it is hard for undergraduates to always know which these are. Primary sources include data of all kinds (electoral, demographic, economic, etc.), including polling data; original documents (e.g. laws, party platforms, court decisions, etc.); newspaper and similar reports and articles (except for opinion pieces by journalists or academics as opposed to participants); and any other raw material that you do not obtain from the work of an academic author. The EU’s own site is a good source for some types of primary material (including Eurostat). Secondary sources are works by academics and other observers of the events in question (books, journal articles, conference papers, some newspaper and magazine opinion pieces, etc.) – they generally draw on primary sources. Reports, etc., produced by think tanks and similar probably belong in this category most of the time; on the other hand, government reports would be considered primary. Wikipedia: This can sometimes be useful, especially to find simple, straightforward information (e.g. election returns), but it is not reliable in all cases; it can give partial or even plainly incorrect information. I would advise you not to cite it, but instead to refer to the sources that the Wikipedia article uses, if you judge them useful and reliable.
Finding good secondary sources
For books, it is best to start with the Library catalogue and become familiar with the ways to search it. For journal articles, you can use the political science databases the library has (try the Proquest Political Science Collection, which searches the major ones at once). Searching for material with keywords is an art, and you need to practice to become familiar with the tools (including wild cards, searching for phrases, etc.); I often find that searching the abstracts is a good compromise between titles and full text. Two cardinal rules: 1) be persistent – try several approaches (e.g. different keywords) especially if your first attempt yields meagre results 2) never assume you’ve found everything there is available on the subject (even if you decide you have no time to go on searching) – the databases are by no means perfect. As a final move, you can try Google Scholar’s advanced search: the problem is that it usually turns up more than you want, and it can be time-consuming to go through all the items to get those you want for your paper. In searching databases, there are often trade-offs to be made between time spent and number of results. Failure to find enough material may lead you to revise your topic, and if you find a lot it may lead you to shape it somewhat differently.
Select the best sources
Admittedly undergraduates don’t always have the experience to be able to identify high-quality sources. Some rules of thumb: prefer journals that appear in the course outline, either in the introductory material or in the required and recommended readings. Next, prefer journals that are well known in the discipline (like the Canadian Journal of Political Science). Give lower priority to obscure and little-cited journals. Another way of identifying key articles is by author: if you recognize the author’s name from the course outline, for instance, or in some other way, you can be reasonably sure it’s worth at least looking at. Also, you should beware of using dated articles: if the events have moved on, even a five-year-old article may have been rendered obsolete or at least somewhat less relevant (though not incorrect for its own time, generally). On the other hand, some books and articles have stood the test of time as “classics.” In EU studies, even some relatively recent articles count as “classics” or seminal articles. The point is to be selective in choosing sources. As for content, the abstracts help a lot in identifying those that deal with your topic. (And an article that is right on point by an author you don’t know should still be looked at, especially if there are no other ones that close.)
The paper should have a brief introduction (no more than 1½ pages maximum, for a 3000 word paper, and if possible less) that tells the reader what the topic is, what the positions in the argument are (if more than one), or what the puzzle is, and what your argument is (what side you are on, what your explanation is, etc.) – do not leave it till the end to reveal what your position is.
This should consist of the arguments or evidence for your position, usually with the strongest first (though you might also decide to leave it till the end). Generally speaking a chronological presentation is not the best, and ought to be replaced with this sort of analytical one. Then you should present the best counter-arguments (if any) and your rebuttal of them.
In the body, make sure the reader is clear about the divisions between the different points you are making – where one begins and the next ends. Headings and sub-headings may be used. And be sure to avoid repetition – returning to a point after you’ve already covered it. Instead put all the material on one point together in the same place. Be sure also to avoid contradicting yourself, and maintain a consistent point of view. The reader can become confused if you send mixed signals. And don’t just be sure all the material in the body is connected to the main argument – you should make it clear to the reader how each part of the body is connected to it. Do not give the impression that your essay is disjointed.
It is important to be as specific as you can when you present facts and arguments – this will impress the reader, showing him/her that you have done the research. Don’t simply say “the Alternative for Germany did well in the 2017 election” if this is an important part of your argument – say that it got 12.6% of the vote, an increase of 7.7% over 2013, and footnote that fact. Don’t make vague statements that leave the reader wanting more detail.
Another related point: when you are making an argument, be sure to present sufficient evidence to support your points, especially the key ones for your case. It is not enough to quote a summary conclusion by a source (however authoritative) to support the view that, for instance, “voters supported the Alternative for Germany more for economic than for cultural reasons,” if this is the main point you are arguing. You need to present evidence (e.g. the evidence the author you are quoting uses). You can’t prove a conclusion beyond a reasonable doubt, especially in an undergraduate essay, but you need to have strong or at least plausible evidence.
The conclusion can be even shorter than the introduction, briefly stating what your point of view is and how you have proved it (or at least provided good evidence for it). The maxim “say what you’re going to say, say it, then say you’ve said it” is an excellent one.
Writing and style
This is very important in making a good impression on the reader. Even more important, truly poor writing does not convey what you are trying to say clearly or precisely, so that the reader is often left wondering what you really mean or if you understand what you are writing about. You should bear in mind that the grader of your paper is likely budgetting his or her time, and does not want to have to re-read it in order to tease out a meaning that is not clear at first glance. (Similarly real-world readers of newspapers, academic journals, etc., have limited time and are unlikely to re-read your piece either.) The grader probably will re-read if it appears there is meaning underneath the obscure language, but you may be penalized for poor writing. A style guide such as the Chicago guide (recommended) can help, but even more fundamental are correct grammar, spelling, and usage of words – you should make a habit of proofreading your essays at least once. For help with grammar and style, I’d suggest you dig out some of your high school textbooks on the subject. And don’t use a word because it sounds good or appropriate if you are unsure of its meaning – look it up in the dictionary.
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