Your supervisors will give you focused advice on content and methods, so here are five things you won’t be told about how to shine in independent study projects, but which will get where you want to be.
Some will be profoundly counter-intuitive, and all will mean challenging yourself and your views. But that’s the name of the game. However, all of these will transform your work over time in mystifying and almost magical ways.
About half the marks available in all the work you do are for solving ‘thinky’ problems. What’s wrong with my argument? What is evidence like? What are states? Does gender matter? Are individuals real? What do historians do? Can objects speak? Brainstorm a list of ‘thinky’ problems in your project and take them to your supervisor’s office hour.
2. Explore the now.
Why is Olympus potentially the most corrupt corporation on earth? Why did democracy campaigners in Egypt not want elections now? Don’t know? Oops. If you want to start to grow your appreciation for complexity, contested ideas and interconnectedness in a relatively painless way, then read a paper edition of a serious newspaper 3+ times a week.
Only paper editions count, because you can’t flippantly pick and choose what you read in them, and because they make you invest something in obtaining them and spend special time away from gadgets reading them. The reviews, comment, economics and society pages matter as much as the news.
3. Obsess about commas.
And paragraphs. And colons. Can you quote the rules for using these? They might seem marginal to the real business of your work, but they’re not. These are easy marks to throw away – and easy to win back, too. Explore the rules at http://www.bristol.ac.uk/arts/exercises/grammar/grammar_tutorial/index.htm. Master the exercises, and your grades will improve – as will your salary after Uni.
You have to master a huge amount of material just to get started on your research – including dozens of difficult, long books. Eventually, you have to read the books that matter in detail, but you can identify those more quickly by reading book reviews in JSTOR. If a book crops up in your literature search, JSTOR will find reviews – you tick the ‘review’ box in ‘advanced search’. Then you’ll know what the book’s major arguments are without reading it. If they’re important – then you read the book.
5. Stop taking notes.
No-one can read, think and write at the same time. So when doing your research, put your pen down. Read a chapter of a book or a journal article, and when you have finished reading, write down what you remember. But not everything that you remember!
Jot down: the argument; its relationship to other people’s arguments (same, similar, different); the types of evidence it used; the types of approach it used (economic history, anthropology, gender theory etc.). If you can’t remember it, it wasn’t that important – move on to the next item. Think more; write less.