«BA Independent Research Project Handbook February 2014 CONTENTS WHAT IS AN INDEPENDENT RESEARCH PROJECT?. AND OTHER FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS. 1 ...»
Department of History
WHAT IS AN INDEPENDENT RESEARCH PROJECT?... AND OTHER FREQUENTLY ASKED
How is the IRP different to an essay? 1
Do I have to use primary, unpublished sources? 2 What makes a good IRP topic? 2 Does my IRP have to be original? 3 How do I go about selecting a topic? 3 What if my topic changes? 3 What if I’m studying for a Joint Degree? 4 What if I’m spending a term or year abroad? 4 What is my supervisor for? 4 How is my IRP assessed? 5 When are the deadlines? 6
THE TIMETABLEIRP WEEK 2014: Choosing a topic and submitting a preliminary proposal 7 SPRING 2014: Developing your project and submitting a longer outline 7 SUMMER 2014: Research 8 AUTUMN 2014: Writing up 8 SPRING 2015: Final writing, completion and submission 8
RESEARCHING AND WRITING YOUR IRP 9Organising Your Research 9
EXAMPLES OF INDEPENDENT RESEARCH PROJECTS 10
PRESENTATION OF YOUR IRP 11Plagiarism 12 Style 12 Sections of the IRP 13 Submission and Coursework Deadline Policy 13
MARKING GUIDELINES 14
INDEPENDENT RESEARCH PROJECT PRIZES 16
THE INDEPENDENT RESEARCH PROJECT AND SKILLS 16
WHAT IS AN INDEPENDENT RESEARCH PROJECT?... AND OTHER FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS...
The Independent Research Project (IRP) is a piece of written work of between 10,000 and 12,000 words. Almost all History students write an IRP, with work on the project taking place over the course of roughly a year, beginning in their second year and completing in their final year. It is the longest single piece of work you will work on at Essex and plays an important part in the assessment of history degree schemes, forming one-eighth of your final mark. In many ways it is also the intellectual culmination of your history degree study, giving you the opportunity to use the skills you have developed during your course to create what is, in effect, a new piece of history.
How is the IRP different to an essay?
The IRP is of course much longer than an essay, and you work on it for a much longer period. However, more than this, the IRP is a different kind of work. The IRP gives you the opportunity to decide for yourself what topic you will examine, and to explore it in much more detail. It also gives you the opportunity to go through the process whereby historians reconstruct the past. As historians, we recognise that history exists only in the present and in our heads; it is actively constructed and not simply rediscovered in the records of the past. Historical research involves a process of selection and interpretation, whereby historians examine the records of the past in order to construct an interpretation which they believe to represent the past in a meaningful way. In this process there is an active exchange between theory and evidence, whereby the historian develops theories about the past and tests them using the evidence available.
Therefore, like all true historical research, the process of writing an IRP is dialectical.
Typically, it is only at the point of writing a first draft of the project that the researcher realises the need for further research or the significance of evidence or readings previously skimmed. It is therefore vitally important that you make an early start on the research in order to allow adequate time for writing up and further research (as well as unanticipated problems). The role of your supervisor in giving regular advice and feedback on early ideas, plans and drafts works in a similar way.
The IRP is therefore designed to give students a unique opportunity to explore for themselves the construction or making of history, through a piece of detailed, critical and possibly original historical research.
Do I have to use primary, unpublished sources?
No, for two reasons. Firstly, it is quite possible to do a good IRP using only secondary sources, if, for example, you wish to study different ways historians have approached a particular topic. This would be referred to as a historiographical study. Projects such as this are especially common if you wish to study the history of a country whose language you cannot read.
Most students do use primary sources, however. These can be unpublished or in manuscript, if you can gain access to such sources, but there is also a vast amount of material available in printed form or online. Your supervisor will be able to advise you on this point. Ideally, a project would involve reading a significant amount of source material or other data and constructing an interpretation of the topic in question on the basis of these sources. Therefore, in consultation with your supervisor, you should try to identify a body of relevant sources.
Whether you use primary sources or not, it is crucial that the project should incorporate a critical perspective – that is, you need to demonstrate that you have thought carefully and critically about the topic yourself. Projects based on primary sources which do little more than paraphrase those records are not acceptable; nor are projects based on secondary subjects which do little more than repeat interpretations to be found in that secondary literature. Whatever kind of IRP you write, it is crucial to show that you have worked out your conclusions for yourself.
What makes a good IRP topic?
To a large extent you can select whatever topic you wish, provided a member of staff in the department believes your project is feasible. It is very important, however, to choose a project which interests you – remember that you will be working on this for over a year.
It is also important to develop an IRP which is based not so much on a topic but on a specific problem or question, one which you will try to answer through the use your sources. A good IRP will also be developed with reference to existing secondary literature on the topic in question. Ideally it should deal with an issue that has been neglected or not answered by existing literature.
It is important to make sure your project does not have too wide a scope. It should be tightly focused on a well-defined problem; in that respect it is likely to resemble a journal article rather than a textbook. In the first instance you may identify a broad field that interests you, but in discussion with members of staff you should identify a specific question or problem to research.
Does my IRP have to be original?
No. It is very hard to find a research question that is completely ‘original’. It is quite possible that you will use new sources to ask the same questions as previous historians, or ask new questions of the same sources. But do not panic if you find it difficult to be entirely original. What is important is that you carry out the work yourself: if you have read the sources yourself, carried out your own analysis and written up your own project, then it does not matter if you come to the same conclusions as previous historians. As ever, contact your supervisor if you are uncertain.
How do I go about selecting a topic?
It is important to start working out your IRP as early as possible, beginning in IRP Week in the spring term of your second year. Make good use of IRP Week. After the initial meeting, you should use IRP Week to meet with staff members to discuss possible research questions. All members of staff will make themselves available in IRP week for this purpose.
If you have a good idea of what you want to do, and a staff member is happy to approve this, then you have no problem. If not, then think carefully about what topics, periods, places or people have most interested you during your time at Essex or previously, and whether you might be able to pursue them in your IRP. If you are unsure, it is a very good idea to talk to multiple staff members, to follow up more than one possibility.
Information about the topics staff members are prepared to supervise are posted on their
office doors, the student noticeboard and the Departmental Website at:
http://www.essex.ac.uk/history/current/ug.aspx Remember that if you are taking one of the specialised single honours degrees (American;
Modern; Social & Cultural), your IRP is one of the components which must be within the appropriate specialisation.
What if my topic changes?
It is to be expected that your exact topic or research question will change and develop as your work goes on – this is a natural part of open-ended historical research. The main thing to remember here is to keep your supervisor informed. It is a good idea to ask their advice before making significant changes.
Some students come to feel that they wish to abandon their original project altogether.
This is possible but it is usually inadvisable. You should think very carefully and ask advice from your supervisor and/or the IRP Director before making such a change.
What if I’m studying for a Joint Degree?
If you are on a joint degree programme you have slightly more decisions to make, as you will be able to do an IRP/dissertation in either of your disciplines. You should consult the summary degree structures in the Department’s Undergraduate Handbook to work out what your options are.
Joint degree students may wish their project to combine the two disciplines (although supervision and assessment will be based in one or other of the departments) or you may choose to undertake a project that falls entirely within one or other discipline. If you need any advice about this, please see the IRP Director.
If you choose to do a project (or Independent Study) in the other department you should seek advice in the appropriate Department. Please make sure you note the dates and times of the other departmental project/independent study meetings.
What if I’m spending a term or year abroad?
If you are spending your whole third year abroad, you should begin the IRP process as normal in your second year; your project should thus be agreed before you leave and you should work on your project where possible during the vacations and while overseas. You will then resume work when you return at the start of your 4th and final year.
If you are spending the autumn term abroad your final submission deadline will be the first day of the summer term. Your HR831 workshop classes will take place in the spring term.
You should submit a 2,500-word draft by arrangement with your supervisor.
What is my supervisor for?
One of the unique aspects of the IRP is that you will have a member of staff assigned to supervise your work on a one-to-one basis. This is a very important relationship and you should make the most of it. Your supervisor can advise you on all aspects of developing a project, locating primary and secondary sources, researching, writing and presenting your work.
Many students do not make as much use of their supervisor as they should. Their IRPs are almost invariably the worse for it, and this is reflected in their final mark. Remember: you do not know how to write an IRP, but your supervisor does. This kind of work is new to you, and you have no experience of it. But your supervisor does: they have written projects like this before – undergraduate dissertations, doctoral theses, articles, books and so on.
Make use of their advice. You should meet with your supervisor regularly throughout the process. You can also contact them by e-mail.
Your supervisor cannot, of course, write your IRP for you. Ultimately the work is your
responsibility. But supervisors can help in the following ways:
• Advise on the initial choice of topic and whether it is feasible.
• Advise on useful primary and secondary sources.
• Comment on your 200- and 1,500-word proposals.
• Advise on progress.
• Comment on plans.
• Comment on your 2,500-word draft (see below). Supervisors will not read further drafts, but you must continue to meet with them to discuss your work.
Your supervisor can therefore be extremely helpful to you, and you should make the most of their advice. You should also try to work with them in a professional manner. If you wish to meet with them, email for an appointment. If you make an appointment, keep it, and arrive on time. Make sure you know what questions you want to ask, and pay attention to the answers. All of these will contribute to a good working relationship and, ultimately, a better finished product.
A further source of help and advice is the IRP Director. Your first port of call should be your supervisor, but you can also contact the IRP Director for advice if you wish. You can also ask the departmental Adviser for the Second or Final Year as appropriate.
How is my IRP assessed?
The IRP comprises one-eighth of your degree work and assessment and is very thoroughly evaluated. All projects are marked separately by two members of staff within the Department. Some are also seen by the external examiners who monitor the standard attained by students.
The overall mark for your IRP will be based on the following criteria:
• The design of the project and its research questions
• The argument presented in response
• The use of existing historiography
• The sources used
• The writing and presentation of the project.
The marking criteria for IRPs are printed in full at the end of this booklet.
You will get your mark for your IRP when you receive your examination results, as this is a component of your final year and the mark is subject to ratification by the Board of Examiners. The IRP is assessed only on the final document; the 1,500 word outline submitted in the summer term of your second year will be assessed as part of your HR211 assessment, and will not form part of the final IRP mark; your oral presentation in the HR831 workshops and your 2,500 word draft do not form part of the final assessment.
When are the deadlines?