Studying on the Open University Classical Studies MA? Read this advice from former A864 student Jack Lambert.
Writing a dissertation
If you’ve never written a dissertation before (or even if you have) it can seem pretty scary and daunting. That’s certainly how I felt when I started the Master’s in Classical Studies. However, it needn’t be as frightening as it first seems. Hopefully, after reading a few tips that I found useful when doing my dissertation (and listening to Cora Beth’s Dissertation audio), some of these fears will be allayed and you can look forward to having the opportunity to write about something that really interests you.
Choosing a topic
Obviously the first and most important thing in the beginning is coming up with an idea. You might have lots of ideas or none at all. While it’s beneficial to start reading around potential ideas early on, there’s no pressure to decide on a specific topic or question until after Easter when you submit your dissertation proposal. Coming up with an idea can be tricky, but you’ve probably got a good idea by now of what kinds of topics, sources, time periods etc. interest you most; looking back at what you’ve enjoyed studying in the past can be a good source for ideas. What’s more, you may have a contemporary interest that can be applied to the ancient world. For example, my eventual topic came from an interest in language and identity in modern-day Spain which I applied to Roman Hispania. Remember, you can always discuss potential ideas with your tutor and discussing with other students can really help to clarify your ideas – plus it’s fascinating to see what ideas others have!
Embrace the theory!
As mentioned in the audio, A864 takes you through the stages you need to be able to complete the dissertation at the end. A large part of this, and different to A863, is the focus on theory. Admittedly, I wasn’t a big fan of the theory part. However, it’s important to include some theory about how you approach your topic in the dissertation, so it’s a good idea to get used to applying theoretical approaches in your TMAs to build up your confidence in this area before your dissertation. The course material introduces lots of different theoretical approaches to think about so you will be guided through this process and encouraged to incorporate it into your TMAs. So, even if the theory is an alien concept to you, as it was for me, by the time you come to writing your dissertation you’ll be familiar with different theoretical issues in scholarship.
As someone who has to make an effort to be organised, it was useful to think about how I went about collecting information and note-taking. When you are writing a dissertation you have to deal with far more sources than you do for a TMA so you’ll have lots of notes that you need to be able to find quickly and easily. Although time consuming, including detailed bibliographic information and page numbers when writing notes and keeping an updated bibliography as I was reading around my topic helped in order to keep track of what I’d read – and it also saved time when it came to referencing, since I already had all of the relevant details that I could copy and paste into my dissertation document. I’m sure you have your own ways of doing things; but small things like this can save you time later when it really matters.
You don’t have to think about planning your dissertation until you’ve decided on a question and submitted your ideas to your tutor in TMA 04. However, a word limit of 12,000 words can initially seem overwhelming. It might be helpful to start thinking about this in terms of smaller chunks. When you eventually develop a plan, you’ll be able to break it up into smaller manageable sections, probably closer in size to what you’re used to writing for TMAs, which is certainly less intimidating than thinking of it as one long project.
There are lots of resources available to you for finding material for your dissertation. Here is a (by no means exhaustive) list of some useful ones:
The OU online library: is a good starting point, there are lots of articles and ebooks available but depending on your topic it might be a bit limited.
Loeb Classical Library online: great for translations of Greek and Latin literary sources.
University libraries: In the UK you can apply for a SCONUL card to access university libraries. Alternatively, membership of the Institute of Classical Studies entitles you to use of their library in London and they offer a postal service for borrowing books. As someone living outside the UK I found that I could use the libraries of public universities for reference as well as museum libraries, but this may vary depending on the country you are in.
academia.edu: is a web resource where scholars upload their work that you can access for free. You have to register but it’s not necessary to pay a subscription.
Google Books: offers a preview of many books. You’re limited to how much you can read but it might be enough to find what you’re looking for or just to get an idea whether the book is going to be useful to you.
Bibliographies of other scholars’ works: going through bibliographies is a great way to quickly build up a list of potential sources in your area and get an overview of the scholarship on your topic.
Your tutor: will be happy to answer any questions you have and you can discuss your ideas with her throughout the dissertation process.
Forums: the online forums are a great place to exchange and discuss ideas. Some people use them a lot, others less. If you are less comfortable using the national forum there is also the tutor group forum where you can discuss your ideas in a smaller group.
I hope some of the tips are useful – and no doubt you will receive more and more advice as you get closer to your dissertation. Writing a dissertation is a challenge, but it is one that you have a lot of support and guidance in doing and, because you can choose to write about what really interests you, it really is the most enjoyable part of the Master’s.
Finally, I want to wish you the best for your studies and I hope you enjoy researching your topics as much as I did!
Jack Lambert, from the A864 class of 2017-18.