What is a Paper?
The following is an email I recently got from a student, followed by my reply:
I would no more assign you a topic than I would give you the answers to a quiz. However, just as the answers to all the questions on the quizzes are in the assigned reading, so topics are all around you. Let me explain.
I do not know your specialty at MassArt. I know that you took Visual Language. In that course you learned that all art involves choices, and any choice raises questions: What effect was the artist trying to achieve? Why did he frame the subject in a certain way and not another? Why did he pose his subject in a certain position, wearing a certain hat, etc? If an abstract, why did he choose certain shapes and colors and not others? What determined his choice of materials? Did the decisions the artist made further or hinder the effect he was trying to achieve?
Take another example, music. Mozart is often thought to be the most naturally gifted of all composers. A story is told that the Emperor Franz Joseph, on hearing a piece by Mozart, observed, "A lot of notes, Herr Mozart." There are two versions of Mozart's reply: "Not one too many, Sire"; the other, "Which would you have me remove?" The point is the same in both versions: every note that Mozart wrote was on the page for a reason. His notebooks show him hard at work revising, choosing among alternatives. His natural genius plus his hard work produced the closest thing to perfection that humankind has yet achieved.
Think of how you react to a film, whether The Seventh Seal or the latest zombie flick. In every case, if you bother to think about it, you ask, What was the maker trying to achieve? Did he succeed? How did his alternating use of close-ups and distance shots help or impede him? How did he use movement and light, and why? What about the characters, their age, their sex, their appearance, their dress? What about the background music? And on every one of these questions there will be differences of opinion that can be argued about.
Writing about history and making art both involve selecting what is significant from a mass of alternatives. The difference is that the historian is limited to selecting among things that actually happened and people who actually lived.
If you look with an open mind and imagination, you will find questions all around you. Open your book to any page and you will see events that pose questions: Why did things happen the way they did? Why did the characters act as they did? Were their actions representative or exceptional? How did they reflect the times? Etc.
A paper is not an encyclopedia article, where the purpose is to impart information. A paper is an argument relying on evidence—sources, analogies, testimony, etc.— introduced to convince the jury (the readers) to decide the case your way.
If you have an interesting question that is not trivial and to which the answer is not obvious, and you use the evidence skillfully and present your case logically, and take into account possible arguments against you, and write with conviction in good English, you will produce a first-class paper. Your ability to do that has little in common with what is normally called "academics."