DEPARTMENT OF COMPARATIVE LITERATURE
A GUIDE TO INDEPENDENT WORK
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Comparative Literature is the crossroads of the Humanities. Its aims include the investigation of the relationship of two or more national literatures, an examination of the ways in which literature encounters other text-based disciplines such as History, Politics, and Religion, an assessment of literature’s place among other creative arts such as music, photography, or painting, and an exploration of translation both as an actual practice and as a dynamic cultural agent. The intellectual rigor of this wide-ranging discipline depends upon its practitioners’ commitment to the study of particular foreign languages and literatures, and, at the same time, the attention they devote to the complexity of a global cultural system. The “comparative” reading of literature and culture must therefore be accompanied by an explicit critical agenda: we are not merely seeking out common denominators between the various objects of our scrutiny, but also trying to account for their presence, their significance, and their visibility. In effect, the very flexibility of the intellectual framework of Comparative Literature also entails a certain vigilance on the part of its practitioners; we are as interested in the legitimacy of the questions we pose as in the answers we obtain.
In order to complete their independent work, undergraduate students in Comparative Literature write two papers over the course of their junior year, and they devote themselves to a thesis for the better part of their senior year. These essays grow in length, and more importantly, in intellectual complexity, reflecting both a student’s increasing acquaintance with particular foreign languages and literatures, and the more ambitious critical agendas such knowledge provides.
Students typically begin with close textual analysis in the fall term of their junior year, resulting in a 3000-word essay. The object of attention here is generally a single non-English language text that the student can read in the original, or two closely related texts, one of which may be in English. In either case, the purpose of this exercise is to demonstrate facility in reading and interpreting the work(s) in the original language(s) and in developing a critical idiom for discussing the most relevant features of the text(s). While students almost invariably refer to general works that allow them to contextualize their arguments, as a rule they neither rely upon nor address previous critical approaches to the text(s) they are analyzing.
While they are writing their first junior paper, unless they are abroad that semester, all new majors are enrolled in COM 300, the Junior Seminar. That course has been newly redesigned in order to offer an overview of the various sorts of comparative work that might be undertaken in the second junior paper and senior thesis, and to address in specific fashion the more complex research and writing components of those endeavors. For a description of the new version of COM 300, please see pages 7-9.
In the spring term of their junior year, students produce an essay of 8000 words and of a wider critical scope. The comparative dimension of this endeavor is made explicit in both the research phase and in the essay itself. The questions posed here might range from an examination of texts from the two different national literatures in which the student specializes, to an analysis of literary and political texts arising from the same historical circumstances, to an investigation of the particular intersection of literature with another artistic medium, or to a theoretical approach to the practice of translation. In all cases, students are expected to refine their original comparative agenda over the course of the semester, to use research tools in order to acquire robust contextual knowledge of the cultural phenomena under scrutiny, and to work with the original language(s) of the relevant text(s). Students should confer with their advisers in order to determine the extent to which their own essays need address prior critical approaches. As the second junior paper involves not just a greater number of variables, but also more types of background information, more evidence for and against a particular argument, and more phases in the articulation of an agenda and in the progression towards a persuasive conclusion, crucial features of this essay include correct bibliographic documentation, deployment of a clear and flexible critical vocabulary, proper pacing, and logical organization.
The senior thesis is naturally the culmination of the student’s comparative work, and typically results in an essay of 20,000 words. This yearlong project involves, like the second junior paper, a comparative approach to the two or three different national literatures in which the student specializes, or to literary and non-literary texts arising from the same or related cultural ambits, or to cognate instances of literature and another medium of artistic expression. Students with sufficient preparation in and approval from the Program in Creative Writing may also write either a creative thesis or a translation thesis under the joint auspices of PCW and the Department of Comparative Literature. Applications for such theses must be made in the spring of the student’s junior year; successful applicants will be assigned one adviser from PCW, and a second from COM; all creative and translation theses must be accompanied by a rigorous critical frame, worth 50% of the final grade, in which the student addresses the literary precedents and particular aims of his or her creative work, or the relationship of his or her translation to historical and current theories of translation.
Given the relative length of the thesis, the ample time and resources allowed for research, writing, and revision, and the student’s increasing familiarity with both particular languages and literatures and with larger critical questions animating the entire discipline, seniors are expected to formulate sophisticated comparative questions, and to answer them in a nuanced and persuasive fashion. Senior theses in Comparative Literature should articulate a clear critical and methodological agenda in their opening chapters, and should both engage with prior critical traditions and offer original approaches to the works under scrutiny. As with the prior independent work, a premium is placed on a well-developed intellectual agenda for the entire work, on careful research and bibliographic completeness, on clear and nuanced expression, and on logical organization of the many components of the argument.
First Junior Paper:
|May 10, 2013||Complete online questionnaire concerning topic|
|September 11, 2013||Advising assignments published|
|October 8, 2013||Five-page prospectus due|
|December 18, 2013||First Junior Paper due|
Second Junior Paper:
|January 6, 2014||Complete online questionnaire concerning topic|
|February 3, 2014||Advising assignments published|
|February 17, 2014||Library research session|
|February 24, 2014||Seven-page prospectus due|
|April 30, 2014||Second Junior Paper due|
|May 10, 2013||Complete online questionnaire concerning topic|
|September 11, 2013||Advising assignments published|
|September 30, 2013||Library research session|
|October 8, 2013||Eight-page prospectus due|
|December 11, 2013||Draft of first chapter due|
|April 9, 2014||Thesis due|
The Junior Seminar in Comparative Literature has been newly redesigned in order to offer an overview of the basic types of comparative work undertaken in the discipline, and to address in explicit fashion specific components of independent work. The seminar will focus on questions such as the unit of comparison, the role of translation, the place of critical theory, and the problem of medium (for example image, text, film). Every other week, a faculty member from Comparative Literature will visit in order to present an approach to one of these issues animating the discipline; the subsequent week, students will follow up with a further discussion on the topic and exercises that set the approach to work. These practical exercises will be keyed to an appropriate type of research or writing. The goal is thus to familiarize students with a range of intellectual questions, methodological approaches, and research resources so as to better prepare them for the second junior paper and senior thesis, and to acquaint them with faculty in the Department of Comparative Literature.
Proper management of the time allotted for research, writing, and revision is crucial to successful junior papers and senior theses. Departmental deadlines are helpful ways to maintain momentum over the course of a semester or an academic year, but the intellectual experience of independent work and the eventual outcome depend, in large part, on the ways in which the entire process is addressed. This section focuses on the major phases and goals of that process.
While seminars generally provide an implicit intellectual framework for the sorts of questions one might pursue when writing a course-related paper, independent work comes with little such context. From the outset of each project, students must work both on their own and with their advisers to establish the parameters of their inquiries. Important considerations include the feasibility of the project, the proper balance of originality and responsible treatment of previous scholarly literature on the subject, the student’s own interest in particular literary questions, and his or her ability to formulate persuasive answers.
In order to complete the online questionnaires associated with each junior paper and the senior thesis, students need to identify a general area of endeavor, and to indicate their current level of scholarly preparation. These questionnaires provide the Director of Undergraduate Studies with relevant information about each student’s linguistic background, familiarity with given topics, and acquaintance with possible advisers, but they also compel the student to articulate the basic types of texts he or she would like to analyze, and to explain the particular appeal of these works. As independent work offers both the opportunity to develop issues encountered in passing in seminars and to venture into new literary territory, students should generally steer a middle course between returning to familiar works and embarking on a project for which they have no preparation at all.
One helpful way of identifying very general areas with the appropriate balance of novelty and prior acquaintance is to conduct a preliminary investigation of other works by a preferred author, or of the same genre, or emerging from the same cultural movement, or associated with the same literary problem. A second approach, if a previous seminar serves as a general point of departure, would be to ask the professor for titles of other works that might be included on a future syllabus for the same course. The better the student is able to identify the sorts of literary features, issues, or contexts he or she would like to investigate further, the easier it will be for the professor to provide appropriate titles.
Such specificity is also useful to the Director of Undergraduate Studies, whose task it is to assign an appropriate adviser. These decisions involve the fit between the student’s specialization in particular languages and literatures and areas of faculty expertise, but are not limited to such considerations. While the narrow focus and close textual analysis of the first junior paper normally require an adviser who works in the same language(s), the increasing breadth and the more theoretical nature of the second junior paper and above all of the senior thesis often require an adviser with cognate literary concerns.
Advising arrangements for the first junior paper and for the senior thesis are finalized and published on the first day of the fall semester; those for the second junior paper are disclosed on the first day of the spring semester. As the prospectus is due within several weeks of the beginning of each semester, students should schedule the first available appointment in their advisers’ office hours. Whether the project is a junior paper or a senior thesis, this initial meeting allows students and advisers to address the constraints and the feasibility of particular lines of inquiry. Advisers can, moreover, suggest timesaving research tools, and can help students narrow or broaden the focus of their inquiries as needed. This first meeting also serves to establish general expectations about writing and revisions.
Juniors, whether engaged in the first or the second independent work project, have only one adviser per semester. In general, the Director of Undergraduate Studies does not assign the same adviser for both projects; it is more useful to the student if he or she experiences a slightly different set of expectations and several areas of expertise. That said, juniors often encounter one or both of these advisers again when they undertake the senior thesis, especially if they request such an arrangement. Seniors have two advisers, one of whom must be a member of Comparative Literature. Though one is designated as the “primary” adviser, and the other “secondary,” seniors are encouraged to consult with both throughout the year. At a minimum, both advisers should initial the prospectus, and both should feel free to raise particular concerns at this relatively early moment in the thesis-writing process.
Among the adviser’s initial recommendations, particular editions of the text(s) under scrutiny and general background works figure prominently. Students should make every effort to secure or at least to consult these primary and secondary texts promptly; it is sometimes the case that the appropriate works are not available in Princeton’s libraries, and need to be ordered through Interlibrary Loan. In the event that they encounter particular difficulties in securing the proper texts, students should contact Senior Reference Librarian Mary George and Literature Bibliographer John Logan, both based in Firestone Library.
In their second meeting, the student and adviser should compile an initial bibliography. For the first junior paper, this will in all likelihood be a brief list consisting of the primary text(s) the student plans to analyze and a few contextual books and articles; for the second junior paper and especially for the senior thesis, the bibliography will undergo considerable evolution as the project develops, but will invariably start with the appropriate edition(s) and basic background works.
Students writing their first junior paper generally do not have research needs that exceed their current abilities. They also gain some initial expertise in research during the course of the Junior Seminar, but those needing help in Firestone or other Princeton libraries should contact Ms. George or Mr. Logan. In order to address the more complex research agendas of the subsequent independent work, Ms. George and Mr. Logan will meet with seniors in September and with juniors in February. These mandatory meetings normally take place about a week before the prospectus is due; they serve to introduce students to the relevant research tools, help them locate materials by identifying the descriptors used by the Library of Congress, and demonstrate the different sorts of bibliographic manager programs available to them. As Princeton’s libraries often possess rare books or unique archival material pertinent to independent work in Comparative Literature, these research sessions are also a valuable means of identifying and using such items. Finally, Ms. George and Mr. Logan help students, especially those working on interdisciplinary questions, to navigate between differing scholarly and bibliographic conventions in order to identify the critical sources and authorities most relevant to their projects.
The prospectus is an important component of both junior papers and the senior thesis. In this document, students formulate the critical problem as they see it in this early stage, describe the preliminary work they have already undertaken, and articulate the basic components of the project. For juniors, these components will be subheadings of the eventual essay, whereas for seniors, the relevant units are the three to five chapters of the thesis. While much of the prospectus will undergo modification, it should articulate not simply a preference for a particular topic, but rather a general argument about why that topic is worth investigation in a comparative fashion, the types of evidence and arguments the student envisions in support of the basic hypothesis, and the kinds of contextual information he or she anticipates using. The prospectus should also include a working bibliography. Elements of the prospectus are taken up as research and writing exercises in the Junior Seminar; every other week, students prepare short texts of the sort that lead to the eventual prospectus.
Students in Comparative Literature should use the prospectus to address and sustain a crucial initial consideration. This document and the subsequent independent work should make explicit what kind of literary investigation is being undertaken, and why. If the first junior paper is a close reading of single foreign text, it may not have a comparative agenda. In his or her analysis of that text, however, the student will necessarily be articulating a hierarchy of sorts between, for example, ideological and aesthetic elements of the work, or between its original and subsequent impacts, or between biographical information and generic conventions; these relational considerations, and the need to explain why one kind of interpretive approach is privileged over another, or why some textual feature correlates with another, are often the groundwork for subsequent work of comparative nature.
If the first or second junior paper involves two closely related works—a vernacular version of a classical text, a novel and its cinematic adaptation, an original and its translation—the comparative dimension is generally straightforward, but rarely simple. Rather than merely presenting common denominators, or reducing the pairing either to a glorious archetype and a derivative copy, or conversely to a primitive forerunner and its evolved successor, such studies must identify and explain the differences between the two works, treating both as autonomous and fully developed cultural productions.
Comparative work for the thesis, finally, is generally still more complex in nature, as it often draws together at least three variables. In preparing the prospectus, a senior must consider whether the sort of comparison he or she is conducting involves, for instance, questions of literary influence and reception, as in the cases above, or an analytical framework of the student’s own creation, as for example, a study of memoirs written during the French, Russian, and Egyptian Revolutions. The latter sort of comparison would likely invoke little or nothing in the way of transmission and influence, but would seek to explain both differences and similarities in a certain class of texts produced under revolutionary circumstances. Alternatively, a senior might use the prospectus to articulate his or her resistance to a generally accepted model of transmission and influence, as for example between a capital and its provinces, or between an empire and its colonies, or between highbrow and popular culture; in this kind of work, the student would be reversing the unidirectional trend of the conventional comparison, or proposing a model of exchange and mutual influence. While it is expected that the student’s approach to the comparative nature of the project will be modified over the course of his or her senior year, this dimension of the thesis should be articulated from the outset.
Advisers see the prospectus both as an overview of the entire project and as a valuable gauge of the student’s ability as a reader and writer. While it is almost inevitable that early formulations of any project gesture toward critical paths that will later be abandoned, or that they give short shrift to areas worthy of greater development, the itinerary proposed by the prospectus must be of sufficient clarity that the adviser can initial the document, offer feedback, propose alternatives, and, in many cases, suggest additional reading. In the event that the adviser does not feel that the prospectus describes a viable project, he or she will contact the student and the Director of Undergraduate Studies with suggestions for improvement.
Once the prospectus has been approved, students and their advisers should work out mutually acceptable schedules for meetings, submission of drafts, feedback, and revision. Though the writing process differs with the individual, in general students find it easiest to begin not with the introduction or preface, but rather with the critical issue that most interests them. As the hypothesis evolves, a student should expect to incorporate new material and to adjust crucial features of the original argument. Such evolution cannot take place, however, without writing: notes, highlighted passages, and other isolated fragments, however copious, will not lead to a refined and persuasive argument unless they are converted to critical prose. Advisers can rarely judge the full force of any argument, moreover, if they see nothing but outlines or shorthand redactions of the project, or if they only hear an oral version of it; they are best able to offer feedback and to make crucial interventions when presented with polished prose.
The different types of materials that compose junior papers and the senior thesis require careful management if they are to form the basis of a persuasive and original argument. As even the first junior paper will probably involve a few books or articles providing context, as well as a certain amount of textual evidence drawn from the work(s) under scrutiny, the student will need to attend closely to proper forms of citation and to offer succinct paraphrases of background works. Put differently, the paper should not feature large blocks of quotations; direct citation is most effective when it is kept to a minimum. While close readings invariably involve some quotation of the primary text(s), citations should be balanced by sustained analysis. Unless a particular phrase from a background text is worth discussion, there is no need for direct citation; paraphrase and careful documentation of such sources are better practices. Students in Comparative Literature are expected to follow either The Chicago Manual of Style or The MLA Style Manual for bibliographic documentation.
When second-semester juniors and seniors begin to engage with a critical tradition, the art of paraphrase becomes even more useful. In order to demonstrate familiarity with relevant previous scholarship but to avoid being drowned out by such a chorus, the student must present effective syntheses of other critics’ views. As it is often difficult to reconstruct those perspectives months later and under pressure, it is best to write up short synopses of each argument immediately, and to consider their common denominators and shared agendas; even critics with disparate views and incommensurable conclusions often share unstated assumptions. The ways in which this criticism might be deployed in the thesis will probably shift over the course of the semester or year, but having such synopses already formulated and footnoted will make the logic of such modifications more obvious and easier to manage. Finally, it is important that the student address both critical silences surrounding his or her area of interest and critical evidence against his or her claims; thoughtful explanations of why some areas of literary inquiry are characterized by neglect, or just where and why others’ interpretations are invalid can serve to strengthen and to nuance one’s own hypothesis.
It is important, of course, to maintain a rigorous schedule for all independent work. At stake here is not just the student’s schedule, but that or those of the adviser(s), who cannot always offer immediate and detailed feedback. In general, students writing the first or second junior paper should submit significant portion of their drafts to their advisers directly after the mid-semester break. Seniors should submit at least half of the first chapter directly after the fall break, the first chapter by the end of fall semester classes, and a rough draft of the entire thesis, except for the preface or conclusion, directly after the spring break. Advisers who have seen and commented on previous versions of the student’s work will in general be able to respond more quickly, and will in all likelihood have less drastic and less urgent proposals for its improvement. Because of the relative complexity of independent work, and the premium placed on polished critical prose throughout, careful management of foreign terms and phrases, thorough bibliographical documentation, close engagement with the relevant contextual and scholarly literature, and proper formatting, students should allow more time than that allotted to seminar papers, even those comparable in length to junior papers or individual chapters of the thesis.
Feedback from the adviser(s) provides a crucial way to improve the rough draft. Criticism might involve stylistic, rhetorical, factual, structural, bibliographical or methodological issues, and will sometimes include suggestions for more research, reading, or documentation. Given that revisions can be time-consuming, it is best to seek out the relevant material and to begin as much rewriting as is feasible as soon as possible. In many cases, the questions and suggestions offered by the adviser(s) at this final stage help the student make valuable adjustments to the original hypothesis. These modifications are especially useful to the senior as he or she addresses the preface or conclusion of the thesis; a persuasive and sufficiently nuanced overview of the entire project is normally the last element of composition.
The student’s best and closest guide to independent work is naturally the adviser, but a number of other resources are available here. The Director of Undergraduate Studies should be contacted if the student experiences problems in getting timely feedback, or if the project has changed so much that the original adviser is no longer the appropriate mentor. In the event that the adviser is concerned about the student’s progress, he or she in turn will notify the Director of Undergraduate Studies.
The Junior Seminar, COM 300, allows students to consider a range of comparative approaches, and focuses on particular types of research and writing pertinent to independent work in this department.
In the spring of their junior year, students are also encouraged to apply for funding, both within and outside of the Department of Comparative Literature, in order to conduct thesis research. Funding is awarded on a competitive basis and rarely covers all costs. Students applying for such support must submit a robust research proposal and a detailed budget; some applications also require a letter of support from a potential adviser. At the end of the summer, students who have received funding will need to complete a brief online questionnaire evaluating their experience. For more information on funding, consult this website: http://www.princeton.edu/complit/undergraduate/funding/
As mentioned above, juniors beginning the second independent project and seniors embarking on the thesis have special sessions on research techniques with Senior Reference Librarian Mary George and Literature Bibliographer John Logan. Individual follow-up appointments can be made with either Ms. George or Mr. Logan in Firestone Library; where relevant, they can also put the student in contact with specialist librarians managing individual collections around campus.
The Writing Center is an excellent way to address difficulties in refining introductory arguments and in structuring the entire essay or thesis. Located in Whitman College, the Writing Center offers free one-on-one conferences with experienced fellow writers trained to consult on assignments in any discipline. Special 80-minute conferences are available for those writing Junior Papers or Senior Theses; these students may sign up to work with a graduate student fellow from the department of their choice. The Writing Center also holds 50-minute conferences seven days a week, and drop-in hours Sunday through Thursday evenings. Sessions can be scheduled with writing specialists via this link: https://writing.princeton.edu/scheduler/appointments/
Finally, the Department of Comparative Literature also holds regular Senior Thesis Workshops throughout the year. The name is somewhat misleading, as juniors can and do regularly attend these sessions. These workshops are coordinated with departmental deadlines, and have specific goals such as bibliographic management, writing the prospectus, and revising drafts. They generally provide structure, solidarity, caffeine, pizza, and chocolate.
All independent work is expected by 3:00 p.m. on the due date; for the calendar of deadlines in 2013-2014, see page 6. Juniors should send their independent work to the department’s undergraduate administrator via email as a PDF attachment. Late submissions are penalized three points a day, including weekends. No late submission is eligible for the Junior Paper Prize.
No later than 3:00 p.m. on the due date of the senior thesis, students are expected to submit two hard copies to the departmental office, and one electronic copy in PDF. The hard copies are for the primary and secondary advisers, and should be bound; soft bindings such as coil or velo are perfectly acceptable. Hard binding is not required. The electronic copy in PDF should be emailed to the department’s undergraduate administrator. The department will retain one bound copy, and return the other to the student. The electronic copy will be archived in Mudd Manuscript Library. Late submissions are penalized three points a day, including weekends. No late submission is eligible for the Senior Thesis Prize.
The evaluation criteria for the junior papers and the senior thesis reflect the goals of the Department of Comparative Literature, measuring the students as independent thinkers, analysts of various cultural material, experts in the relevant foreign languages and literature, and writers of critical prose. Students are expected to demonstrate the ability to formulate projects of scholarly significance, and to conduct original work in their area of study, making use of appropriate analytical and critical tools for comparative research. They must also be able to express complex ideas with clarity, rigor, and persuasive fashion in English. Finally, the overall structure and organization of the second junior paper and the senior thesis should reflect their mastery of a considerable corpus of secondary works on their chosen topic.
Creative and Translation Theses
Students engaged in creative or translation theses are expected to demonstrate the same abilities in the critical introductions framing their work. The final grade is the average of the equally weighted assessments of both the creative work / translation and of the critical frame offered by readers in the Program in Creative Writing and in the Department of Comparative Literature. While the goals of creative work and translation projects differ across genres, the A range is still associated only with outstanding work.
Standards for the Grading of Independent Work
A. The A range is associated with outstanding analytical work in comparative literature. The essay or thesis is original in its choice of topic and in its approach, and the argument has been developed in a well-organized and elegant manner. The text is clear, persuasively written, and logically organized; the work as a whole is characterized by incisive literary analysis, high linguistic proficiency, and genuine critical sophistication. The writer demonstrates familiarity with a pertinent and substantive list of secondary works.
The mark of A+ is rarely awarded and must be supported by a written explanation and endorsement by the faculty member. It should be reserved for independent work that satisfies all of these criteria to a high degree. The mark of A- should be given to independent work that shows originality, but does not meet in a fully satisfactory way one or two of the requirements of independent work in the A range.
B. Independent work in the B range is a better than adequate treatment of a significant subject in comparative analysis. It reflects a very good treatment of the chosen topic, and a good use of critical and analytical skills for carrying out literary and cultural analysis. The adviser feels that the work might have yielded further insights, and that the argument could have been developed in a more organized fashion.
A B+ is an appropriate grade for a sensibly conceived, well-executed, well-written project that shows little originality. A B- is appropriate for well-conceived projects that have some significant flaw in execution or a number of less important shortcomings.
C. Independent work in the C range suggests a rather poor treatment of a subject. The argument is not well organized, and it lacks clarity in the expression. The literary analysis lacks complexity and insight. A C+ should be given to the most informative instance of independent work in the C range, a C- to those that meet the basic requirements of the category, but have several serious flaws.
D. To be given the grade of D, independent work must be characterized by a lack of critical and analytical skills, and by a very poor treatment of the chosen subject. Beyond that, little can be said in praise of independent work in the D range.
F. Independent work that does not meet the minimal requirements for the grade of D should be given an F, and must be accompanied by a written explanation and endorsement by the faculty member.
Director of Undergraduate Studies
Professor Ben Conisbee Baer
Senior Thesis Writing Group Leader
Senior Reference Librarian
Ms. Mary George
Mr. John Logan