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Faculty of Modern and Medieval Languages and Linguistics


Choosing and defining a topic

Permitted topics

You can write a Year Abroad Dissertation or an Optional Dissertation on any subject that falls within the field of Modern and Medieval Languages, including linguistics and comparative studies, as long as suitable supervision can be arranged. The dissertation should relate in some way to the kind of topics found on Part II scheduled papers for MML.

For the Optional Dissertation, you may not write on a subject that was a specific topic or set text in any paper which you offered at Part IB, a subject from any paper which is available solely at Part IB, or a subject from any paper available at Part II as a ‘borrowed’ paper.


Choosing a topic

It can be difficult to know where to start in choosing a topic for your dissertation. Some advice commonly given is to consider which texts or topics you have enjoyed studying most on the course so far, and to think about ways in which you could explore them further. This could include:

  • reading more texts by the same author
  • reading texts on a similar theme or from the same period in order to compare/contrast them
  • reading general articles or books on a topic you find interesting, e.g. Symbolist poetry, the representation of adultery in nineteenth-century novels, films of the New Wave


A dissertation can take many different forms, but here are some common approaches taken for dissertations on literary or cultural topics:

  • an author-based study, which includes the analysis of several texts by the same writer/artist/film director
  • a comparative study bringing together texts by different writers/artists/directors from the same period or which address similar concerns, e.g. three or four novels which deal with issues of race in the Caribbean
  • a detailed study of a single text, bringing in discussion of a range of relevant issues and/or contexts


Here are some points to bear in mind as you start to define a topic:

  • accessing material

A dissertation should demonstrate substantial research and reading around the topic, so make sure you will have access to the right kind of material, especially if you are on your Year Abroad. Check out what is available in the way of electronic resources, and take photocopies and notes with you on books/journals only available in print.

  • choosing a manageable project

Think about the word limit and the time and resources you have available: choose a topic that is feasible and not too broad.

  • balancing breadth and depth

A good dissertation demonstrates both depth and breadth of study. This means that if you focus on a small corpus of texts or a single author, it is advisable to be more wide-ranging in the aspects you discuss, or to bring in a greater range of critical or theoretical material. Conversely, if you choose to write on four or more texts by different authors, you should look to define the focus of your study more narrowly to make sure that your dissertation does not become a superficial survey of too many texts.

  • writing on established topics vs. ones which are contemporary or less studied

Consider the pros and cons of writing on an author/topic on which a lot has already been published, versus opting for a less well-known or very contemporary topic on which little may have been published. If you choose to write on Proust, for example, you will find that a huge number of articles and books have already been published on his work. Much of the material should be fairly easy to access, and you may well find it very helpful in deepening your understanding of the texts and defining your own views. On the other hand, the sheer amount of material may be overwhelming, and it may be tempting to feel that everything has already been said! If you choose instead to write on a very new or an ‘overlooked’ writer or topic, you may find it more difficult to find any material already published, and you may feel somewhat ‘out on your own’, trying to form ideas in a critical vacuum. As your dissertation does need to have a substantial bibliography, if there is little or nothing published directly on your topic, you will need to identify other areas in which to read and bring that knowledge to bear on your work. On the other hand, you may find it exciting to be working in such a new area, and there is the advantage that virtually all your analysis will be original.

  • choosing a comparative topic

It is possible to write on a comparative topic across two languages, e.g. a comparative study of two artists, one from the Mexican muralist movement and the other associated with Soviet socialist art. In some cases it may be appropriate for you to be co-supervised by two members of staff. You should discuss this possibility with your Director of Studies and the potential supervisors. The usual practice in such cases is for the supervision to be split, i.e. you will have two hours’ input from each supervisor.

  • thinking ahead to constructing an argument

A dissertation should show knowledge of the texts/topics studied, and it should advance an argument in respect of them. You are very unlikely to know what this argument is when you start reading and planning, as it will emerge as you engage critically with your material and the views of others. But bear in mind at this stage that an argument is what you are ultimately aiming to develop.

  • avoiding overlap with Part II papers

Bear in mind that you cannot use substantially the same material in any Part II examination paper. In practice it is rarely a problem to choose a topic which is part of a Part II paper you intend to take, as most Part II papers cover a broad range of topics and avoiding overlap with your dissertation topic is usually straightforward.