Research: Coming up with questions & titles

At various times during your studies – especially in your second and third years – you will be asked to come up with your own questions for research projects, seminar presentations, essays, and so on. This is a challenge which you might find either exciting or terrifying. Either way, the following notes should help you.

Why is a title important?

In some ways, the title might be thought of as the DNA of your work: it contains the blueprint. It is not true that a reader should be able to recreate your work from the title alone (otherwise why do anything else?), but they should be able to get a sense of the general direction, shape and tone of it.

A good title:

  • is the first point of contact for your reader or audience (and first impressions last!)
  • indicates both the subject of the work (what are you going to discuss?) and the methodology (how are you going to discuss it?)
  • provides a constant reference point for you during the process of your work (‘Am I doing what I set out to do? Am I wandering off the subject?’)

A good title will show knowledge and confidence, a bad one will reveal that you are vague and unfocused. A bad essay very rarely has a good title. A strong, thoughtful seminar presentation will almost always have a strong, thoughtful question behind it.

Think about the different between this:
Aesthetic Pragmatism: what is the relationship between form and function in contemporary web design?

And this:
Discuss the impact that technology has on society.

If you can tell which of these is the better title, then you should be able to write good titles of your own.

What makes a good title?

A good title has a balance of authority (detail) and charisma (style). When coming up with your final title, think about the following:

  • Does your title suggest subject knowledge (specialist vocabulary, etc.)?
  • Does it suggest confidence?
  • Is it interesting?

You will know the basic questioning words available to you in English – What? When? Why? Where? How? Who? – but it is important to recognise that some of these will be more useful to you than others, or perhaps differently useful. So:

  • A question beginning with ‘when’ or ‘who’ is likely to be closed, i.e. it requires a definite, verifiable, factual answer
  • A question beginning with ‘why’ or ‘how’ might be considered more open, i.e. the answer is likely to be a matter of informed opinion and argument

The first of these is important but will only provide material for a limited amount of an essay or presentation, usually the introductory aspects (e.g. definitions, dates, background). The second will furnish the bulk of a discussion because it points to where the debate should take place.

There are a number of other words and phrases which you might find useful in framing a title: In what ways…? To what extent….? How far do you agree/ disagree…? Discuss… Explain… Show… Demonstrate… Consider… Account for…

Types of question

The most basic form of title simply asks a question:

To what extent does contemporary character design show the influence of postmodernism?

A good way of framing a title is to find a striking quotation and use this as a ‘prompt’:

‘We are all cyborgs now.’ (Donna Haraway) Account for this viewpoint and consider its relevance to the work of 21st century artists.

Alternatively, you might use a colon (:) as a ‘hinge’ between a charismatic main clause and a more descriptive second clause:

The Model is the Message: Marshall McLuhan’s theories of media and the aesthetics of CGI.

What is a working title?

In most cases, your title won’t need to be finalised until shortly before submission or presentation. A working title is essential, though, because it gives you a point of reference and something to talk around with tutors and peers. A working title:

  • tends to be longer, clumsier, and less interesting than the finished article
  • often ‘shows all the wiring’, i.e. detailed aims, processes, and so on
  • changes as your research develops and your focus shifts

So, your working-title might be something like this:

An examination of how the relationship between design and engineering are associated with the culture of production in determining the manufactured artefact with some reference to theories of semiotic analysis and the ideas of Jean Baudrillard.

In other words, dry as dust, rather long-winded, and grammatically dodgy. Your final version, however, might be:

‘Objects and Objections: design, engineering and the theories of cultural production’.

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