What to do first?
Initially, I get my students to read and observe for orientation and experience, get a good grasp of the literature, and map out ideas and major sources.
The question is, if the student must read books before writing a thesis, what books should be read first?
What I am suggesting is that writing a thesis involves putting together a great number of books. But does the student always write a thesis on books and with books? It depends on the discipline.
There are experimental theses that document research in the laboratory, or in the field, perhaps conducted while observing migratory birds in the mangroves of Kuala Gula, or at Kuala Selangor for some months or a few years.
Over the years, I found that students, and supervisors, worry about research methods before deciding on a topic. Here the method depends on the discipline.
And people who has embarked on that kind of research already live in the laboratory. They work with and learn from other researchers. And as Umberto Eco advises “… they probably do not need this book”.
However, it is necessary to contextualise the experiment with a discussion of previous scientific literature. The student must still deal with books.
The same is true of a thesis in sociology that requires the student to spend much time observing the social environment.
But still, books will be needed, if nothing else, to understand previous ideas and interpretations, especially from those who have done similar research.
Newspapers and other mass media materials may be also required, either as empirical sources, or as background literature.
I am reading Eco’s How to Write a Thesis published in 1977. First written in Italian and meant to instruct Italian students, Eco’s book has been translated into 17 languages, including Persian (1966), Russian (2001), and Chinese (2003).
The era of the Internet and much online sourcing for data notwithstanding, How to Write a Thesis has not been revised or updated, apart from an augmented introduction that Eco wrote for the 1985 edition. In the Foreword (2015: MIT Press), Francesco Erspamer of Harvard University appropriately stated that the book’s “durable rules and sound advice have remained constant, despite passing trends and changing technologies”.
Arguably it is a classic — it is a work “which relegates the noise of the present to a background hum — but without rendering that hum inaudible”.
Erspamer believed that the book’s “staying power has to do with the very essence of the humanities”. Indeed, in the Introduction to the 1977 edition, Eco, author of The Name of the Rose and Foucault’s Pendulum, made it clear that the book deals with a thesis in the humanities.
Known as a philosopher, semiotician, literary critic and novelist, Eco related to studies in such topics, with an orientation towards a historical or theoretical approach.
Nevertheless, the arguments and criteria he suggested are equally applicable to a thesis in such disciplines as political science, education, law, architecture, economics or even some science topics.
In How to Write a Thesis, Eco addressed both the undergraduate and graduate levels — as in the first degree thesis in Italian universities called the laurea, and the doctorate.
A notable section in the book is on whether a thesis should be “scientific” or “political”. This was set after the students’ protests across Europe in 1968.
Then, a widespread opinion emerged that students should write a thesis linked to political and social interests, rather than on “cultural or bookish” topics. Eco argued that believing in either the “scientific or political” suggested that a “political” thesis is not “scientific”.
Usually we identify science with natural science or quantitative methods. And following this, it is believed that research is only scientific if it contains formulas and diagrams.
And this relegates research on ethics, manuscripts, religion, philosophy, art and literature to being not scientific.
One “scientific” criterion spelt out was that the research deals with a specific object, defined so that others can identify it. The term “object” can refer to a physical entity or can be in the abstract.
Taking it further, it leads to existence and to the conditions of existence. In other words, there has to be a publicly recognisable object of research — and this includes notions of morality, values, narrative, fiction, imagination, ideologies and the concept of historical progress.
Whatever the “object”, writing a thesis should be fun. Regardless of rules, instructions, forewarnings by supervisors, and colleagues, there should not be any unnecessary fear of not completing.
The fear of beginning and lack of research experience are not obstacles to what really matters. It is advisable that the student chooses a topic of interest close to the heart and dedicate oneself to the space and time allocated.
It is the satisfaction of hunting a text — lost and forgotten, solving an enigma after a long reflection. And as Eco often repeated in his conclusions, “nothing goes to waste”.
Writing a thesis is an experience. It is the challenge of making things fall into place, amid the chaos that may seem to exist moments before.
A Murad Merican NST Learning Curve - 25 MAY 2015 @ 2:50 PM