This is from a course blog I run where students are doing research via project and exegesis, and many students and supervisors are unsure exactly what the role of the exegesis here. Critique welcomed.
As Becker reminds us in the chapter on “Editing by Ear” there are no algorithms we can employ when deciding how to structure writing, or what it should be. It is a tacit knowledge, so consists of what are, at best, rules of thumb. So I am going to outline the role and function of the exegesis broadly. In what I’ve written below I refer to chapters as individual things (a theory, project description, and analysis chapter), but remember, rules of thumb, in many exegeses some of these may be split and become two chapters because that makes more structural sense to the exegesis and its argument.
Something that is present in all that is written below, but perhaps not explicit, while an exegesis can use the personal pronoun (“I”) and be based on your specific experience in undertaking your project, it is still research writing. This means it makes claims. These claims have evidence to support them which comes from the literature and other relevant works, including your project, and these claims make an argument. An argument is a particular point of view in relation to the problem, but it is different to just expressing an opinion because it is informed by your reading and thinking and so the point of view is supported by evidence. This also means the writing is not just reporting on what you did in your project, but it shows how the project engages with the research question that you are wondering about. You can write this informally, in the first person, even as a graphic essay if you have the ability, as long as it makes relevant claims, supported by evidence, and that these claims make a justifiable argument. This means an exegesis is academic writing, but it does not have to be a formal essay written in the third person using only objective language. Finally, the only readers that matter for your exegesis are your examiners, you are not writing for the public, your supervisor, your teacher, or your mum.
An exegesis is not a thesis. A thesis is a written argument that generally has the form of some sort of critical hypothesis that it outlines and investigates. What that means is that a thesis usually has the form of a statement posing as a question which involves bringing two terms together, with the research being what happens when these terms are actually bought together. For example, regardless of the question a thesis can be boiled down to simple pairs such as “A Deconstructive Analysis of All That Heaven Allows“. Or “A Feminist Critique of Writing”, or “Postcolonialism and the new Singapore State”. In each case the writing will set out and discuss each one of the pair of terms individually, and then in the ‘heart’ of the writing bring them together. In the first example you could expect a chapter about deconstruction – what it is, what it means, examples of how it is used (probably in cinema studies since the question is referring to a film), and so on. Then a chapter specifically about melodrama and Sirk, and this may be inflected in particular ways (melodrama and narrative, melodrama and the women’s film, melodrama and genre). Each of these two chapters would primarily engage with what has already been written and thought and argued about these topics, laying out the terrain of the problem if you like. Next is the chapter where the film is (you’d hope) deconstructed, using what the previous two chapters have introduced. This is the heart of your thesis.
Now, this example is a thesis, not an exegesis. An exegesis is not where you make something as the project component (imagine for the example I had made a melodramatic short that has some sort of relationship to All that Heaven Allows) then write a smaller thesis about deconstruction and Sirkian melodrama. An exegesis is the writing that shows how the project you have done is research. Now at this point most people nod their head because they know this, except I’m pretty convinced they don’t since they seem to miss the important three words in there. “Project is research.” This means an exegesis is not, project plus research, or project and research, or project and some research. It is how your “project is research”. Therefore to be able to write an exegesis you need to think of your project as research, but what does that actually mean?
In honours research is not just going to the library, finding a lot of material about your topic, reading this and then knowing more about it. It does involve this, but this is one step in honours research, and one step only. (Your honours research is absolutely expected to be based on doing this step, but in honours we conceive of research as a richer and stranger beast than this sort of professional research model.) In honours you learn a lot about something and then use that knowledge to make your project, and through that making your understanding of your research problem changes – you don’t only know more about it, but you understand it differently than you did before. For this to happen the research aspect of your project revolves around a research question or problem, which is what you think you want to find out through doing your project. This problem is ideally something complex, potentially wicked, and most importantly you do not really know the answer to it yet.
Of course this begs the question of how your project is research. I’ll put that to one side as this needs its own post, but you do need to frame a problem that you are going to investigate through your project. If I’m doing the melodramatic short film that responds to All That Heaven Allows then there are lots of possible research questions I could ask. Some might be quite close to cinema studies, some much closer to an investigation of my practice as a film maker, and others somewhere in between. An example of the first might be a question like “How do I identify and use Sirk’s melodramatic ‘excess’ to create emotional investment in a film?”. This question is less about my specific film than a more general question about films and melodrama in question. A question that would be closer to my practice as a filmmaker might be “How do I direct actors so that their performance is a contemporary reinterpretation of the melodramatic performances from All That Heaven Allows in a contemporary short film?” This question can explicitly deal with the film that I am making and the relation of that film to another one, through the specific problem of directing actors. In each example constructing the problem in this way helps in thinking about the exegesis and what it needs to do as it frames a research problem that is part of the project. The research problem must be something you want to find out, and is related in some way to your project.
- You do need to do a lot of basic background and preliminary research
- This informs your project
- As a part of defining your project you frame a research question that your can investigate through your project
- A good honours research question will be relevant to your project, is something you think is valuable for you to find out, and it is good if it is not something you really know the answer to yet
- Through doing your project, from the point of view of it as research, not only will you know a lot more about it, but ideally your understanding of the question or problem will change in itself
To write an exegesis for these hypothetical questions I would have a chapter that contextualises the key terms of my problem. In the first example this would be around melodrama and its description in cinema studies as ‘excessive’, what this means, examples, and quite specifically detailing how this applies in the case of Sirk’s melodramas and of course All That Heaven Allows in particular. This is best thought of as being like a small essay in its own right in the exegesis where you are largely outlining what cinema studies has had to say about these things. For the second example the content would be quite different. Here you might look at all the literature about directing actors, the director actor relationship and material in performance studies and performance theory. Within this chapter you could then apply the relevant parts of this to describe what is known or what is likely to have been the relationship between Sirk and Wyman and Hudson. It would also be wise to identify and discuss any contemporary work that is self reflexively melodramatic, or even contemporary melodrama and what is has in common (or if it matters more, what is different) to the sorts of performances witnessed in All That Heaven Allows. In both cases this chapter contextualises your research problem in relation to what has been made and thought about before. This matters as your project should not be made in an intellectual vacuum, and is expected to be informed by what others have done (this is the difference between a naive and an informed making).
For project based research you are much better off thinking of this as a ‘theory’ chapter rather than what a lot of the ‘how to’ guides call a literature review. This helps because you should not limit yourself to only written work, and you want this chapter to do more than describe relevant things but to frame these in ways to indicate which ones matter more. It is here that you are able to introduce the key terms/ideas/concepts/theories that you will apply when you discuss your project’s outcomes as research later in the exegesis. This chapter can be written early, even before you have started your project, as what you find here (I hope it is obvious) will influence for the better what you make.
Generally the next chapter of an exegesis is where you outline and discuss what you did. This chapter is a bit of a production diary. What did you actually do in the project? How did you go about doing it? What decisions were made and versions or variations in the project as a result? What happened? Why? This sets the context for the project component, and is often important for those projects that have a ‘small’ high quality outcome but which rely on a lot of ‘invisible’ work. For example perhaps my short film was only three minutes long, but it involved months of rehearsal. I can’t see that when I look at just the finished project, so this is where you show all this other work. I like to think of it as the iceberg problem, where the submitted project is the tip of the iceberg and in this chapter you show all that lies under the waterline. (This is also why good ongoing documentation really matters, and why it might be worth including this as an appendix, you need to prove to an examiner that you have done a lot of work, and that the work submitted has been informed by thinking it through, often realised through sketches, notes, prototypes, variations of the finished piece.)
So, you have a chapter contextualising the problem from the point of view of work in the area and other relevant projects/things. A chapter outlining what you did. Now we get to the key chapter of your exegesis. How has the project answered the research question? Here you use the terms, ideas and arguments that you established in the ‘theory’ (literature review) chapter and apply them to your project. This is like writing a thesis where you have outlined and discussed your two big key terms, except now one lot of terms (ideas/concepts) are from the earlier theory chapter where you have contextualised your project in light of the field, and the other comes from your project. In my first hypothetical example it is showing how the finished film has used emotional ‘excess’. What devices (through perhaps storyline, performance, editing, mise-en-scene) have been used to contribute to this? How successful do I think this has been (perhaps I’ve surveyed audience members, or just reflected on what is present in the finished work)? For the second example I might discuss how the actors were directed, how this informed their performance (perhaps using evidence not only from the finished film but from rehearsal footage and outtakes too), and whether or not it has succeeded as a reinterpretation of the original melodramatic performances. You might compare and contrast images from both films, and so on.
The key thing to understand is that for this chapter your project is providing the research material, and the theory chapter the method for how you are going to analyse this research material.
It is no more mysterious than this. However, this does mean what you say and do in the theory chapter is very important, as it makes possible what you can say about your project here.
Finally, a conclusion. What have you learnt from doing this? What has changed in your understanding of the problem, your practice, in the project, as a consequence of doing this? In what ways do you feel this has mattered? Why? In an honours exegesis this does not have to be for the whole world, just your understanding is fine, but your understanding as it is situated in the now richer context of what you understand your field to be. So the conclusions you make are informed by your research and the experience of making your project and the project as it has turned out (the thing in itself). As a rule of thumb the more you can indicate a change in the sophistication of your understanding from where you started to where you arrived, then the easier it is to write your exegesis, conclusion, and the clearer the significance of your work is to yourself and your examiners.
, research practice