Writing and Rhetoric
College of Humanities and Social Sciences

The M.A. Thesis Option

Guidelines and Procedures

The Thesis Proposal

The thesis proposal introduces your study: the rhetorical situation that generates a problem, the question or issue that you are asking about the situation, and the means by which you'll answer those questions. It should persuade your committee that you have a viable study (one that is motivated by disciplinary conversations and/or external needs and problems, that is do-able, etc.) and it lays out a map for you to follow as you conduct your inquiry and draft the thesis. The proposal has two main "movements." The first explains the origins of the inquiry and how that inquiry is motivated by and situated within previous work and current conversations on the topic; it culminates with a specific research question. The second lays out your plan of action for pursing answers to those questions. The proposal shouldn't be too long: maybe 5 pages single-spaced (not including bibliography). It should get right to the point and show that you have a focused idea. The proposal should be organized with the following headers:

 

Introduction

The introduction should establish the rhetorical situation around your study and the problem that you plan to investigate and ultimately solve. The motivation or exigence for the study may include personal experience (in the workplace or elsewhere), emerging societal problems, needs and trends, and/or disciplinary conversations that suggest your study is needed. Some basic types of rhetorical issues might be:

  • New communication trends in the media, writing practices in the workplace, or developments in technology have yet to be adequately described, explained, and interpreted.
  • Changes in a well-known rhetorical phenomenon or situation have not been explained and re-interpreted.
  • The underlying meanings that circulate within a situation have not been brought to light and their effects have gone unnoticed.
  • Ambiguities, weaknesses, or potential uses for a rhetorical theory have yet to be examined or enacted.

(Revised from Lindlof and Taylor, Qualitative Communication Research Methods)

 

Literature Review

The literature review examines what has been researched and argued about your particular issue, object of analysis, rhetorical situation, and/or theoretical approach within the disciplinary literature. This discipline might be framed as rhetorical studies, professional writing, technical communication, composition studies, cultural studies, media theory, etc. These areas often have different journals, different conversations, and different research methods, but they can also overlap in various ways. It is important for you to pick one particular area as your main one to review. Relevant material can come in to your analysis from other areas, but by defining an initial disciplinary audience you can determine whether this other material is new or useful to that audience and its concerns.

The lit review should be written in paragraph form and approximately follow a historical organization to show the development of an ongoing disciplinary conversation that you will write into. The thesis should expand on this initial run at some research and cover some more territory. The review is not just to show that you know who said what. It serves three rhetorical functions for your argument: it situates your study in a disciplinary conversation; it identifies the conceptual foundations and theoretical framework you will be applying in your study (stating explicitly the key theoretical terms/concepts you will be using and defining them clearly); it identifies a gap in the scholarship/research that needs to be filled.

The literature review is not an annotated bibliography; it is an essay that essentially serves as the core of the literature review chapter of your thesis.

 

Methods

Having posed your question for research, the proposal should move into establishing how you will answer that question. You should anticipate what you need to learn and the ways you can obtain that information. You should discuss your overall approach (rhetorical criticism, ethnography, discourse analysis, case study, genre analysis, theory/application), your specific methods for collecting data (library research/close reading, participant observation, interviews, surveys, usability studies, etc.), and your criteria for choosing your participants and/or texts (i.e., your sampling methods). Just as your problem might need multiple types of claims to fully answer it, you might need multiple methods to find needed information. If so, discuss how these strategies fit together to build the stages of your evidence.

If you are using more qualitative or social science-based methods, you should discuss how you will implement the methods: how you will gain access to a workplace or social context, how you will determine and approach informants, how you will treat informants ethically, whether you'll need HSRB/IRB approval, etc. This may include the logistics of using technologies (recorders, computers, etc), pay or reward participants, how you will code and analyze data or field notes, etc.

 

Contents

It can be helpful to project your thesis' chapter or section breakdown. Think of this as a Table of Contents with chapter/section titles and a single paragraph explaining what each chapter/section will accomplish rhetorically. For researchers doing ethnographic work, it's likely that your thesis' main sections will be determined by the main categories that emerge from your field notes and transcripts. For researchers doing discourse analysis, your main sections might be driven by some variety in the texts you're examining. For researchers doing primarily theoretical work, your outline might revolve around a section that establishes your theories and the application of these theories to your object or scene of analysis; or, your sections might be based on the types of sub-claims needed to support your claim: fact and cause for defining a problem, value for establishing the need to solve the problem, and solution for showing what theorists or practitioners should do about it. Your breakdown in the proposal should be brief and simply provide a sketch for a basic logic that seems to fit your situation, problem, and methods.

 

Schedule

Timelines for theses are often flexible and change as your work develops, but it helps to start out with some basic goals. Finishing a thesis in one semester is a challenge and requires fairly strict adherence to a tight timeline. You should discuss some realistic goals with your chair and build this initial structure into the proposal. Typical milestones would be: getting your proposal approved, gaining IRB approval, a period for gathering research or data, due dates for getting drafts to your chair, dates for getting revisions to readers, a date for getting the final version to the graduate school. This can simply show up here as a bulleted list.

 

Bibliography

For the proposal, include an initial bibliography. This would obviously include material cited in the proposal, but also include works from your coursework that you know you will use and any new research you gathered up to this point. The goal is to pull together what you have and to show what key texts and theorists you will use. Eventually you'll want to do more research and add on to this initial list. Be sure to follow MLA or APA exactly.

 

M.A. Thesis Procedures and Etiquette FAQ

How should I recruit committee members?

You may initiate contact and describe your thesis idea via an email, but offer to meet with the potential reader to discuss your project. You should choose a chair that primarily deals with the issues, theories, and methods you are interested in. Readers should have at least one of these connections to your project. You should be able to identify likely candidates from your coursework. A candidate for chair can point you to possible readers you may be unaware of, or to another faculty member that may be more conversant with the theories or methods you wish to employ and would be a better candidate for chairing the thesis.

 

What are basic procedures for circulating drafts among the committee members?

All drafts go first to the chair. Drafts go to readers only after the chair says they're ready. Typically the chair will review the first two or three drafts; the version the readers see is likely to be a third or fourth draft.

 

Will committee members read drafts and meet with me outside of fall and spring academic terms?

In general faculty are not available to advise you during the summer and winter breaks. You may, however, ask a faculty member in advance if she or he is willing to read a draft outside of the fall or spring terms. Answers are likely to vary depending on the faculty member's research and publications commitments over that time.

 

How long should I expect committee members to take over my proposal draft?

Allow at least a week, including a weekend, for readers to send feedback on a proposal draft.

 

For the proposal, how much revision should I expect readers (as opposed to the chair) to require?

It will depend on the reader. Some are very hands-off at this stage, deferring to the writer and the chair; others will offer substantive suggestions for the study and the proposal.

 

How long should I expect readers to take to read and send feedback on my thesis drafts?

In your timeline, allow a minimum of 2 weeks for readers to read and send feedback on an initial thesis draft. Reading and commenting on a thesis for the first time is the work of several hours. Second and third readings may go more quickly.

 

Should I let readers know when to expect my draft?

Absolutely. If you let readers know when you plan to have a draft for them, they can schedule time to read it. Keep them up to date on delays.

 

How many revisions will I have to put my thesis draft through?

Perhaps the central fact of a thesis is that unlike a course paper, which receives a grade at the end of the semester, a thesis is not done until it is at the level of an A; it goes through revision until it meets that standard. Thus there is no set answer to this question. Some theses require only one or two revisions; others may require three or four. The quickest process is one in which the thesis undergoes two revisions (one major, one somewhat less so) under the chair and one more under the readers. It's typical, however, for both chair and readers to require additional passes and thus more than one semester to complete.

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