Writing Your Proposal for an Essay or Project Comps

American Studies

Paper/Project Proposal

A comps proposal is a thoughtful, detailed plan of your research paper, a road map that you anticipate following. Of course, you can not know exactly where the process of your research will take you and the proposal does not bind you to avenues of inquiry that you discover to be fruitless (i.e., dead ends). However, a successful proposal does convey the impression to the readers that you have anticipated many of the potential potholes in the road and that you have already devised a plan to avoid them. For instance, if your paper topic focused on school desegregation in Minneapolis, you would not want to write that you hope to find data by race of pupil. Your promising project will be in trouble if these data were destroyed or are confidential. In a successful prospectus, you must be able to tell the readers that you have found a source for the data on desegregation by race and that you have been assured that it will be made available to you. Moreover, if your plan calls for statistical analysis of these data, you need to assure the readers that you have taken the statistics course necessary to provide you with this skill. For a second example, you do not want to say that you plan to interview the school officials and community leaders who participated in the desegregation process. What if they have moved away or don’t want to discuss these events? In a good proposal, you would name specific school officials and community leaders and inform the reader that you have already contacted them and that they have agreed to an interview at a later date.

The proposal can be thought of as a contract. The student puts forward a proposal for a research project and the American Studies program accepts or rejects the proposal. If it is accepted, the Program is agreeing to “pay” three credits (American Studies 400) upon satisfactory completion of the project. The skill of writing a proposal is very similar to that of writing grant proposals. Funding sources offer money for all kinds of topics and endeavors. There are far more applicants than dollars and those that are funded are doable by you and are worth doing.

Because there is a contractual nature to the proposal, the writing style is typically more formal than the prose that eventually comprises the research paper. You will see examples of this formal (mechanistic) writing in the guidelines below. It is important that you realize that the American Studies program is not requiring that you adopt this formal writing style for your actual essay. There the style that you adopt should be appropriate to the disciplines that you are bringing together in your research.

The prospectus must be typed and double-spaced, coherently organized, well-written, and honest about areas that are not fully developed. The audience is not your advisor or a specialist in your field; rather, it is a panel of faculty members in the American Studies program whose interests may be outside your fields. Your  advisor(s), however, is your best source of advice for successfully completing a proposal. Examples of successful proposals done by previous students in the program are available in the E-reserves section of the Gould Library page under AS 400.

The project comps poses unique challenges. As with the essay comps, you must demonstrate that you have an interdisciplinary, American Studies research question. But you must go further to provide a compelling argument that a creative or service learning/community engagement approach is the right way to answer your question. Further still, your proposal must provide satisfactory evidence that you possess the relevant logistic, technical, artistic, theoretical, and/or ethnographic expertise to successfully complete the proposed project. Project proposals must also include a second signature:  that of a Technical Advisor with an expertise in the appropriate technical details of production. Students are especially cautioned that the proposed creative work or service project must clearly engage American Studies. Project comps include an accompanying reflective essay in which students provide more detailed consideration of their work as an American Studies enterprise, explicitly explain any embedded connections, and situate their work within American Studies questions and methods.


The preferred format of the prospectus is as follows:


• Title: Must tell the reader the specific focus of the paper. Can also be clever.

• Topic: This is my interest, let me describe it for you and begin to show you why you ought to be interested as well (i.e., worth doing, worth 6 credits). Be sure you are defining all your key terms.

2) THE RESEARCH QUESTION (Clearly and In Detail)

• Narrow your focus from a broad interest. To try to ask six or more questions would be foolish. Neither should you try to make a compendium of questions you would like to answer (or look into) if you were taking 2-3 years to write a book. We need to see that you are already recognizing what is doable and what kinds of questions have information that is readily available that will enable you to answer them.

• “In this essay, I will explain . . . , I will answer . . . ” (and so on) Include your working thesis if you have one.


• What is the significance of your work? Too often students who are excited by a topic expect any other reader to be equally captivated; however, the reason for excitement, the significance of the project, is rarely self-evident. You must address the daunting questions: Why should others care? So what? Why is this research a worthy enterprise? Try to do two things here. First, explain whose work you are building upon, whose shoulders you see yourself standing upon, what bodies of knowledge you will enrich. In addition, explain whose work you see yourself evaluating. This is sometimes called situating yourself in the relevant scholarship. Organizing the literature is far better than merely going from one author to another. For example, is the debate between those who focus on the individual and those who focus on the community? Or do the differences fall along the lines of method or discipline? As you discuss the literature, be sure that you are being clear on why this literature is relevant to your interest. This section persuades the readers that you have the background to make this project doable.

• This section should persuade the reader that you are proposing an interdisciplinary project, one that will draw heavily on at least two disciplines and their literatures. Your text should make clear how your work is interdisciplinary. A project that is only about the analysis of American films, for instance, that does not thoroughly investigate the history of the period in which the films were made, is not American Studies.

• Discuss pertinent theories, arguments, divisions among scholars and ongoing debates about your topic (with complete citations). If possible (though it is not imperative at this stage), state your theory or argument.

• Discuss why someone outside your focused area of interest should read your work. What intrinsic value does your research have for the lay world? Here again you are addressing the question of whether this research is worth doing.


• How will you structure your essay? What will be some of the sections and subsections of your argument? What is your strategy for the way your paper will proceed? You should describe what you plan to use in the text of your essay as background and as evidence. If your project is comparing the image of the ideal mother in the 1950s and the 1970s, your background will include historical discussions of the family, gender relations, the economy and the politics of the two periods. Your evidence may include portraits of motherhood in film, television or novels, etiquette guidebooks, or countless other observable phenomena.

• You need to designate in the prospectus what will constitute evidence. What will your indicators be? If you are interested in testing the claim that suburbia is a safer haven for children than the city, will you look at the divorce rate, by suburbs vs. city? Will you use juvenile arrest rates as an indicator? If you will be examining the portrayal of children in films and novels in the two settings, describe some portrayals that you would expect to find in these sources and how they would influence your evaluation. We want to know that you know what you will be looking for.

• Link together your empirical data and the theoretical debates you just reviewed. Your proposal should include sentences that are the equivalent of the following: “I am going to examine media bias in the coverage of poverty and welfare. One particular type of data that I will examine will be Q (e.g., the proportion of pictures of African-Americans as a share of all pictures in Newsweek magazine coverage of the topic for three years). If my examination of this information reveals that such and such was the case (that pictures of African-Americans are used far more than the share that African-Americans constitute among those in poverty), then I would consider this evidence in support of hypothesis A [which was discussed in the previous section that reviewed literature]. Or if I find that children are repeatedly portrayed as in danger from the suburban environment and their parents are absent, then I would conclude that the evidence supports my claim that fictional accounts of suburbia challenge the standard storyline of why parents move to suburbia. This section should contain a number of these “If I find . . . , then this will strengthen (or weaken) the argument that . . .” statements because there are quite a number of specific variables or indicators that you want to look at which will have a bearing on your conclusions.


• This is the section where the question of doability comes to the forefront. Hoping to find data or information and planning to talk to people is not persuasive. The American Studies Program insists that you already know that the data exist and are available or that the people you want to interview are willing to talk with you on the record, or that bibliographical sources exist and are available to you.

• What kind of methodology will you use? How will you gather or generate your data? On what types of sources will you rely? Will you create a survey? If so, to whom will you distribute it? Is this an appropriate (nonbiased) sample? Have you received permission from those you want to survey? Have you received permission from Carleton’s IRB to conduct your survey? Will you conduct interviews? Do you have appropriate questions? (Copies of questions should be attached in the appendix of the proposal, as should copies of pages from your data sources: e.g., census bureau reports, Department of Education documents, board of elections statistics, campaign finance disclosure forms, school board reports, advertisements or program notes for sporting and musical events.) Have you any previous experience in conducting interviews? Have you read anything on this craft? Who specifically do you hope to interview and why? Have you contacted them and received their permission? Have you contacted the IRB? (a “Human Subject Research Application” is available on the Dean of the College webpage).

Do you plan to have a CD or a video tape of pertinent selections to accompany your essay? Do you have training in doing this media work? How many instances of a particular phenomenon that you are looking for in films do you think will constitute persuasive evidence? Have other scholars looked for instances of this in films and what was their method? Do you have experience with analyzing film or literary texts in the way that you are proposing, and if so, inform us of that experience?
• Obviously, you may change these methods after further thinking and consultation with advisors.


• Indicate what you have read and what you have not yet read. Indicate why you think sources are promising and relevant, what they contain or what you think they contain.
• Most complete proposals will (at this stage) include at least a dozen substantial sources of information, with annotations.
• If you are in doubt about the proper format for citation, consult the journal American Quarterly in the library to see the format that their articles use.
• We strongly recommend that you own and read a copy of John Trimble’s Writing with Style (2nd edition). If you heed his advice, you will be a much better, more persuasive writer.

7) PROVIDE us with a list of courses you have taken that have given you the background and tools necessary for this project, and tell how they're prepared for you.

Students must obtain the signature of at least one advisor as well as any technical advisors on the American Studies Prospectus Cover Page (see link at the top of this page) and submit this with your prospectus. The signature of your advisor(s) does not constitute approval from the program. 

Electronic submission for the comps proposal is due by 5pm on Friday of sixth week of fall term (October 24th) on the AMST Class of 2015 Moodle site. Seniors should make sure they have access to this site well before the due date. Any problems, contact tlittle asap.

Working closely with your AMST 399 professor and your advisor on multiple drafts of the proposal is an important aspect of this process. The student and advisor should agree on a schedule for submission of drafts. Because the faculty committee will need to read all of the proposals, discuss them, and reach a decision in a very short time, no feedback will be given other than Approved or Rejected. There will be no appeals on the decision of the committee.