While there are as many ways to write a monograph as there are authors to write them, there are nonetheless common elements in all critical monographs of which readers should be aware. In order to engage in a critical reading of a monograph, the reader should be able to identify and critique these elements. |
- The thesis is the central "point" of the monograph, the hypothesis the author is attempting to prove. Sometimes the author's thesis is complex, containing several subtopics or related issues. Sometimes the thesis is straightforward and unified. The reader should be able to restate an author's thesis in three or four sentences at most.
- The argument is the system of logic employed by the author in order to prove the monograph's thesis. This is not merely a summary of the story told by the author, but instead recreates the logical structure that the author has put together to prove the monograph's point.
- Method has to do with the rules employed by the author in organizing evidence, the kinds of question the author asks, and the approach utilized in answering them. Methodology consists of several elements, including sources, organization of the study, theoretical orientations, and manners of analysis.
- Are the sources used by the author typical and appropriate to the study and the topic? Does the author use the sources in a responsible, distinctive, or even unique way? What rules of use and analysis govern the author's utilization of the sources?
- Organization of the Study
- Is the study organized chronologically, thematically, chaotically? Does the way in which the author organizes the study enhance the argument, or hinder it? Does it herd the study toward (or away from) a particular conclusion?
- Theory and Models
- On what work(s) is this study modelled? Does the author draw models and/or theoretical orientations from a specific discipline, and does its use of those models and theories liberate or limit the study? For example, it is worthwhile to examine the author's underlying assumptions about causation and the engines of change, and the ways in which these assumptions affect the author's analysis of sources.
- In what forms of analysis--internal and external textual criticism, aesthetic evaluation, methodological examination, etc.--of evidence does the author engage? Are these forms of analysis appropriate and sufficent for the author's questions and conclusions?
- Historiography indicates the tradition in which the author writes about the past. It has to do with the intellectual approach taken to the subject, the school of historical thought from which the author writes, and the assumptions, values, or analytical framework employed. For the purposes of American Studies, historiography should be defined broadly to include any discipline's literature within the field. The reader should look for differences between the monograph and studies which have come before; usually, these historiographical debates with the previous literature appear in footnotes, but sometimes they also appear within the text itself. Often, introductory chapters or the introductory materials in specific chapters will provide an overview of the ways in which the monograph draws upon and deviates from previous literature.
In addition to these considerations, it is also useful to address critical differences between what could be termed "research issues" on the one hand, and "storytelling issues" on the other. Research issues have to do with the conceptualization of the study, the research and thinking that went into it, and the success of the author's research questions and answers. Storytelling issues have to do with the author's success in putting across the thesis and the argument, and can include questions of style and readability. Many monographs which are excellent examples of research are much less successful examples of storytelling; the opposite is also often true. If people tell you that your monograph "reads better in French," this might be a gentle hint that you have created a great work of research and a lesser work of storytelling. On the other hand, many wonderful stories teeter on shaky foundations of research. Clearly, the goal is balance and excellence in both regards. As a reader, it is often quite helpful to be able to separate one's critique into these two categories, because horribly-told stories can often turn out to be the most important research monographs of their time.