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Some essay titles are prefaced by a quotation. This is more common in Tripos exam papers than in a supervision context, but you may choose or be set a title from a past paper as part of your supervision work, or in end-of-first-year exams, or you might develop a question of your own in this format.

Where a quotation is included in an essay title, you are expected to engage with it to some degree. Examiners' reports repeatedly stress this:

Examiners' views

  • “Some questions prefaced by a quotation did not require the candidate to think about the quotation and to reconfigure their previous work in the light of it, but some did.” (Examiners report 2008)
  • “Alertness to the connotations and also the context of the quotation preceding a question resulted in the more focussed, sophisticated answers.” (Examiners report 2010)
  • “Few took advantage of the quotations provided to draw out the implications of the question.” (Examiners report 2010)
  • “Many of the best answers took the time to scrutinize the terms of the question. They were not afraid to argue with, or meditate on, the quotation.” (Examiners report 2010)
  • “It would be nice to see more diversity of approach, and more attentiveness to the question (including the nuances suggested in accompanying quotations” Examiners report 2008)

The quotation may have a number of purposes and it may be useful to identify the reasons why a quotation might be used as part of an essay title, and the different ways in which you might respond to it.

There are a number of types of quotation used in this way depending on what kind of text they have been taken from and their relationship to the text you are studying. They may be:

  • from the text itself
  • from a contemporary text (perhaps by the same author or genre)
  • by the / an author, commenting on their work
  • by a contemporary writer or thinker
  • by a modern critic or thinker (often an academic)

The quotations may be included for a number of reasons. Some may simply give you an example, or some context to show you what is meant, others may be an assumption or proposition to address or critique. It may be tempting to confine your interpretation to demonstrating that the quotation may be taken at face value, or that it is an accurate assessment of the text, but you might also analyse and evaluate as well as apply the quotation. The quotation may be given

  • to justify the title, by demonstrating that the issue raised is a genuine one, using evidence from the text (you could analyse the issue further, finding examples that illustrate different aspects of the issue. You could also challenge the extent to which it is an important issue)
  • to give an example of the issue raised, to demonstrate what is meant, and to give you a context (you might challenge the extent to which this is a representative example, or a useful context through which to view the text)
  • to help you focus and narrow your response by providing a specific example as a starting point (you might analyse further exactly what that example is, and if there are other, different or more central senses which you might explore)
  • to offer an intellectual or historical perspective to apply to / in which to place your text(s) and broaden your approach
  • to offer a key term to be analysed in its various meanings and usages (what other senses are there to that term? what does the author mean, what do other authors mean, what do you mean?)
  • to offer a view about the text, so that you can assess how true or central it is to the text, author or genre as a whole (you might offer opposing views or contrast with other issues that are more central in your view)
  • to give you a point of view, a proposition to be explored, demonstrated or challenged
  • to conform to the genre of exam essay questions, which often contain a quotation.