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There are many questions in the field of English Literature which are valid and interesting, but which are simply not answerable: either by you, with the resources available to you as an undergraduate, or because of lack of evidence to work with.

The question you set needs to be answerable with the resources you currently have. This might include:

  • Time: You have very limited time to work on a supervision essay, and it is easy to be overly ambitious in setting a question. This is also relevant if you have a set word limit (e.g. in a portfolio essay or dissertation). It is better to prioritise depth over breadth; work with a smaller issue or theme, or fewer examples and analyse them in more detail, rather than trying to cover too much. If your question is too broad, then you will only be able to cover your answer in a descriptive, superficial way.
  • Skills: When setting a question, think through what you might need to be able to do to answer it. As an undergraduate, you may not, for example, have the specialist skills to analyse the composition of a manuscript or read fluently in the language in which the key scholarship is written. If your question is interdisciplinary, do you have enough knowledge of the skills and methods of the other discipline (e.g. History)?
  • Access: Consider the resources you will need to answer your question. Check that they are available to you (e.g. whether the University Libraries own copies or subscriptions) and whether as an undergraduate, you are permitted to access them. Also think about how long it might take to access the resources, if books are on loan or need to be ordered.
  • Evidence base: in newer fields of research, the evidence base from which you need to argue may not yet have been established. In other cases, it may not be extant, or may never have existed. Consider what kind of evidence you will need.
  • Focus: Ensure that your question or problem is clearly defined, even if it is not directly phrased as such in the title. If you do not have a focussed problem or question, your answer may become descriptive and superficial. Many supervisors allow first year students more lattitude in exploring an issue rather than addressing a strict question, partly to allow them to develop their own ideas after the constraints of A-level. However, even in a looser essay topic, the focus should be on the higher learning skills such as application, analysis, synthesis or evaluation to achieve some end, rather than aimless description.

Remember, however, that a supervision essay is intended to be a means of developing and exploring ideas, rather than a definitive answer. There may be wrong answers, but there is never a single right answer in English. As long as it is possible to attain some sort of conclusion, then you should not stick to setting yourself easy questions, but take some risks and set yourself some challenges.