Essay Guide

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Humanities essays

What are the humanities?

The humanities refer to subjects that study people, their ideas, history, and literature. To put that another way, the humanities are those branches of learning regarding primarily as having a cultural character.

For example, one of the UK’s academic funding bodies, the Arts & Humanities Research Board or AHRB, tends to concentrate on the following sorts of subjects: Classics, Visual Arts and Media, Modern Languages, Music and Performing Arts, Philosophy, Religious Studies, Medieval and Modern History.

Key features – primary & secondary texts

In the majority of these subjects you begin with a primary text – e.g. a play or a film or a set of historical events. You are expected to show good knowledge of the primary text and to mount a discussion of it – or of aspects of it – that is located within current critical debate about it. You are expected to use your own judgement about other people’s judgements of the primary text.

Key features – logical argument

Readers of your essay will look for an argument that is clearly expressed in a logical order. They will not expect your essay to follow a specific set structure. For example, an English Literature essay might start with a plot summary of the work being discussed, a quote from the work or a quote from critical writing on the work. The important thing is to use your starting point to say clearly what you are going to write about and why; and to make the rest of your discussion flow naturally from it

Key features – balanced discussion

This is probably the one feature that distinguishes humanities essays from other sorts of writing. This does not mean that scientific papers or social science essays aren’t balanced discussions: it means that a humanities essay is more likely to have review various opinions and interpretations.