Introduction to Literary Research

The database anthology I’m on the editorial board of is going into a second edition, of sorts — we’re adding a fair number of new texts and cleaning up some issues with the old ones. For this second edition, I’ve produced a very brief essay introducing students to some of the methods used in basic literary research. The draft is below the fold. Bearing in mind a couple of things — first, that the audience for this essay is generally first- or second-year college students in a class called something like “Introduction to Literature”; second, that there are other such essays taking on issues like textual analysis and so forth — what are your responses? I’ve primarily aimed the essay at my own pet peeves about the ways that my students do (or don’t do) research, but no doubt you’ve got your own. What else should I include here?


A Brief Introduction to Literary Research

Different kinds of writing assignments in literature classes ask the student to conduct different kinds of inquiry. Some, for instance, will ask you to focus closely on your own interpretation of a text, drawing evidence to support the claims made in the course of the paper solely from that text. Others will require that you perform extensive research into what are often called “secondary sources,” texts that are not themselves the object of analysis, but are about the object of analysis, containing other scholars’ interpretations and understanding of the text in question. The purpose of such research is generally to enable you to enter into a field of critical discourse that is already in progress, to participate in an ongoing conversation about a literary text, and to stake out the significance of your way of approaching the text by acknowledging the approaches of other scholars and suggesting what questions have thus far been left unanswered.

Such research, however, requires a particular set of skills, both in terms of finding appropriate sources and in reading, evaluating, and incorporating those sources into your own thinking. Your instructor will likely have some specific requirements for your research; what follows should be taken as general advice, a good set of strategies for beginning your work, and not as a replacement for any methods preferred by your instructor.

The first and most important piece of advice that any student can receive is to get to know the research or reference librarians at your school’s library. These librarians are specialists in information retrieval, and they will therefore have the best insights into the databases and bibliographies subscribed to by your library, as well as the other engines through which the material in your library may be found. They will also be of help in tracking down sources that may be difficult to obtain, whether through a consortial lending arrangement that your library participates in or through a broader interlibrary loan program. Your school’s reference librarians may have areas of specialization within the curriculum, so you should consult your library’s website to find out whether there are one or more librarians focused on research in literature. These librarians will be your best resource for finding the right material within the sea of possible information sources, so you should talk with them early and often.

That said, your librarians will likely not be able to help you with the first task you must undertake, which is to figure out the basic parameters of your search. The first stage of your work, thus, will be to formulate a basic research question. This question may, and in fact should, change as you progress in your research, as the arguments presented by other scholars will affect the way that you frame your own ideas; because of that, your initial research question will likely not be a fully elaborated thesis, but rather a general area of interest. This focus should not be too broad, however; beginning your research with an area of interest like “Hemingway” will result in more secondary sources than you can reasonably manage. Be as specific as you can: “representations of bullfighting in Hemingway” as a starting point will produce better results.

The next task in front of you will be to find out what published texts will be of interest in your research. The most important sources for the kinds of research that you are undertaking will be scholarly books and journals. It’s important to ensure that you consult a broad range of such sources: using only books as sources for your research may cause you to inadvertently exclude some of the most recent and significant analyses of the texts you are studying (because books generally take a lot longer to get into print than do journal articles), but using only journal articles may likewise cause you to inadvertently overlook some of the most important sustained arguments about your primary text. Your paper may wind up only citing one or the other form of publication, but you should be certain that your research involves both forms.

These searches should be conducted primarily through scholarly databases, accessible either in your school’s library or, often, through your library’s website. Google is generally not a good site through which to conduct serious research, both because of the overwhelming number of results that the search engine can produce for any given search terms and because of the often unreliable nature of the documents that such searches turn up. And while Wikipedia can often be a good source for general (or even very specific or arcane) information about a particular subject, it is not usually considered an acceptable source to cite in a college-level research paper, for the same reasons that citing any encyclopedia would be considered inappropriate: encyclopedias do not contain the results of original research, but rather condensations and summaries of the ideas and arguments made elsewhere. Google and Wikipedia might be useful as you begin to formulate your research question, but the actual research you do should be conducted using scholarly sources.

A brief note here on Google Scholar: while the material that this engine catalogs and searches is, indeed, scholarly in origin, the cataloging method that Google Scholar uses isn’t considered terribly reliable, and the material that is cataloged is overwhelmingly weighted toward the sciences and social sciences. A search of Google Scholar cannot hurt, but it should by no means be the only database you consult. Furthermore, there are many online repositories containing electronic versions of scholarly journals, including Project Muse, JSTOR, and so forth, all of which provide the ability to search their holdings. These will be excellent sources for articles that you’ll want to consult, but you shouldn’t begin your search from these sites, as they index a limited number of journals.

Whatever their provenance, however — whether in print or online, whether books or articles — all of the sources that you uncover in the process of your research will require careful evaluation as to their reliability and credibility. You should consider, for instance, with each source you consult, whether the publisher or publication is an appropriate one. A university press will generally be considered more authoritative as a source of scholarly books than a “vanity” press. Similarly, a scholarly journal will often be considered more reliable than a popular magazine. However, different kinds of arguments will require different kinds of source material, so you will need to use your own judgment. You should also evaluate the credibility of your sources’ authors: are the writers authorities on the subject? Have they done thorough research? Finally, you must evaluate the arguments themselves: are the claims made by the source warranted and supported by the evidence? In the end, you should only use sources that your careful evaluation suggests are reliable.

The best way to begin finding authoritative sources, again, will be by searching scholarly databases. In literary studies, the primary database that you will want to search is the MLA Bibliography, published by the Modern Languages Association of America (though there are of course other databases to which your library might subscribe as well, and you shouldn’t overlook your library’s catalog; consult your librarian for information about them). The vast majority of journals in literature and language studies are indexed in the MLA Bibliography, as are many books in the field. There are many different search engines that provide access to the MLA Bibliography, each with slightly different characteristics, so you may want to consult with your librarian for specific instructions on searching the database. Generally, however, the database will provide the ability to search by Keyword, by Title, and by Author, among other parameters. Note, however, that “Title” and “Author” here refer to the sources indexed in the database, and not the primary text about which you are researching; to find sources about Hemingway, you should search for “Hemingway” as a keyword.

However, as I write, a keyword search for “Hemingway” in the MLA database produces 3969 results, which suggests that the search is too broad. Your database’s search engine will provide some means of what is called Boolean searching, which allows you to use connectors like AND and OR to further refine your searches. AND as a Boolean term narrows a search, as both terms connected by the AND must be present for the record to be included; OR, by contrast, broadens a search, as a record will be included if it contains either term. A search, for instance, for “Hemingway AND bullfight” produces 11 results, which might seem reasonable. However, using “bullfight” as a term doesn’t necessary give access to results that use terms like “bullfights” or “bullfighting.” Your search engine should give you the ability to use wildcards in your search terms, which instruct the engine to return related words; “bullfight*” as a search term would thus return any term that begins with “bullfight,” no matter what characters complete the word (thus including bullfights, bullfighting, bullfighter, and so forth). A search for “Hemingway AND bullfight*” produces 41 results, which is a very good place to begin.

Your job is now to sort through these citations and see which ones appear to be most relevant to your research question. A number of the article citations that result from the “Hemingway AND bullfight*” search, for instance, focus on the novel *The Sun Also Rises*, though you may be writing about the short story “The Capital of the World.” It is up to you to determine whether those articles’ arguments about the novel are applicable to your own analysis of the short story. Sometimes the database records will include an abstract, or a short pr?©cis of the article’s argument, which may help you make a decision. Other times there will be no abstract included, but you can get more information about the article by examining the record closely, as it will contain certain descriptors designed to facilitate searches. The record for Kathy G. Willingham’s article, “The Sun Hasn’t Set Yet: Brett Ashley and the Code Hero Debate,” includes the descriptors “characterization,” “Ashley, Lady Brett,” and “heroine,” which suggests that the article might be applicable to research into the relationship between the representation of bullfighting in Hemingway’s writing and questions about gender.

If your initial search turns up either too many or too few results, or results that don’t provide the kinds of sources that you’re really looking for, you should think about how to refine your search terms. Examine the kinds of descriptors that the database’s records include, and think about how you might use those terms to find better results. For instance, if you are thinking about Hemingway’s representations of women, rather than searching for “Hemingway AND women,” you might try a search for “Hemingway AND female characters.” A reference librarian may be of particular help as you refine your search. Throughout the search process, you should keep good records for yourself of the searches you’ve conducted and the results they’ve produced.

Once you’ve accumulated a number of citations that appear to be applicable to your research question, the next stage is to obtain the sources themselves. Some libraries’ database configurations will provide information about whether the source is contained in the library’s holdings; my institution’s MLA database, for instance, includes a “Get This Item” link on each record, which leads the user to a page with more information about how to obtain the article or book. Some such sources will be very easily obtainable, as the journals may be archived online; others may require you to track down print copies of the journal or book in the library’s stacks, and still others may not be in the library’s holdings at all, requiring you to use an interlibrary loan program to obtain them. You must not restrict your research to digitally available sources. Because many journals have only been digitized since the early 1990s, and because very few books are available digitally, many of the most important sources for your research will require you to leave the computer behind, and venture into the library’s stacks. There’s a great benefit to doing so, however, which is a kind of serendipity that no digital search has yet been able to mirror: when you are flipping through the print back issues of a journal, or scanning the spines of books on a shelf, looking for the source that your search uncovered, you are very likely to run into something promising that for whatever reason didn’t turn up in your search. These accidental encounters are a key element of the research process; don’t miss out on them by sticking too closely to what’s electronically available.

Once you’ve gotten your first round of sources, the next step is, unsurprisingly, to read them. You might skim them quickly at first, to see whether they in fact seem as applicable to your research question as their citations made them appear, and then read them more closely in order to uncover the finer points of their reasoning, which will be helpful to you in constructing your own argument. You should be certain to take thorough, accurate notes as you read, particularly keeping detailed records of the bibliographic information from each source, which you’ll need when you construct your “works cited” list, as well as scrupulously ensuring that any direct quotations or paraphrases that you draw from these sources are properly attributed to their authors. Failure to do so constitutes plagiarism, whether the failure is intentional or inadvertent, and plagiarism may carry quite severe consequences, including failure or, in some cases, expulsion. Be very careful in your notetaking to indicate clearly to yourself which notes are drawn from the texts you’re reading, whether quotations or paraphrases, and which constitute your own thinking. Don’t rely on your memory for this purpose, as memory can deceive you.

It is important also to note that your research process should be recursive; after reading a couple of sources on your initial research question, you might discover that your question has shifted directions slightly, requiring a return to the database to see if there are sources that more closely approximate your new idea. Moreover, you might find as you read an article that its author cites a further source that sounds like it might be useful to you; explore the bibliographies included with the secondary texts that you read to see whether there are previous sources that you should consult.

Remember throughout the process, however, what the purpose of the research you’re conducting is; a report on the critical interpretations of a particular text will require very different uses of the material that you uncover than will a research paper that is intended to be focused on your own original argument. For the former, you’ll want to keep track of the debates among the critics that you read; what seem to be the key points about which they agree, and over which they disagree, and why? For the latter, you should think not just about ways that the critical texts support the argument you want to make, but also about your points of entry into the critical conversation; how does your own interpretation of the text differ from those of the critics you are reading, and why? What questions do the critical interpretations to this point raise? What gaps do you find in the critical conversation? What would your perspective add to a reader’s understanding of the text you’re studying?

Literary research, like any other form of research, requires a set of skills that can only be developed through practice. Your instructor and your librarian may have further advice to help you as you work, but the best way to learn how to conduct this kind of research is simply to plunge in, poke around in the databases, explore the sources, and see what turns up. With a flexible sense of how your search terms work, with careful attention to the credibility of the sources you uncover, and with conscientious notetaking, you should be able to find your way quickly into the critical conversation about your topic.

3 thoughts on “Introduction to Literary Research

  1. This looks really good, but I’d love to see some of the stuff from the end — about thinking about the variety of ways one needs to engage with sources — come earlier. A lot of student research behaviors involve a kind of trolling-for-expert-quotes type of reading, in which they aren’t really paying attention to many other ways sources can be useful.

    I have an article that’s sort of on this — it’s more about analysis, but gets into some of the writing-with-sources issues. (Not the FINDING sources issues, which you’re mostly covering here.) It might be useful. And might make this point more coherently than I can off the cuff.

  2. I like this for outlining the process of finding scholarly sources. However, and perhaps this is my background as more of a cultural historian more than a literary scholar speaking, I think you need to at least mention the possibility of primary sources, or other resources beyond scholarly articles. Documents focused on cultural context, the critical reception of literature, an author’s life & other writings, historical events represented in literature, etc. all are potential areas of literary scholarship. This piece is too weighted toward finding scholarly readings rather than other modes of research – I don’t imagine you’d need to rewrite what you’ve got here, but just add a couple of paragraphs up front as to what other types & uses for sources might be in play.

  3. Thanks for these responses! Jason, on the one hand, I agree with you, but I think what I need to signal is precisely that this piece is *intentionally* weighted toward the finding of scholarly readings, which is what it’s supposed on some level to be about: helping students recognize that their intepretations of whatever text they’re working with are part of a broader critical conversation about the text, and thus should interact with those prior readings. You’re right that there are other modes of research, and I should indicate so, but this is the mode that the piece is supposed to focus on.

    And DR, you’re totally right; that bit needs to be frontloaded. The trolling-for-quotes bit is definitely to be avoided…

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