Critical Concepts

Research Paper



The first thing to make clear about research papers is that we will not be doing them in any of the assignments in this class.  This is by no means because research papers are not worth doing.  Indeed, any undergraduate degree that does not equip its students to do library and/or laboratory or field research, and to organize and evaluate one's findings, is not worth the paper its diploma is written on.

There are good books devoted more or less entirely to pointers on how to carry out library research.  Here are just two.  (Since these are regularly updated, I don't bother to give a date.  If you want the most current one, go to a bookstore and look in Books in Print.  If you find a used copy, you can be pretty sure that, even if it is of an edition that has been superceded, it will be worth having on hand.)

And there are specialized guides on research methodology in each of the social, biological, and natural sciences, as well as in history, the arts, and literary studies. Often these are used as texts in core courses in the curricula of the various majors in these disciplines.  There are also guides and handbooks directed to various kinds of technical writing.  (In any academic bookstore, these will turn up in the textbook shelves every semester, under courses in technical writing.  If you are looking for one, ask someone at the textbook desk.)

As for the Web, there are increasingly pages that offer guidance on working up research papers (on everything from how to find materials to proper form for footnotes for papers in different disciplines), but none of these can substitute for a good handbook.  I will mention a couple here, however:  a handy checklist that summarizes the steps in writing a research paper.  There is an alternative page (organized somewhat differently) at the same site, with links to more detailed discussion of specific steps.  These happen to be among a whole slew of handouts -- Resources for Writers -- offered by the Purdue University On-Line Writing Lab.  (For a rich page of links to all sorts of sites on the Web that offer similar materials, you might want to bookmark Jack Lynch's "Resources for Writers and Writing Instructors" for later exploration.  And there is a useful page of resources at the Writery Cafe at the University of Missouri - Columbia.)

For a guide that is geared specifically towards writing papers (including research papers) literary topics, consult Writing about Literature on LITEWEB (the Norton Introduction to Literature Web Companion).

The reason we will not be doing research papers in this course is that we need to concentrate on something that writing a research paper presupposes:  imaginative but careful and responsible reading of texts -- in this case, literary ones.  Before one could possibly evaluate the arguments that critics and historians of literature make in their scholarly studies or journalistic essays, one has to be a reasonably competent reader oneself.  Our business in this course is to get practice in the kind of thinking this involves.  The writing assignments we undertake will therefore be designed to force you to do this practice.  For our purposes, then, going off to the library to see what someone else has opined on a work we are struggling with amounts to postponing the business at hand.  Instead of making the job easier, it will, at best, waste your time by delaying your facing up to the demands of the assignment, which is designed to call upon only two things:  a text in front of you, and your wits brought to bear (in increasingly appropriate ways) upon it.  At worst, researching what other folks have thought and said about a work you are writing upon just outflanks the assignment:  like sending someone else to basketball practice in your stead, it won't do anything for developing your skills.

Discussing our readings with other students in the class is something altogether different, though.  This is because the back-and-forth dialogue -- of suggesting possibilities, asking for clarification, testing inferences against explicit details and other provisional inferences -- is precisely the kind of thinking that every skillful thinker internalizes as s/he becomes more and more able to conduct an autonomous inquiry.  You should seek out conversation with others, outside of class as well as within, and via e-mail if not face-to-face. Engaging in these conversations in this spirit of collaborative questioning is quite different from collecting opinions and picking one to paraphrase as your own.  (Doing that, of course, is not what genuine library research is all about either.)