What is a research paper?
In fact, when you are assigned to write a "research paper" what you are being asked to do is something quite different. Instead of offering a summary of what other people have said about your topic, you will need to develop your own interpretation of that subject.
Why do I need resources if I'm not just summarizing what the "authorities" say?
You will probably be using resources in several ways. You will read books and articles in order to educate yourself about the nature of the debate that has developed on this issue. You will also need to call upon these materials when you write your paper, so that you can: 1) describe the main positions taken by those involved in this debate; 2) present your own analysis of the topic and draw upon appropriate resources to support your position; and 3) respond to arguments that conflict with your position. To fulfill these responsibilities you will need to offer quotations that illustrate the different points of view.
To construct a strong research project, you will need to locate the best possible resources. By doing broad searches--looking through library catalogues, databases, and web pages--you can quickly develop a sense of the kinds of questions and arguments that come up when people write about your topic. That will provide you with an introduction to your subject and may also help you narrow down your topic. However, you will also want to select the best possible resources on your subject. In order to do that, you may want to take advantage of the advice provided by bibliographies.
What is a "primary" source?
If you are writing about a particular author, your "primary" sources may be texts written by the author. That list could include not only books and articles written by the individual you are studying but also such things as diary entries and letters. For example, if you are writing about Harriet Beecher Stowe, you might want to read some of her other novels, or the letters she wrote to her family, or the lectures she gave about slavery.
If you are writing about a particular period, your "primary" sources may be works written in that period. For example, if you are writing about the nineteenth century, you could cite works by Frederick Douglass or Thoreau, or Stowe. You might even find it appropriate (depending on the topic and the course) to cite non-literary texts such as sermons, speeches, children's books, articles from newspapers or popular magazines, diaries, or even song lyrics.
If you are writing about a particular theme, your "primary" sources should be works that address the issue directly rather than analyzing other works on that topic. For example, if you were going to talk about the American identity, both "The Declaration of Independence" and the Autobiography of Franklin might offer useful material. Again, non-literary texts can be appropriate, depending on the paper. Your job is always to figure out which ones are MOST valuable in constructing your argument.
What is a "secondary" source?
"Secondary" resources are those written about a particular subject, author, or period. They are analytical in nature and are usually written by academics specializing in the subject under discussion.
How can I find primary and secondary resources for a research project?
There are a great many ways to find sources. Here is a brief introduction to the process of locating and selecting resources for research papers.
How do I select which resources to use? Be sure to use your common sense.
You need to have a method of selecting those resources that are most appropriate for your project. In general, use annotated bibliographies or databases that include summaries in order to have the best opportunity to evaluate the relevance of a particular resource. Even more importantly, use those bibliographies that are as closely related to your topic as possible. If you are writing about the topic of death in Uncle Tom's Cabin, a bibliography of literary criticism might be a little helpful, a bibliography on Stowe would be more helpful, and probably a bibliography on "death in nineteenth century American fiction" would be most helpful. If you found a bibliography on "death in literature" you would have to select those items that pertained to nineteenth century American literature such as Uncle Tom's Cabin.
When you use databases, try combinations of key words to focus your search. Rather than just using one broad term such as "women," or "education," consider finding a combination of terms that reflects your real topic. "Women" combined with "abolitionism" could provide you with a good starting list of materials on the role played by women in the fight against slavery, for example. "Slavery" combined with "reading" or "education" would be a good starting point for research on the theme of education in Uncle Tom's Cabin.
As you locate articles and books, which ones sound as though they are really connected to your specific topic? You may notice that there is a particular theme that keeps coming up as the subject of articles and books on this subject. If that theme interests you, consider using it as a way to narrow your focus. It would be awfully hard to write a good paper on "Harriet Beecher Stowe" or even on Uncle Tom's Cabin. By narrowing your topic (and search) to focus on "Images of Domestic Life in Uncle Tom's Cabin," you will have a much better chance of being able to make a well-focused and well-supported argument.
Which books and articles sound as though they make sense? Don't be too put off by hard words or difficult concepts--it is inevitable that you will find scholarship hard to understand. But if material sounds impossible to understand, either consult with your teacher to help you figure out a "translation" or move on to something that makes more sense.
How do I read a bibliographical citation?
Take a look at the emails below:
Sent: Tuesday, October 03, 2000 2:58 PM
I just had a quick question. When I was searching for articles for my research project I took a look in the American History and Life sight, and found some articles that might be useful. However, the sight only gives you the description or abstract of the article and not the full text. Where can I get the whole article?
What a great question! Thanks for asking. Maybe I can walk you quickly through the process of "reading" the citations you get when you use AHL (American History and Life).
Here's one of the first "hits" I got when I did a search in American and History Life for "sentimental." (Since _Uncle Tom's Cabin_ is recognized as a prime example of "sentimental" literature.)
Author: Levine, Robert S.
Title: UNCLE TOM'S CABIN IN FREDERICK DOUGLASS' PAPER: AN ANALYSIS OF RECEPTION.
Citation: American Literature 1992 64(1): 71-93.
Abstract: Focuses on the reception of Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) in the pages of Frederick Douglass' Paper, an antislavery newspaper published by Douglass, between 1852 and 1854. Convinced both of the social uses of the novel and of Stowe's humanitarianism, Douglass printed articles on the novel's cultural influence as well as sentimental poetry on Uncle Tom's Cabin and worshipful profiles of Stowe. That a figure such as Douglass truly believed Stowe's novel could counteract the effects of the Compromise of 1850 should temper skepticism about Stowe's larger intentions and achievements and about her complicity in the power structure.
Documentation: 53 notes.
Subject: Stowe, Harriet Beecher (Uncle Tom's Cabin).
Frederick Douglass' Paper.
If you look at this record, you will see the name of the journal (magazine) in which the article is published, and the information about where you can find the article in the journal. The name of the journal in this case is "American Literature." The information after the name tells you that it was published in a 1992 issue of that journal and appears on pages 71-93. You know from the "Title" listing that the title of the article is "Uncle Tom's Cabin in Fr3ederick Douglass' Paper: An Analysis of Reception." You also know that the author is Robert S. Levine.
Now all you have to do is find out whether Assumption has the journal called _American Literature_. You can do that by looking at the on-line catalogue, or by looking on the periodical shelves at the library, or by looking at the free information sheet (on the rotating stand next to the reference desk) that lists the periodicals owned by the library on the subject of literature. Fortunately for all of us, the library does subscribe to _American Literature_. Since you wouldn't be looking in this case for an article that appeared this month, but instead one from some years ago, you would find it by looking upstairs where they keep the bound copies of publications. You'll find them arranged alphabetically and then by date.
If we didn't have the article you needed at our library, talk to the reference librarian about having them provide you with a copy from another library.
There are a couple of morals to this story:
1.) Always just ask me if you get confused. I'm REALLY happy to answer this kind of question.Here's the good news. Once you learn how to do things like find citations for articles and books using a database, and then find the articles and books themselves at the library, you are well on your way to understanding this whole process. A lot of people never figure out how to run a research project. If you can figure out some of these steps when you are an underclassman, you'll be way ahead of the game.
2) Always ask librarians for help. I know I do (and it saves me a lot of time.)
3) Always print out the citations for books and/or articles you want to find, so that you can carry the list with you to the library.
I'm impressed to see you using American History and Life; that's a really wonderful resource and just right for your purpose.Thanks again for asking, and good luck on your project.
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