To be updated as time goes by and I see fit.
There are, broadly speaking, two kinds of research you can do for an English paper. The first kind is preliminary research. This is the kind of research you do when there’s no paper prompt whatsoever and you are told to write about “whatever interests you”. One of the ways you can come up with a topic is to start reading some of the well-known works of criticism about the texts in question. This kind of research is really just playing (so to speak) around, picking a vague idea that fits in with your larger interests and searching for it in the contexts of the texts you want to write about. But that’s not our situation.
The second kind of research is the kind you do in response to a prompt. In this case, you already know what your topic is.
NOTE: Your topic is not your thesis. Your thesis is a concrete, specific claim that you are making about your topic. So if your topic is “UCSB is the greatest school ever. Discuss.” then your thesis cannot be “UCSB is the greatest school ever.” As I said above, you need to make a concrete and specific claim.
In this class, you will be writing two papers, both of which incorporate a certain amount of outside research. This next section is meant as a guide both for discovering topics or information that might interest you and for finding out more information about a topic you already know something about.
So, where do you begin?
- Go to the library and look for books on the topic. As things currently stand, the heavy duty scholarship and really authoritative/interesting criticism will not be found in articles online, but in longer books. The book is still the ultimate achievement of the Humanities scholar, so its where most people are likely to make their strongest claims. You can also go and ask the librarians for help if you’re having trouble finding something in a specific field. This is part of their job and one of the many reasons we need librarians – they know how to find what you need.
- The library has a specific subject page devoted to links for doing research in English. It’s also a great place to go to begin research.
- Searching Indexes and Databases. The library has a page of different databases and collections. There is an inverse rule for database searching and it goes like this: The more specialized the database, the more general your question can be. So, for example, you can be less specific with your terminology when you’re searching a database devoted to literature than when you are searching JSTOR because the former already knows you want something book related. If you’re searching a database of 19th century American writers, then you can be even more general. So, with that said, here are the three or four services I use most often.
- Literature Online (LION): I usually begin with LION for two reasons. One is because they are a fairly comprehensive database and the other is because they also have a fair amount of reference material such as biographies or bibliographies for when you want more information on a particular author.
- On that note, LION also provides online access to the Cambridge Companions to Literature, which are a great place to start when you want to find out something more about a particular genre or time period and need something more authoritative than Wikipedia.
- JSTOR: JSTOR hits a sweet spot between having a ton of search results from many places and not giving you all that much that’s useless. Because they only index articles and, now, books, you can rely on the sources of your information. However, JSTOR doesn’t usually have articles published within the last five years…this is not so much of an issue for 19th century American work, but it’s something to bear in mind.
- Google Scholar: Scholar is at the opposite end of the spectrum from LION. They have a ton of information, but you do have to sift through it fairly carefully to make sure that what you have found is both relevant and academically rigorous. I have found that Google Scholar is most helpful when I’ve already found an author and subject I am interested in and want to know if they’ve written things that don’t appear in LION or JSTOR.
- Historical Websites. Many of the authors we are reading are quite famous historical figures and, often, have historical societies who are in charge of their papers and maintaining their estates. Many of their houses have been turned into museums and these are great places to go if you are searching for more information about a particular person or community.