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ENGL 30101 — Introduction to Literary Studies

What is Literary Research?

The academic study of literature emphasizes participation in a long and vibrant conversation. Your job as researcher is not simply to rehearse literary history or summarize plots (though knowing these contexts is essential), but to make a case for your own interpretation using the best evidence available. This is difficult. Words are inexact and evocative, conjuring different experiences for different readers, but interpretation cannot be purely subjective sport. The insight of other voices is essential to ground one’s own argument and guard against errors of the heart—personal blind spots that may obscure important elements of the text.

Read and reflect on your text(s), following your instincts about what seems interesting, strange, or unusual: what non-obvious, hard-to-pin-down aspect captures your attention? Once you have a hunch about something, use the library’s catalog and databases (see tabs above) to track down secondary sources that may address the same topic or a closely related one. The point is not to argue with scholars (though you might) or to adopt their views as your own, but to bring your insight to bear on the continuing discussion.

Make sure to use a good quality version of the text(s) you are analyzing. This could be your class copy of a work; it could be physical or electronic holdings available at the library (see primary sources tab above).  Scholarly editions are better than free versions online which often do not offer citable page numbers and may introduce textual errors. Instead, look for recent editions (last 30 years) that come with an introduction by a professor.

Always, always cite primary and secondary research you use, whether you directly quote someone’s words or simply paraphrase their arguments. And if you have any questions, please contact me or another librarian, who will be happy to help. 

Scholars' Advice on Literary Research

Literary research can be thorny, so many professors have written how-to manuals to help students develop top-level work. However: while many principles are widely shared in the profession, know too that even "best practices" can be contestable and open to debate. For your own writing assignments, you should follow the advice and requests of your professor. But for additional perspective and a deeper dive into the subject, you may wish to consult the resources below. Just remember the caveat: different professors will have different perspectives on the process. Feel free to contact your course instructor or me if you have any questions about writing your paper.