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April 7, 2011 / dlw43

On Writing a Research Paper for an English Literature Course

I’m trying to hatch a topic for an 8 – 10 page paper, the final project for a course examining transnational narratives.  I’m stumped and frustrated with myself for being stumped.  The instructions are clear, I’ve read the material, the professor is amazing, I’ve participated in class discussions, understood all the lectures, never missed a class.  Yet I feel at a loss, a starting from scratch minus the starting place kind of loss. I’ve spent the majority of the last three days mulling over thematic possibilities and reviewing instructions for the paper, annotated bibliography, and abstract.  I understand what the end product is supposed to be, but how do I get there from here?

Yesterday, I attempted to simultaneously figure out my topic, my thesis, and the system for looking up journal articles online through the university library’s website.  My inexperienced impression of finding secondary sources for research papers is that it pretty much boils down to trolling databases.  You pick a database, type in search words, check out the titles that pop up, read the abstracts of the titles you like, then, if the abstract seems like it may work in some way, you go ahead and grab the article.  (That is, if the full text is available.  If it’s not, keep reading titles–too late now for putting in an Interlibrary Loan Request.)  The process is backwards, completely incongruous with what (I assume) constitutes scholarly research.  Injustices are being done (by me).  On the phone with a helpful university library employee, I gamely challenged her to disagree with my grasp of the process, but she pluckily affirmed my perceptions.  I thought doing research meant knowing which articles you were looking for beforehand.  But how and why would one know such a thing? The answer, I think, separates the wheat from chaff.

It only follows that if you are vague about what you’re seeking, the results of your search won’t be of much assistance in focusing the amorphous approximation of a thesis you began with.  Without clear parameters, you are susceptible to using terms that aren’t narrow enough, or wide enough, or who-knows-what enough to return the perfect articles to substantiate and enlarge upon the as of yet fuzzy argument you want to write about.  Perhaps this is the reason the titles of articles in scholarly journals are so dispiritedly direct yet esoteric.  The difference between an author’s article being resurrected by reference or lying dormant in the sepulcher of unused scholarly works may lie in the naming of it.  Do the writers of these articles know SEO techniques, and do they even apply to academic databases? (Update:  My concerns are founded.  I spoke to a librarian today and she asked me, almost out of the blue, well, not totally out of the blue as we were on the subject of researching articles, if I was aware that each database searched for information in its own particular way.)

Internet and online databases are marvelous tools, but woe betide you if you don’t know how to hit them where it hurts.  You have to know which words, when zinged into its soft spot, will inspire the most diligent actions out of the beast, who reaches with its unfathomly long, multitudinous, and sucker-bespangled tentacles down and further down, attaching to items here and there along the way, finally coming to the bottom of the deepest, darkest, and most esoteric information depths where it plucks up the choice specimens.  Then, having completed its mission, gentle retraction, the easing of its laden tentacles to the surface, the holding and presenting of its captives to your computer screen, patiently awaiting your next command as you peruse the bounty.

There’s a certain amount of absurdity in being able to use such powerful research tools when you’re not exactly sure of what you’re researching. I mean, the reality of it is that I’m scanning search results to give me topic ideas, never mind a thesis.  I have a few vague thoughts about what I’d like to focus on, but the results aren’t inciting topic ideas as much as self-castigation.  Topic, thesis—get one of each, then come back and search.  Even that’s no guarantee for finding fabulously supportive articles.  Some topics simply make better keywords and search engine strings than others.  I’ve a hunch that the hair-pulling and panic factor associated (by me) with writing a research paper would be greatly quelled if I had a better ability to synthesize my searches (i.e., fishing expeditions) in a way that would gel them into a topic and, by extension thesis.  I need better search-result peristalsis to be an effective backward-compiler.

This project was assigned, as I mentioned earlier, in a course focusing on transnational narratives.  This type of narrative is defined by a co-mingling of different national cultures whereby, as a result, both cultures are irrevocably altered.  The push and pull of the transformation processes are the places of analytical interest.  Like a transnational narrative, the effects of searching databases are bidirectional.  Your search results qualify your topic, and your topic qualifes your search results.  This continues until you settle on a thesis and supporting articles, unlike cultural interactions which modify each other ad inifinitum.

Could I be the only one to cobble together a topic from the project’s instructions, database spelunking, and thoughts on the primary texts of the course?  Were I to ask my classmates to explain their own processes, would theirs be as unfocused, grasping, and serendipitous as mine?  Dr. Hernandez told the class that abstracts are not to be thought of as binding contracts to the topic, but rather a proposal of sorts.  Oftentimes, and even more often than not, the research will modify the topic in a way that is not reflected on the abstract, he added.  But what if your thesis and topic are unrecognizably morphed by what you pull up in your research spirals, can you jettison the articles listed on the abstract for better ones?

I marvel how I have twice (by choice, not necessity) gotten to the “capstone” course for English Literature, a major not without its fair share of paper-writing, without knowing how to go about this very task, if not with mastery, then at least alacrity.  One thing is for certain: it’s better to have figured it out backwards and late than never.



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  1. Donna / May 1 2011 5:10 pm

    This reminds me of the very first research proposal I had to write in grad school, as an English Lit MA student. My professor stated, “You know the topic of this course. Now, think of something you can write about that shows me that you understand the topic.” Talk about sink or swim! The topic of the course was “literary fragmentation,” which really could be about anything. I wrote my proposal twice before I even started writing my paper. I ended up grabbing a book from another class, which had a fragmented “essay” in it already, and researched the background on that work. Eventually, I was able to locate the materials I needed, i.e. books, research articles. It was quite the learning experience. I would do it all over again, because it taught me skills I would not have learned otherwise if someone just handed them to me. I think having the bar set so high as to trust me to do the work, got me to do the work by applying what little I knew until I got where I needed to go. My grade was higher, I think, than it would have been otherwise. (Granted, I had to contact the campus librarians for assistance, but they were very good at helping when I needed them.)

    • dlw43 / May 1 2011 7:01 pm

      That’s pretty much what this professor did too, assumed we knew what we were doing. Realizing I was completely clueless shore lit a fire under my hind end and got me to figuring out how to make use of the research databases and grab topic-related scholarly journal articles. And it worked because my annotated bib. and abstract passed muster, but now I’m totally unmotivated to write the darn paper. The rough draft’s due tomorrow and I haven’t even started it. Guess I won’t be turning in a rough draft. Can’t blame my lack of motivation totally on anticlimacticness, but it’s a part of it. One of my sources is a dissertation and it’s really too damn helpful. I feel like I’m just synthesizing and regurgitating, regurgitating and synthesizing. I feel sorry for the professor, having to read and conscientiously, soberly assess these things. God, how do they do it? Anyway, am starting an English M.A. program in the fall. Crazy thing is, I’m getting it not so much for career purposes as for personal educational reasons. It’s a bit nutty, I think. I justify it by telling myself that some people take expensive vacations, I take lit. classes. (I mean, can’t *hurt* me career-wise, that is, as ridiculous as it sounds [and is], as long as I’m not trying to get hired as a middle or high school English teacher. Now, *that’s* serious nuttiness.)

  2. Kelly / May 14 2011 4:56 pm

    I suppose it’s a bit unfair for me to love the research process. I am always a bit giddy when I have a blob of play-doh as a topic and begin to shape the play-doh more and more until it’s a “real” topic.

    For my MA, I lived by one rule for all my papers: This topic must be of publishable quality.

    What that meant, for me, is that I found what was MISSING in the piles of research and tried to fill that gap. This is something I didn’t understand in my undergrad (I, too, regurgitated more arguments than I care to think about), and I was one of very, very few MA students who lived by this code. I will say that this made a substantial difference in my writing, responses to my writing, and my sense of pride with writing.

    That said, in terms of “research techniques,” I tend to do the following:

    1) [Assuming you have a loose topic already] Pick “key words” for your topic. If you’re talking medieval gender performativity, you may use “Butler” (Judith Butler, theorist for gender performativity), “Gender Performance,” “Chaucer Gender,” “Chaucer Gender Performance” etc.

    2) Grab a few articles that seem remotely related. You don’t really need to read them at this point (or, at least I don’t, but who am I to say the process is exact?).

    3) Read THEIR bibliographies. Assume these people know more books about your topic than any random database would. I can’t begin to tell you how many invaluable resources I’ve found this way.

    Miscellaneous ways:

    1) Know a prominent scholar within a particular theory/time period/genre? Google him/her to find his/her CV and list of publications. Then try to find their bibliographies and sources they’ve used.

    2) See if your library has electronic books. If you don’t have time to get to the library, you still may be able to find books with valuable chapters. In my library, electronic books are separate from the databases.

    3) No topic? Do what I did for my thesis: Make lists. One for theory, one for texts/authors, and one for general topics you’re interested in. If it’s a specific class, you become more narrow, but it’s still able to be done.

    I think that’s all I have for now. 🙂 I understand that research can be complicated; I tell my students all the time that writing a paper is like knowing the answer is “9” but you can take any way to get there (10-1, 3×3, 6+3). For some people, like me, that’s the best part–but every now in then, it’s definitely a pain the the butt. 😀

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