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Guide to Conducting Literary Research

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Guide to Conducting Literary Research

Because the Literature Resource Center (LRC) offers a wealth of information that includes criticism, biographies, bibliographies, work overviews and explications, Web sites, periodical articles, compare and contrast pages, full-text author's works, and reading lists, it is an invaluable electronic library for you, the student of literature.

This guide is designed to support you as you use the LRC as well as other electronic and print resources to:

choose a topic

identify a variety of information sources

use parenthetical documentation

craft a thesis

take efficient notes

prepare a Works Cited page

evaluate thesis and sources

begin and organize a research paper

draft and revise a research paper

For additional information on citing GaleNet sources, you may also want to see How to Cite InfoTrac and GaleNet Sources.

All steps of the research process will be illustrated by examples that follow the creation of a research paper exploring Toni Morrison's novel Beloved. You will be able to track the development of a thesis from initial questions asked during the reading of Beloved to the documentation of material researched to develop that thesis.

First, a definition of terms:

1. Research

a. "The purpose of research is not simply to retrieve data, but to participate in a conversation about it" (Brent 109). In addition to being a scholarly investigation, research is a social activity intended to create new knowledge.

b. Because your purpose is to create new knowledge while recognizing those scholars whose existing work has helped you in this pursuit, you are honor bound never to commit the following academic sins:

1) Plagiarism: Literally "kidnapping," involving the use of someone else's words as if they were your own (Gibaldi 6). To avoid plagiarism you must document direct quotations, paraphrases, and original ideas not your own.

2) Recycling: Rehashing material you already know thoroughly or, without your professor's permission, submitting a paper that you have completed for another course.

3) Premature cognitive commitment: Academic jargon for deciding on a thesis too soon and then seeking information to serve that thesis rather than embarking on a genuine search for new knowledge.

2. Literary Research

a. Literary research is your response to the questions that you ask while experiencing the world the author or poet has created. These questions may concern such elements as character, style, setting, theme, or literary movement.

b. Your original text, the literary work you have studied first hand, is called the primary source.

Those works that present information as well as the opinions and ideas of other scholars are called secondary sources.

c. During literary research, you return again and again to the primary source to choose the material you wish to discuss, or to compare and contrast to other authors or works. You also return to the primary source to evaluate the critical statements of literary scholars.

d. Be sure to read About the Literature Resource Center.

Choose a Topic

"Do not hunt for subjects, let them choose you, not you them."

--Samuel Butler

1. Choosing a topic is the first step in the pursuit of a thesis. Below is a logical progression from topic to thesis:

a. Close reading of the primary text, aided by a reading journal

b. Growing awareness of interesting qualities within the primary text

c. Choosing a topic for research

d. Asking productive questions that help explore and evaluate a topic

e. Creating a research hypothesis

f. Revising and refining a hypothesis to form a working thesis

2. First, and most important, identify what qualities in the primary source pique your imagination and curiosity, and send you on a search for answers. This process of identification can be facilitated through the use of the reading journal.

a. A reading journal is a permanent record of your immediate and candid responses to a piece of literature.

b. In your journal, record spontaneously those quotations, ideas, questions, observations, and associations that move you, the reader. Also record the page where you can later find the source of your responses.

c. Excerpts from a journal kept while reading Toni Morrison's Beloved:

p. 3: "124 was spiteful. Full of baby's venom." Why is the house identified as a number? And where did the baby venom come from? "Baby venom" interesting oxymoron! Why is 124 never referred to as a home? Sethe's sons have fled the house because it "committed" some horror. The house sounds scary. A woman's identity is often so tied up with her home that I wonder what Morrison is implying about Sethe. on p. 4: when she refers to the house's "Outrageous behavior": for example, it "turned-over slop jars ... and [emitted] gusts of sour air." Drivers whip their horses when they pass 124. Clearly outsiders are also afraid. Like Shirley Jackson's Hill House or Poe's House of Usher, 124 seems to be "vile."

Note: This journal entry reflects the reader's growing interest in the house itself. A possible topic?

3. Below is a brief description of productive questions asked by critical thinkers. Each question is followed by a definition and a response. These kinds of questions may be used to explore and evaluate a topic.

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