What Kind of Paper Are You Writing?
Welcome! If you are reading this page, I suspect it’s because you’ve been assigned a paper or presentation for your English class and would like a little help getting started. First, you should think about what kind of paper your instructor assigned: Information/Research or Interpretive/Critical.
In this kind of assignment, your instructor wants you to research a topic relevant to your class and your assigned reading and report back, either in a paper or in a class presentation. Topics might include the biographical background of an author, the historical context of the work you are studying, or a report on what reviewers or critics have said about the work. This kind of paper is research-driven: you locate relevant information in the library’s resources— keeping careful notes about what you found and where you found it so that you can cite it accurately—and then you synthesize your findings into a report detailing what you have learned.
In this kind of assignment, your instructor has asked you to come to an original conclusion about some aspect of the work you are studying. This kind of paper is thesis-driven: any research you do is to enrich and support a thesis you have already come up with; or, if it contradicts your own understanding of the work, you will need to explain why yours is the better interpretation. In this kind of paper, you should have a clear idea of your argument before you start researching so that the paper doesn’t turn into a report about what other critics said instead of your original interpretation. A good way to start the process is to ask yourself about some aspect of the work you did not understand and then reason through it until you arrive at an interpretation. Below are some examples chosen from works that are typically taught in undergraduate English courses, and topics that students are asked to write interpretive/critical papers about. Your assignment may, of course, be different, but you can use these as models of how to best develop your own thesis:
Using the Library’s Resources
You can use Primo, the primary search engine on the Library’s home page, but if you don’t plan carefully you should be prepared for a huge amount of data to appear in the results, much of it irrelevant to your needs. You will need to define your search terms with precision and to restrict the search to appropriate resources.
For example, I type in “Margaret Atwood.” I get a quarter of a million hits (she is among the most important living Canadian authors, but still…) To narrow the results, I can first choose between Margaret Atwood the author (works by Atwood), and Margaret Atwood the subject (works about Atwood). Using the Advanced Search options I can add more key terms: biography, Gilead, poetry, or perhaps the name of a specific work by Atwood. I can also limit the search to full-text electronic sources that I can then email to myself. I can limit the search to peer-reviewed journals and collections, the content of which have been reviewed by experts in the field, who read the content, thought it worth publishing and offered suggestions to improve it. Choosing “peer-reviewed” resources means you are dealing with a qualified scholarly opinion, and are ruling out profiles and blurbs in popular magazines. (Not that those are untrustworthy, but they might not be very informative.)
In this library guide, you will find links to useful reference works: encyclopedias and biographical dictionaries devoted specifically to writers in the field of literature. The database JSTOR is a good source for full-text, peer-reviewed articles and some monographs (a monograph is an entire book on a single subject). JSTOR saves library storage space by digitizing academic resources and making them available electronically. You should also check the Modern Languages Association (MLA) Bibliography, the single most comprehensive index to literary scholarship in English, which is hosted by EBSCO, along with many other useful databases.
The library’s stacks contain multitudes of monographs, volumes of collected essays, and back issues of numerous journals. There is also an extensive collection of available films—popular, indie, documentaries, filmed performances. It’s always a good idea to check the Library Catalog for the call number associated with your author or subject: browsing the books near that area of the shelves may give you useful ideas for other directions your project could take, or new ways in which to approach it.
When you browse the stacks, remember that there are two kinds of scholarly writing: scholars writing for other experts in their field, and scholars writing for students, instructors, or to address a general audience. Think of it as the difference between a heart surgeon explaining a new technique to other heart surgeons versus a heart surgeon explaining it to a newspaper reporter. You want to read sources you can understand and process. Often reading the abstract or introduction of an article or a book will tell you right away if you are in over your head. Also, the table of contents and the index will help you to determine whether the source is actually going to be useful to you. For example, if you are analyzing one poem by Emily Dickinson and you pick up a biography that lists the poem in the index, but only on one page, that will likely be a passing reference to the poem, not an in-depth analysis.
Don’t confuse open access journals and monographs with non-peer-reviewed sources. “Open Access” means only that published research is available online and without cost or other significant barriers to users. Many open-access sources are as rigorously peer-reviewed as sources locked behind a paywall. Many scholars prefer to publish in open-access venues so that their work reaches the widest possible international audience. Increasingly, government-funded research must be published in open access venues so that taxpayers are not, in effect, billed twice for access to scholarship. Whether or not a journal is peer-reviewed is a stronger measure of its trustworthiness than if it is closed or open-access.