Secondary Sources WorkshopA presentation for English 1010 by Gordon Miller
IntroductionThe following slides are derived from an in-class workshop for English 1010 offered by Gordon Miller. Although some material is specific to this particular course, the information on the use of secondary sources can be applied to other courses. Hello. My name is Geordie and I’m a tutor at the Writing Centre. Dr. Swan invited me here today to speak to you about finding and making effective use of secondary sources, skills which you will need to write the best essay you can on Beloved.
The Writing Centre I open with a piece of shameless self-promotion: You are encouraged to come in and see us at the W.C. to talk about your paper in whatever stage it happens to be in (research/brainstorming/first draft). And since we’re pretty popular, I would encourage you to make an appointment at least a week in advance.
Today’s Presentation Today we’ll be covering the research aspect—the whats, wheres, whys, and hows of finding and using secondary material. I’m going to speak about how to be effective with your research time, and then we will use the Cheryl Hall article on Beloved to illustrate how to approach and incorporate secondary material.
What is a secondary source? Before I address “why” we use secondary sources, I should say something about what a secondary source is. In the context of English, secondary sources are essays or, sometimes, entire books that have been written by literary critics/scholars about the text you are studying. So, to write with some authority about your choice of literary text, you should familiarize yourself with what has been written about that text in the past. In fact, one goal of your writing should be to add something to the body of critical work that has been done on the text in question. In other words, you should recognize that you are part of a larger academic community —that’s part of what it means to be a university student. You are contributing and learning how to contribute to the advancement of knowledge. It’s important and not so university brochure-speak as it sounds.
Why to use secondary sources Now, as to the why. Imagine you’re having an argument with one of your friends about a movie. Suppose he/she hated the particular movie (let’s say it was The Social Network, for the sake of argument) and you loved it. How do you win, or feel at least feel confident about your position, in the given argument (as, it must be said, such arguments are often unwinnable. There’s no accounting for taste).
Read the book For starters, it helps if you have seen the movie. In the context of the essay you will write on Beloved, this amounts to reading the novel. It’s difficult, very difficult, to write an essay on a book you haven’t read. So read it.
Find secondary material Now, back to the movie argument—another thing that can help support your cause and strengthen the positive impressions you had, would be if you had access to secondary material about the movie —reviews, or even other friend’s favourable reviews. I’m not saying that you should rely on your friends’ impressions of Beloved to support your arguments about Beloved (in fact, don’t do this), but in the context of the essay writing, this second-level of support is what we’ll be exploring today.
Remember your argument Notice that your argument (you loved The Social Network) stays at the forefront. The secondary material doesn’t make it for you, and can’t, really. Rather, you reference secondary material to help clarify and support your position.
material? Reason 1 Secondary sources provide an additional starting point for your research, along with your primary source, Beloved. They will help you get a sense of how a particular aspect of the novel has been explored by others (e.g., Beloved and notions of community).
Reason 2 They help you get a broader, fuller understanding of Beloved. This is not to suggest that you should or will agree with everything that a secondary source has to say, but, often times, what you disagree with will help you better understand your own position if you ask why you disagree with what a particular secondary source has to say. Again, it is your point-of-view, your voice and argument, that is the most important. Be careful not to crowd yourself out of your own paper by allowing material from the sources to take over. The paper is your own, and the thesis statement and topic sentences should be yours. However, the sources should help you develop and support your ideas more fully than you could without the use of those sources.
Reason 3 Secondary sources provide examples of other significant secondary sources that can be brought to bear on your argument; they give you a sense of where you can find the types of conversations you want to have about Beloved. Unlike Wikipedia and Google (which are good for other reasons), these sources have been peer-reviewed (read and edited by other scholars before being published) and are therefore more reliable.
Reason 4 On a level beyond your work for this particular paper, remember that research is a transferable skill, as is learning how to think critically about the material (to pick out its strengths, but also to be able to question it). The work you learn how to do when you seek out and then effectively use secondary sources to support your arguments will better prepare you to do all kinds of jobs that may have nothing to do with literature.
Where/How to find secondary material. It wasn’t until my second year of university that an English professor was kind enough to take our class to the library and give us a how-to-find-secondary- sources run-through. So you should be very thankful to Dr. Swan for giving you this lesson early on in your university career (a lesson which is applicable across disciplines).
Go to the library In this case, the library is coming to you, so that when you go, you’ll know how to be effective and efficient. And really, that’s why I say that you should be thankful because once you learn how to use secondary sources properly and effectively, writing your papers will become easier, and you’ll be more and more ready for your upper-year classes where such research is a matter of course. Now, I want to stress that you should physically go to the library at some point. Not only has Dr. Swan put some excellent books on reserve for you (which you can access by going to the circulation desk with the course code for this class or, preferably, the name of the book you’re looking for), but also, there’s a lot of excellent print material that cannot be accessed via the world wide interweb.
How to use the library I don’t want to shock anyone, but those upper floors of the library don’t just have great window view study spots, they also have a lot of books. Books with words in them that can help you write an excellent essay on Beloved. So I’m going to walk you through a step-by-step way of accessing the information directly, in the form of articles in online scholarly journals, or finding out where the information is located in the library.
Using the library website Go to libraries.dal.ca From here you have some options under the “Search Libraries” prompt.
Searching for books Click on “Books and More” (this will give you access to books and articles on the search topic housed online or else at Dalhousie, surrounding libraries, and the world at large). We’ll discuss what is helpful to include in your search terms and how you can go about ordering books not at Dal in a moment.
Searching the databases Click on “Databases.” Here you will want to include as your search terms a humanities/ literature database (electronic filing cabinets). There are a number of good ones—I would recommend JSTOR, Project Muse, Literature Online, and MLA. When you get on the database, then you perform the search.
Searching for e-journals Click on “e-Journals.” Again, you will have to have a specific e-Journal in mind. For example, “American Literature,” “American Quarterly,” and “The Canadian Review of American Studies.” Now, the “Databases” option will contain a number of these options within it, so the e-Journals approach should be your third and final resort.
Notes about search options Putting the item in quotation marks means that the search will be for anything with the quoted word in the title. So, if you search for “Beloved,” it will pull up all the sources with “Beloved” in the title (more than 32,000 results under “Books and More”). These results will be arranged according to their location (so the ones at Dal will come up first). You can click on any given result to find out where it is located.
Notes about search options The type of source it is, whether book, article, chapter, or other, is listed directly under the title. With books, this will mean that the call number comes up (PS 3563 O8749 B4 1987 for Beloved). The third floor has items with call numbers from P- T; the fourth floor A-N; the second floor U-Z.
Notes about search options If a book is owned by one of the NOVANET libraries, this means it is not at Dal, but can be delivered (by clicking on the book title and then the orange Request tab). If the item is an article, and is owned by Dal, this means that it is either in a journal in the stacks, the call number for which you can find by writing down the journal name and searching that, OR it may be online. If it’s online, there will be an “ezproxy” hyperlink that will link you to the journal. You may have to enter the issue number or year once you get to the journal’s site (this information shows up once you click on the journal title, but before the “ezproxy” link).
Notes about search options Whether you’re searching a database like MLA, an e-journal like “American Studies,” or the Library website, you will want to narrow down your choices by using keywords that relate to the particular topic you are exploring. Another helpful tip is to search your keyword along with the author’s last name. So, if you’re writing your paper on the use of the supernatural in Beloved, you could search Beloved and supernatural (this yielded a more manageable 126 results).
Evaluating search results Now, since no one expects you to read through all 126 of these options, you need strategies for addressing whether the source will be potentially useful for you. Partly this involves judging a book by its cover, so to speak, which is to say that you should look at the title of the article. Does it talk about Beloved and only Beloved, or does it compare Morrison’s text to another? If it’s the latter, it may be less useful to you, maybe not.
Using the abstract Often, articles will include “Abstracts.” The abstract is a summary of the main argument used in the article. Read the abstract and ask yourself whether it addresses aspects of the novel that you want to discuss in your paper. If the article does not include an abstract, you can read over the Introductory paragraph of the article to get a sense of its scope and focus.
Take effective notes The key thing is that you have arranged your notes on Beloved in such a way that you have a good sense of what you want to explore about the novel. The more thinking you’ve done about your paper and your argument, the more effective you can be at evaluating secondary sources.
Evaluating books Now, supposing you find a book on Beloved, and you go up to the stacks and pull it off the shelf. For example, The dilemma of “double consciousness”: Toni Morrison’s Novels (1993). How do you decide whether it will be useful to you? Again, reading the chapter headings helps. As does looking over the Introduction, as the Intros of scholarly books usually lay out the arguments that the book will go on to make. You can also look at the index for key words (in this case, “supernatural” or “haunting” or “ghosts”) and flip to the pages where these words are found to see how the author is addressing the issues that might interest you.
General searching tips University presses as publishers are generally solid sources (again, it’s a sign that the material has passed through academic channels). You don’t necessarily need to privilege the present when evaluating which articles will be useful, but you probably shouldn’t be citing things that are more than 50 years old. An added bonus of using more contemporary material is that you can mine the bibliographies for sources that that author used as an additional source of information.
General searching tips Don’t get overwhelmed by the amount of material that’s out there. You’re not going to be able to track down/account for it all; however, knowing what you’re looking for, and pulling out the key information and arguments from those sources will show a command of the secondary material. Secondary sources should help provide support for your arguments; they should not make the arguments for you. Approach the source openly and be willing to question it, recognizing its strengths and weaknesses.
The cover page The cover page has essential publication information, often reproduced at the top or bottom. For example, the bibliographical information for the Cheryl Hall article would appear asHall, Cheryl. “Beyond the ‘Literary Habit’: Oral Tradition and Jazz in Beloved.” MELUS 19.1(1994): 89-95. Last name, First name. “Title of article.” Journal name Issue/Number (Year): Pages. If it were a book: Last name, First name. Title. Place of pub.: Pub. name, Year.
The introduction The introduction is where the article is framed. Along with the title, it is good to scan the introduction to get a sense of whether it will be useful to your research area. Key words in Hall’s introduction include “responses,” “controversial,” “deliberate ambiguity,” and “the way she tells it.” In fact, the entire last sentence of that Intro (as with your essays) is key—it may not be the thesis per se, but does a lot to lay out the point of entry for Hall’s argument. Some other things to notice on the first page include Hall’s use of a citation (Bonetti interview—you will, of course, want to provide a page number with your parenthetical citation; here, she doesn’t because different journals have different standards).
Topics covered You can also scan the article to see what sections of the novel she addresses. This article includes a block quotation on the first sexual encounter between Paul and Sethe.
The conclusion The Conclusion is a good place to go for a summing up of the argument and a meditation on its consequences—like the Intro, it’s worth scanning in order to assess whether and how useful it will be to you.
The works cited The Works Cited page is a good place to look for the focus of the article as well. Scan the titles of the sources she uses and check out what kind of source they are—interviews, popular reviews, scholarly articles, etc.
Assessing the content of secondary sourcesThe next section of Miller’s original presentation included a group activity designed to illustrate the types of questions useful in assessing secondary works. The questions for discussion are presented in the next slides.Similar types of questions are useful in assessing secondary materials you might use in your own writing.
Sample questions for article assessment Look at the key terms in the title of Hall’s article ("Literary Habit," Oral Tradition, and Jazz) and examine how Hall defines/employs them to make her argument. Focus on how Hall frames her article--how does her introduction set up and anticipate what follows? Do you find it effective? Why or Why not?
Sample questions for article assessment Look at the extended passage that Hall cites (90-91) and analyzes with two objectives in mind: 1. Explain how it fits into Halls overall argument 2. Perform your own close reading to support/ critique Halls reading. Discuss the model of reading Hall suggests that Beloved invites--where does Hall say readers have gone wrong? What are the qualities/ characteristics of reading that she wants to foreground?
Sample questions for article assessment Single out at least one strong argument and one weaker argument that Hall makes. Devise some questions that the selected passages raise.
Conclusion Now to conclude: We’ve explored where to find secondary material, why to use it, what to look for when evaluating and employing it, so what I want to do last is to provide an example of how you might incorporate it into your argument—how you might use secondary material to build on or illustrate one of your own ideas.
Conclusion Those are key verbs—“build on” and “illustrate.” In other words, you are not using secondary material to make your arguments for you: You are expanding on an aspect of the material that you found interesting or perhaps problematic and/or you are setting up your argument and then using the secondary material as evidence of your point. There are plenty of instances of the illustrative effect in Hall. For example, Hall presents her point, refers to the scholar House and that author’s discussion of poetry, and expands on House’s argument to include jazz.
Conclusion In using the “build upon” model, suppose you reached a point in your essay were you wanted to address the novel’s final chapter. In particular, supposing you wanted to discuss the repetition of the phrase, “It was not a story to pass on” (274-75). Hall’s arguments about repetition could help you in general, but if you wanted to get into the specifics, you could build on what she says about oral storytelling in slave culture on (92). So, you could introduce the repeated phrase and then you could say something like: Cheryl Hall emphasizes the influence of oral storytelling culture on Morrison’s narrative, particularly how the content of any given story is “enriched and modified with every telling” (92). The final chapter of the novel illustrates how some stories can go out of circulation, raising questions about the knowledge that would be lost without the tale of Beloved.
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