How we do research

As I turn to doing more online work with my students, this is the problem I will try to solve: how can we give undergraduate students some sense of how an experienced scholar evaluates secondary sources when doing humanities research?

Some decisions are easy. You find an article relevant to your topic but no so relevant that it leaves you nothing to say.  The article is in a well-known journal, was published recently, and pops out of JSTOR in a convenient PDF.  Bingo.

As we all know, however, most cases involve subtle choices among many available sources. If a student of mine is researching Shakespeare, Austen, or Joyce, “many” becomes an understatement.  To the extent that scholars cope successfully with such situations, they do so using heuristics–the shortcuts and rules of thumb that come from experience.

We give students heuristics, too, but these frequently differ from our own.  Check to see whether your source is peer-reviewed, we might say.  But if a major scholar has published a piece by invitation in a collection edited by another major scholar, we don’t hesitate: we use that.  Rely mainly on recent sources, we might say–but, um, some of the most important pieces will be decades old, or older.  We evaluate reputations of journals, presses, series, editorial boards.  We remember conference papers and journal submissions we have reviewed.  Almost every important heuristic I use relies on information unavailable to even an excellent undergraduate.

I want, therefore, to develop assignments for undergraduates that allow groups of students to evaluate sources collectively, linking the results in ways that produce new kinds of heuristics–not those of experienced scholars but ones that help us manufacture a scholar’s-eye view of a research field.  I’ll be posting more on how I hope this process will work.