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.

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Obsessively reading Ulysses

The Ulysses seminar read the first three episodes of the novel yesterday.  The students’ experience of the novel is largely structured by what we call obsessions: each student chooses a topic (from a list I hand around on the first day) to follow for the whole semester, tracing the treatment of the topic in Ulysses and in related criticism and theory.  The obsessions of this class include medicine, sports and competition, reproduction, and the unspoken.  Half of the students wrote blog posts about their obsessions in the Telemachiad, and their posts informed much of our discussion on Tuesday.

I started the session, however, by asking the class to join me in delving as deeply as we could into the first sentence of the book:

Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.

Goodness, that first word alone: stately.  One student pointed out that it can attach itself either to Buck Mulligan (in parallel to plump) or more narrowly to his current action.  Another noted that “stately” gives Buck a priestly air appropriate for the black mass he is about to begin.  Then we got to the political sense of “state” and thereby Buck’s stateliness as he represents the temptation of compromise to institutional authorities.  And the states of matter, with the lather he bears constituted by liquid and gas, a stable instability.  (And the crossing of states sets up the “cross” of the razor, which is probably has a mirroring surface, and the mirror, which, being broken, has cutting edges like the razor.  And on . . . .)

We did not linger long on the first sentence, as we needed to digest the rest of the Telemachiad and prepare for reading secondary materials later in the week, but that block of collective close reading was a delight.

Another note: along the way, we wondered whether the sporting sense of “Mulligan” (a do-over of a golf shot) was current when Joyce wrote.  According to OED, it was not.

Alas.  Consider the perfection of the word in Ulysses: the golf mulligan is a throwaway, an abortion, a disappointed bridge, a waste, an imposition of forgiveness into competition.  In this sense, the word reaches out to the hockey game and the pedagogical competitions of episode 2, to the midwives of episode 3, and to much else beyond.  Joyce didn’t mean for the word to work so well, but it’s a powerful, straight drive of a concept, one I don’t want to take back.