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Research Assistance: Engage

General Guidelines

Your goal: to fit all the pieces you've found into an interactive whole.

Now that you've listened to the right people, you have to make them interact with each other and with your own ideas. At this point you are probably forming your own opinions based on the answers you've heard, so figure out where you fit in!

Allow your sources to talk to each other. Introduce them and then sit back and watch what happens. What main arguments emerge? Do they agree or disagree? Does one position complicate another? Are they talking past each other or really addressing the issues together? Figure out where they fit in the overall picture. Get the lay of the land.

Then allow yourself to make some contributions. What do you think, given all that's been said? Why do you think that? And, most importantly, how do your thoughts relate to those previous contributions? This will determine how you use each source in your paper.

  • Does it provide context or background that could be useful to your audience?
  • Does it raise a relevant question or give rise to a particular line of thought?
  • Does it lend authority or support to your position?
  • Does it argue against or complicate your position?

Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

These first three steps are all interwoven. Keep an open mind as you listen - you will probably need to reform your questions and re-strategize your searches as you go. Keep your research notes thorough and organized - you will want to refer back to them constantly as you fit everything together.

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Real Life Example

As I listened to the people I had identified as the most important, a couple of different arguments came into focus. The pre-Tolkien scholars had been divided into two main camps - those who thought the historical digressions intruded on the important monster bits, and those who thought the monster narrative intruded on the important historical material. Both were looting the poem for what they thought was the truly valuable stuff. Tolkien (all hail!) single-handedly revolutionized the approach to the poem by suggesting very sensibly that it should be a poem. As a hale and hearty and complex work of art, in and of itself, not as a chest to be raided for historical or mythological material, though of course those were both present. The scholars who followed him were as a result much more unified in their approach to the work, if not in their conclusions about it.

I was listening to Klaeber, Tolkien, Brodeur, and Bonjour in particular, and I sticky-noted the dickens out of those four books, taking research notes as I went along of how each author fit into the big picture and how their material related to my questions. Some ideas that popped up along the way had to be discarded based on their scholarship (not EVERY tiny digression fit into the pattern, however badly I wanted them to), and others had to be kept on a provisional or cautious basis (The connection between Scyld and Grendel, although arguable, was definitely more tenuous than the one between Unferth and Grendel, despite my efforts).

Klaeber and Tolkien gave me some great background information, which gave me a foundation to start with. Bonjour and Brodeur had some fascinating and detailed arguments about the interpretation of specific digressions, which usually served as support for my own argument, although a few of their observations provided some complications I had to address. They forced me back to the text and made me wrestle with it.

This made me notice my final question, which I answered in my thesis statement - if the digressions serve as foreshadowings of the monsters (which I established in the body of the paper), why did the poem end on a long digression? Was it hinting at a fourth and final monster? And if so, WHAT WAS IT?

Sorting through those materials took time, effort, and concentrated thought, but by the time the books were stickied and my notes organized, I was already almost done. I knew what the question was that I wanted to answer. I knew who had been talking about the issue already, and I knew how all their arguments fit together. All that remained was to assemble the material coherently around the structure of my own argument.


Credit Where It's Due

The talented library team at Kuyper College is responsible for the structure of the ALEA system. Many thanks to them!