Scholarly Literature Review

By the seventh week of class, I will ask students to write a short essay reporting on how scholars have interpreted a literary text of their choice. This essay will be five pages long, and it will be submitted in MLA format. Students will revise this essay at least once, in consultation with me, before it receives a grade.

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1.) Finding Scholarship:

To begin, I would like you to search three databases: MLA International Bibliography, ProjectMuse, and JSTOR.

Search for the name of your text and the name of your author. You might find dozens of scholarly books and articles. You might only find a few. To begin, keep the list of articles and books as big as possible. You will not need to write about each of these scholars, but it will be useful to know that they exist.

  • A cautionary note: Be careful that you are collecting peer-reviewed books and articles. Each of the databases will allow you to narrow your selections to peer-reviewed materials, but we will also discuss the distinction in class.

2.) Considering Chronology:

Now that you have gathered books and articles, consider their dates of publication.

Often, scholarly interest in a book or author comes in waves: seven articles will appear over the course of three years, and then nothing will appear for nearly a decade. Then, new scholars will take up the issue.

Gather the articles into clusters, and give each of these clusters a provisional name. For instance, scholars from 1981-1988 might be the “recovery generation,” the first to recognize a novel’s importance. Then, scholarship might subside until 1993-1999, when the “Second Wave” of scholars take up some core issue that had been previously overlooked. Finally, from 2005-2013, scholarship might have taken a wholly new approach to the work. Perhaps these scholars examined the text from a transnational perspective, and so you might call them the “Transnational Generation.” The names matter less than the practice of categorizing these works.


3.) Categorizing: Venues, Methods, Conclusions:

Now that you have clusters of scholars organized by time period, read the work of those scholars who interest you most.

Are you most interested in the “Transnational Generation” of scholars, or the “Recovery Generation,” or in a comparison between the two?

Read these essays and book chapters carefully, and keep an eye out for three things:

  • What venues publish scholarship on your author? Do articles consistently appear in particular academic journals: LegacyAmerican Literature, representations? Do these essays typically respond to essays in particular publications?
  • What methods do these scholars deploy? Do they simply analyze the text itself? Do they analyze the text in light of the author’s biography? The literary reception? A theoretical framework? A particular political commitment?
  • What conclusions do these scholars come to? Are the disagreements fairly minor, or do the differences in opinion seem significant?

4.) Finally, Report Back:

Now, you’re ready to start writing. In your essay, you’ll want to include the following:

  • What scholarly “generations” have you identified? How would you characterize them? When did they write? Which of these generations are you most interested in talking about, and why?

When you consider these scholars, explore:

  • For which publications do these scholars write, and to which publications do they respond?
  • What are the typical methodologies and approaches taken by these scholars? Why do you think they take these approaches and not others?
  • What conclusions do these scholars come to? How significant are their disagreements?

Then, to conclude, I want you to answer the following:

  • How do you plan to write about the author or text in question? Will your approach depart from the methods of most scholars, or will you be following the lead of previous generations of scholarship? Do you prefer one group of scholars to another, or do you see all of them as limited in their approaches to examining the text in question?