The University 411: A Crash Course in Research Part 2: Evaluating Your Sources

Yesterday we talked about how to find research sources. Today we’re going to discuss evaluating the strength and value of the research you’ve found.

First consider the title and abstract/summary. Don’t download and try to read everything that’s on the topic. For instance you may be looking for research to write an English Literature essay on George R R Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire and find a lot of information about the historical inspirations for the series. Unless you were looking specifically for historical influences, that research is not likely to help you. Yes, you’ve found a critical article or book on your topic, but it’s not a piece of research that is likely to help you meet your objectives.

Whether you’re using a database or google, a full-length book or an article, you should look up information about the author and their credentials. Usually this should be supplied for you in the form of an author bionote. Why is this information important? Well first, you want to see what’s their academic background. As a fantasy literature scholar I tend to come across articles written from all areas and specialities – history, sociology, psychology, education, etc. Even if the article is written by a literature scholar, that doesn’t guarantee that contemporary fantasy is their area of speciality. Their primary area of focus may be something like medieval literature or children’s literature. By understanding their background, you can grasp some understanding of their research foundation. For example, a medieval literature scholar, might have a good grasp of historical knowledge (both in terms of actual facts as well as critical theories and methodologies in that field) but may be unaware of current literary criticism on fantasy. By understanding their foundation, you can evaluate the application of their work to your own research along with possible strengths and weaknesses of their work. Also consider the journal itself or, if it’s a book, the publisher and whether the book is part of a series. What’s their remit? I.e what is their area and speciality?

If you’re using the internet or you’ve picked up a book at a local bookstore instead of a university library, take a moment to consider the intended audience. (This goes for EVERYTHING you read and not just when you’re in research mode. Think critically.) Be aware that the website or book is aimed at the general public and not at an academic audience. That isn’t to say that the information published in these works are incorrect, but approach them with the understanding that their methodology or underlying assumptions may not be thoroughly vetted and backed by published peer-reviewed research. For example, there are a lot of parenting books out there written by popular bloggers. They may have done some “research” themselves in the form of reading other parenting books or maybe even peer-reviewed articles. But they are unlikely to have the sort of training where they can critically examine this research and evaluate their methodologies and assumptions. So look up author credentials and see if they’re speaking as a reputable researcher in the field. Don’t assume that a published book means the author and their work was thoroughly vetted by the publisher. The author might be someone who can guarantee to the publisher that their book will sell because they already have a wide audience; They could be a public figure or even just someone who can show some decent social media following.

If the author IS esteemed then the next step is to evaluate the appropriateness of the work in your field. Popular non-fiction is a tricky case. For instance, while I used the scientific theories in Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time as a critical tool to investigate Fantasy literature in my first monograph, it’s probably not a book that a theoretical physicist should be basing their work on; you should find the original peer-reviewed research as it’s applicable to your field.

A snippet from The Shape of Fantasy of my own interpretation of Hawking’s Future Light Cone

Once you’ve thoroughly vetted the academic rigour of the author and publisher, the next step is to take a good look at the date of publication. If it’s an older print, then new evidence might have been published since then that refutes or challenges the article. In some cases, the author themselves might have built on and expanded the work (or retracted it!) and you should certainly be aware of these as well.

Finally, after vetting the publisher, the author, and the date of publication, we’ve reached the part where we’re sitting down to read the article or book itself. But wait! This doesn’t mean we can turn off our critical lens. You should now evaluate the author’s methodology. Are the steps they’ve taken to reach their conclusions appropriate? Are there any gaps that they fail to acknowledge? If they have acknowledged these gaps, is their justification for why they’ve left the gap in place reasonable? I.e did they properly consider these gaps and the choices they made for their methodology, or did they put it in as an afterthought once the research was already undertaken (in these cases, they’re probably responding to peer review feedback). You can still go ahead and utilise the piece in your own research. But acknowledge their gaps.

Vetting your sources doesn’t necessarily mean you’re don’t use them at all. Instead, it means you should carefully consider their weaknesses. This consideration should be part of your research notes. I.e not necessarily part of your research paper itself. But if the piece of research becomes an essential foundation to your own work, then your paper should absolutely identify these weaknesses. Make sure to keep the tone professional (i.e. no personal attacks or harsh judgment). You should also include how you’re avoiding the same pitfalls in your own work or offer your own justifications. A note of caution here: don’t go overboard with spending so much time (word count) defending your methodology that you don’t have enough space for the rest of the paper. If you’re using an outline, roughly identify how big each section should be before you start your first draft. You might spend hours or days critically examining these sources only for it to end up as 1 or 2 sentences in your work. I’m sorry to inform you but that’s what the research process looks like. 🤷🏽‍♀️

The University 411: Seminar Prep and Reading Journals for ALL Readers, Writers, Students

Hello all! Today we’re going to talk about reading journals. It’s a great tool for your seminar or lecture prep, but also useful for any reader (i.e outside of school). I can’t express how much I regret not keeping one until much later in life as I’ve been an avid reader since I figured out my ABCs. Have you ever thought back on a book that you really enjoyed, but can’t remember anything about it? You want to read it again, but only vaguely recall the scene or premise and can’t remember the title, author, or even character names to help you with a google search. Now imagine you had a reading journal where you wrote down this basic info!

For myself, I only started a reading journal last year after I became a mum. I wanted to read the newly released book 4 of Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive. Usually, I’d re-read the entire series in preparation for a new book release. But throw in work, parenting, and the fact that I’m a fantasy researcher (i.e should be reading new books instead of re-reading my favourite mammoth series), I simply don’t have time to re-read 1000 page works every time a new book is released. So I am repeatedly kicking myself that I hadn’t kept a reading journal until now, especially as one of our university assignments in year 3 was to keep a reading journal; but the professor never explained the purpose of a journal, and so I saw it purely as a necessarily evil to get good grades and never considered it as a useful tool in itself. There are a number of reasons why a reading journal can be useful, in any field or discipline (in school), or if you’re a casual or avid reader (outside of school). I’ll try to cover the main advantages, but if you use your reading journal differently, please drop me a line in the comments!

First, a reading journal is a good way to log a list of your reading. Yes, Goodreads or equivalent can do this for you to. But you might also want to consider adding articles or other research to your reading log along with a 1-2 sentence summary. There’s been a number of times when I’ve re-read an article because I couldn’t remember if I had read it before or not. At the very least, consider keeping a log in your Bullet Journal (which we talked about last time). Include basic information in this log – Author, Title, and Initial Date of Publication (and a short summary if you’re not planning on keeping a full journal). For your reading journal, you may also want to consider recording the publisher and year of the edition published. Note that your paperback edition might be published at a later date than the original publication. If you’re citing the text in a paper, you will need to reference both dates. As well, making note of the edition might be important if you’re reviewing your reading journal years later. I say this because while I was editing my Shape of Fantasy manuscript, I realized that I had taken quotes from 3 different editions of Robert Jordan’s The Great Hunt – a US print, a UK print, and a Canadian ebook. The manuscript from start to finish took 8 years and I had moved back and forth between Canada and UK during this time. (It’s also worth noting that my ebook license purchased in Canada was invalid in UK, so if you’re planning to move out of country and think you’ve been clever with purchasing ebooks so you don’t have to worry about moving physical books, BE CAREFUL. Once you enter credit card info for your new country into your ebook reader, books purchased in your home country might become inaccessible.) With all that moving around, and with 3 different copies of the text to work from, I had a heck of a time confirming the edition of each and every page reference (i.e was this page in reference to my US print or UK print or neither?). As well, I soon found out that there were very small changes between the US and UK print; something as simple as “Rand said” was changed to “said Rand.” (WHY??? I have no idea why the editions differed). So take my experiences as a warning and log the edition information; thank yourself later.

Once you’ve logged the basics, next you want to focus on summarizing the piece. If it’s a length novel or a densely packed article, your summary can be pretty substantial. But I figure re-reading a 10 page summary is much quicker than re-reading a 1000 page book. For novels, I include character names and major plot points. Since I usually read fantasy, I also note down important world-building information. This is especially true for incomplete series, as I’m not entirely sure whether the piece of information will become useful. (For example, with works like George R R Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, you might want to include information that you think foreshadows events or provides clues to unanswered plot questions.) While I keep a reading journal for my fiction reads, for non-fiction, I’ve switched to Scrivener, as it has a handy index card feature. (If you’re at a stage in your education or career where you need to make and keep lots of detailed notes for research, I highly recommend Scrivener and talk about it here.)

Except from my Reading Journal for Sanderson’s Steelheart

Next, you want to identify essential information. This bit is tricky, because what’s essential is highly subjective. If you’re using a reading journal as prep before class, then first I want you to take out your syllabus. Seriously. And a highlighter (either a physical one or use the highlighter on your ebook/pdf copy). Now go through your syllabus and highlight important concepts. Does your instructor provide objectives or key themes? HIGHLIGHT THAT. If you can’t find the information, take a look at the course description on your department’s website, or the table of contents in your required reading list, or the titles/labels of each lecture or seminar. What concepts jump out at you? Write them down in a handy list. (This is would be a good list to put in your bullet journal.) It’s also okay to take a quick look at google or wikipedia to skim through the key points of a topic or text. You’re NOT using wikipedia as research here (so don’t cite it in a paper); instead you’re using it as preliminary research to investigate the key themes and concepts of a work before you start reading. This will let you read the work as a more informed reader, with you eyes open for things you should be looking out for.

The next part is trickier to identify, especially if you’re a new student. What essential information is important FOR YOU? Why are you taking this course? What attracted you to signing up for the class? Take some time to reflect on this (yet another BUJO page. We seem to be wracking them up). These ideas are things that you might end up developing for an essay or project. For example, I remember one semester where I wrote all five final exams around the theme of gender. I had taken completely different courses (Children’s lit, Shakespeare, Roman mythology, etc), but feminist ideas was what appealed to me at the time and so it’s what I took note of. You want to take note of things that interest you while you read the work. Maybe quotes leap out at you or a particular phrase or definition. If you’re an aspiring writer, you might want to note technique or things that give you inspiration for your own work. Other things you want to take note of in your reading journal are things that confused you; make note if it so that you can bring it up in class or study group to discuss or to investigate further on your own. If you’re keeping the journal as prep work for class, think about things that YOU want to talk about in class; things that interest and excite you, or questions that you have. If you’re keeping the journal for pleasure, then the same still goes. A reading journal is exactly like any journal, only one focused on your reading content.

Since we’re talking about prep for class, I want to end on a note of caution. You do NOT have to read EVERYTHING on the recommended reading list. And, even if you instructor states that it’s required and not just recommended, I would still approach a heavy reading load with caution. Some instructors are just assholes. So if you’re meant to be reading 6 novels a week for just one of your modules, FAKE it. Focus on just one of the texts so that you can contribute to some part of the conversation, and do a quick internet investigation of the other 5 so that you know basic points and can identify points of comparison with the text you’re focusing on. While 6 books a week might be an exaggeration (the most I’ve had as a student was 3 novels a week for one of my senior-level undergraduate seminars), the point is that you shouldn’t be killing yourself to reach some unattainable model of perfection set by an instructor who thinks your university experience should break you. DO make note on it with student feedback/course evaluations. Even if you’re tenured professor doesn’t care to look at them (as The Chair so brilliantly depicted), the department should. That being said, I can’t guarantee that trying to keep a healthy work/life balance won’t come back to bite you. Usually (in the humanities) if your final exam is formatted as a series of essay questions, these will be presented as broad questions which lets you select any of the texts/topics/figures covered in class (provided that you didn’t utilize the text/topic repeatedly for each essay question). Alternatively, if the topic is pre-selected by the question, these are still usually written in a way that gives you a lot of choice. (For example, you might have a choice of 20 questions, with 1 or 2 works identified in each.) But I remember one experience where the professor told us the that the final exam will be essay questions with a comparison of 4 books for each essay, and then presented each question with the 4 works pre-selected. This meant that, rather than focusing on texts that we connected to, we needed to have detailed knowledge of each and every one. Unfortunately, sitting down to write my final was the wrong time to figure this out. While I had read every book, I hadn’t bothered to study all of them. A brief perusal through a reading journal (if I had had one) might have at least helped me avoid a failing grade. If you can, get some information about the lecturer from other students early in the semester (remember to step outside your bubble); that should hopefully give you some idea of what to expect for assessment and you can revise your approach accordingly. If you know in advance whether your finals will be testing for detailed knowledge of ALL the material instead of focused knowledge on your areas of interest, then you can figure out in advance the size of your work load and how best to tackle it (we’ll talk more about this on Friday). *Fingers Crossed* that you have instructors who genuinely want to see you succeed rather than setting you up to fail. And good luck!

A Game of Cowards: Thoughts on the Last Honourable Man of Westeros

(Obligatory spoiler warnings ahead for those of you who live in a hole and haven’t seen/read A Game of Thrones. Not that I have anything against Hobbits. But I’m assuming if you haven’t seen/read GoT/ASOIAF then you wouldn’t be interested in reading this blog post anyway.)

Eddard Stark. The Last Honourable Man Left in Westeros. One can say that “the game of thrones” doesn’t really start until the very end of the book. Ned’s not really a player in the game. Or, if he is, he’s playing correctly by the rules while everyone else is stealing from the bank and sleeping with each other. But Ned’s so damn honourable that he thinks everyone else is playing by the rules too. While he doesn’t trust anyone, Ned still has a core faith in people’s decency. Sure, he acknowledges that: “The Lannisters appetite for officers and honors seemed to know no bounds” (p. 258), yet when faced with the evidence of murder and treason, Ned’s still professes, “no, I will not believe that, not even of Cersei” (268).

There’s a striking difference between Ned and King Robert when they feud halfway through the book. Ned argues vehemently against the idea of killing innocents. Repeatedly Ned returns to the image of dashing the head of the infant prince Targaryen against a wall. A mere babe, snatched from the hands of his mother. To Ned, this is the ultimate act of evil. And so, when Robert demands the death of Daenerys, Ned reacts with horror at the thought of “murdering a child” (p. 294). Robert of course insists on the deed in order to secure his throne. What’s one more death in the grand scheme of things?

Yet, when the council suggests poison as a way of killing Dany (that way the Dorthraki wouldn’t even know it was murder and there would be no repercussions), Robert complains:

“Poison is a coward’s weapon”

P. 296

Ned quickly points out the hypocrisy:

“You send hired knives to kill a fourteen-year-old girl and still quibble about honor?”

P. 296

The thing that Ned still doesn’t see is that Robert’s honour is about image and perception. He needs to be seen as a strong king, a good one, even though he knows in his heart that he’s failed. But Ned’s honour is bone deep. Consider his adoption and fostering of Jon Snow. What could be more honourable than lying and sacrificing your image in order to save the life of an innocent?

The A Song of Ice and Fire series along with it’s television adaptation is a story of corruption. But with the first book, Martin delicately shows us this rot through the eyes of innocents. There’s Jon, so convinced of the bravery and honour of the Black Brothers; Catelyn, who naively thinks her sister will sacrifice safety for duty; and Sansa, who sees the court as a “beautiful dream” (p. 252), complete with Joffrey as her golden prince. Even the death of Ser Hugh doesn’t jolt Sansa out of the dream, as she compliments herself on stoically observing his death. Death means little to the court and the commoners:

After they carried off the body, a boy with a spade ran onto the field and shoveled dirt over the spot where he has fallen, to cover up the blood. Then the jousts resumed.

A Game of Thrones p. 248

Such a simple image, but so appropriate for the theme of the book: shoveling dirt to cover up blood so that they can get on with their sport.

The first book is narrated completely by people of honour and innocence. Even Tyrion Lannister has been manipulated by his family’s game. Here are our protagonists. Although later books introduce other point-of-view characters, and Martin is renowned for creating grey characters that the audience ends up rooting for, these 8 pov characters introduce the reader to the world of ASOIAF. It’s through their eyes that we see the corruption of Westeros. And through their thoughts that we set up our moral compass to read the rest of the series.

But with Ned’s death, that moral compass is shattered. With the death of the last honourable man of Westeros, honour itself dies. Each pov character from that moment on has questionable scruples. And that includes our remaining 7 pov characters because they have lost their innocence. With Ned’s death, they see the blood and rot under the mud, and each character has to adapt – and adapt quickly – if they’re going to survive the game. Which means, becoming players themselves: cheating, vicious, rotten ones.

A New Year. The Same Cycle. (Reflecting on the Epic and the Star Wars Franchise)

The year was 2015. Obama was President. Same sex marriage was – finally – legalized in U.S. And Star Wars: A Force Awakens released in theaters.

Although the film was generally positively received, there was a thread of criticism that underscored the new production; the repeated mantra that A Force Awakens was basically a rip-off of A New Hope. It was repetitive. Derivative. The same story told again and again.

Despite it’s long history (going all the way back to the great sagas of the Illiad/Odyssey, The New and Old Testaments, Ramayana/Mahabharata, etc, etc, etc), the Epic today is often derided for being unimaginative. It’s too repetitive; derivative; or – gasp – formulaic! However, as I argue in The Shape of Fantasy being repetitive isn’t a bad thing. As Patricia Waugh discusses for metafiction:

There has be some level of familiarity. In metafiction it is precisely the fulfilment as well as the non-fulfilment of generic expectations that provides both familiarity and the starting point for innovation.

Patricia Waugh, Metafiction, 64, original emphasis

Roland Barthes likewise stipulates that the pleasures of the text come from expectations, which, for the Epic tradition, means a familiar narrative:

The pleasure of the text is not the pleasure of the corporeal striptease or of narrative suspense. […] the entire excitation takes refuge in the hope of seeing. (Barthes 10, original emphasis).

Roland Barthes, The Pleasures of the Text, 10, original emphasis

Thus, I argue that the latest Star Wars trilogy does an incredible job of delivering a familiar story in a new way. Is the plot line similar to the original? Of course it is. But it is also recognizably different, with a distinct ending, perhaps one that may alter the course of the universe enough that evil won’t rise up again (or at least, not too soon).

More importantly, these criticisms that Star Wars is repetitive misses the point. Brian Merchant (Motherboard) argues that “science fiction is supposed to be about exploring the unexplored, not rehasing the well-trod.” I disagree wholeheartedly. Science Fiction, like any literature, is about exploring the human condition.

There was another important event in 2015 in America that eventually had global significance. Donald Trump, on the campaign trail, trademarked his “Make American Great Again” slogan.

And, whether coincidental or not, A Force Awakens reinforces the idea that even when you overthrow a tyrannical fascist government, another one will rise up to take its place. We are doomed to repeat the cycle – and have narratives that repeat themselves – until we are able to break away from this cycle of oppression.

As the latest Star Wars trilogy draws to a close, the same criticism has been launched at the final installment: it’s repetitive. Redundant. Flat.

To which I would like to loudly reply, “Don’t you all understand the point of the Epic?? That’s how it works!”

Any attempt to break the formula is only going to result in audience dissatisfaction. As we’ve seen with the end of A Game of Thrones, the televised adaptation of George R. R. Martin’s unfinished novels, it is impossible to solve a good versus evil story-line without some hint of a messianic figure. A sacrifice is necessary to restore the balance. That’s the Epic. That’s how it works. You can play around with the formula, and toss red herrings to distract the audience from identifying the final messianic Hero, but, at the end of the day, the restoration of balance requires a Messianic character. And, more importantly, the bigger the unbalance, the more special the hero has to be. Not just any sacrifice will do (as evidenced by the number of soldiers that meet an unhappy fate at the front lines of the final battle). No, balance to the universe can only be restored by someone special. Maybe someone who has special powers or abilities, or perhaps are special due to bloodline (parentage is especially important in this patriarchal narrative structure).

So while I agree with the criticism that franchise did a great disservice to any hint of non-heteronormative or miscegenetic relationships, I disagree that the plot is a disappointment. The plot follows exactly the pattern of the Heroic Epic that I outline in The Shape of Fantasy, a pattern that includes repetitions and cycles.

Why? Why is the epic repetitive, but incredibly necessary? Because – as historical and current events have shown us – this story will continue to resonant in our society so long as evil exists in the world. Melodramatic? Maybe. But I feel entirely suitable for the state of the world today. So long as there are groups of people that oppress another, there will be stories about rising up and defeating it.