In the month before my high school graduation, everything suddenly turned slow. Hallways, filled with Virginia humidity, had a molasses quality to them. I wrote my last high school paper then: an essay on Shakespeare’s Hamlet. In it, I wrote about Hamlet’s idealism and his relationship with his father postmortem; essentially, I made sweeping generalizations and focused on overarching themes. The essay was nothing like my college papers.
In high school, I started my essay process by researching scholarly articles on sites like JSTOR or the MLA International Bibliography. I’d read scholars’ takes on what I was writing about at the time—Hamlet, Wuthering Heights, Emily Dickinson’s poems—and begin to craft an idea, which would then translate into a thesis. To support my argument, I’d include paragraphs from my primary texts. Instead of analyzing the texts myself, I’d quote the analyses of the secondary sources. At the end, I’d gather my citations in a works-cited list, staple the paper together, and turn it in.
In college, my well-oiled routine changed; my papers now consist largely of my own ideas and analysis. I still engage with secondary sources and include works-cited lists and other kinds of bibliographies in my essays. After all, in higher education, where you’re surrounded by academics—who make a living from their original thoughts—crediting sources becomes even more important. But for me, entering the hallowed halls of university meant writing essays in a new way. College is a land of academic freedom. Free from testing standards and unoriginal, rigid curricula, I enrolled in English classes like American Horror and James Joyce’s Ulysses. In these classes, I relearned how to write a research paper.
My process begins while I’m reading a text for class, weeks before my professor even mentions an essay assignment. I like to annotate the text, underlining passages, jotting down possible essay ideas, categorizing paragraphs thematically, and so on. (I can never sell any of my books secondhand because they’re all crammed with marginalia.) Once the assignment has been introduced, I quickly pull together a few topic ideas and schedule a meeting during office hours to discuss them with my professor. Office hours are an underrated resource: most professors sit and wait in their office during these hours, so why not fill that time with discourse on the latest book you’ve been reading or possible essay topics? At the least, you get a stimulating intellectual conversation, and at the most, you’ll be able to easily ask that professor for a recommendation letter when the time comes.
After I’ve ironed out my topic, I begin by skimming through the text again (yes, the whole text) and picking out small passages to quote. My extensive marginalia now come into play, leading me to the snippets I want to analyze. As an English major, I primarily focus on textual analysis—meaning that I examine words and punctuation in depth, with the help of the Oxford English Dictionary, to connect them to broader themes. Just as in high school, I use peer-reviewed journals from online databases in my papers, but now I avoid relying on them heavily.
So, for example, for my paper in my James Joyce’s Ulysses class, I analyzed quotations from the “Circe” chapter to argue that Joyce was subversively promoting orientalist ideas. Each paragraph focused on a sentence where words and images had secondary meanings linked with orientalist theory. To reinforce my thesis, I tied in works like Edward Said’s Orientalism and Brad Bannon’s article “Joyce, Coleridge, and the Eastern Aesthetic,” from the James Joyce Quarterly. In my papers, I view my secondary sources as a medium that allows me to converse with their authors. So while I agreed with Said’s theory, I also addressed scholars who countered his argument. Likewise, I disagreed with Bannon’s thesis that Joyce was justified in his use of the orientalist aesthetic and laid out my reasons.
This method doesn’t solely apply to papers about literary texts. My final paper for my American Horror class focused on the characters Wendy and Jack in Stanley Kubrick’s film The Shining. I used textual analysis to argue that Wendy embodies male, patriarchal characteristics, threatening Jack’s place as the head of the family, thus sending Jack into madness. In film studies, textual analysis involves examining dialogue, costumes, or scenery in vivid detail. For my analysis of the film, I wove in quotations from other sources, such as Barbara Creed’s essay “Horror and the Monstrous-Feminine: An Imaginary Abjection” and Frank Manchel’s piece “What about Jack? Another Perspective on Family Relationships in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining.” Unlike the secondary-source quotations in my high school papers, these quotations did not replace my conclusions but added to them.
But some things don’t change. As in high school, when I finished writing, I gathered my sources in a works-cited list, stapled the paper together, and turned it in.
Bannon, Brad. “Joyce, Coleridge, and the Eastern Aesthetic.” James Joyce Quarterly, vol. 48, no. 3, 2011, pp. 495–510. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/
Creed, Barbara. “Horror and the Monstrous-Feminine: An Imaginary Abjection.” Screen, vol. 27, no. 1, 1 Jan. 1986, pp. 44–71. doi:10.1093/
Joyce, James. Ulysses. Random House, 1961.
Kubrick, Stanley, director. The Shining. Warner Bros., 1980.
Manchel, Frank. “What about Jack? Another Perspective on Family Relationships in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining.” Literature / Film Quarterly, vol. 23, no. 1, 1995, pp. 68–78. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/43798713.
Said, Edward W. Orientalism. 25th anniversary ed., Vintage Books, 2003.
Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. New Folger’s ed., Washington Square Press / Pocket Books, 1992.