Researching a paper for a literature class is challenging for many students. In the forthcoming MLA Guide to Undergraduate Research in Literature, Elizabeth Brookbank and H. Faye Christenberry introduce resources for research in literary studies, describe strategies for searching the web to find useful material, and offer guidance on organizing research and documenting sources. We engaged the librarians in a conversation about what undergraduates need to know to do research today and how educators can help them.

MLA: The last edition of the MLA’s Research Guide came out in 2006. You’ve just written the seventh edition, due out this spring. What key updates did you make?

EB and HFC: One of the largest changes that has taken place since 2006 is obviously the rise of the Internet and the state of information online. Many of our updates reflect the new online landscape. For instance, we provide more advice about websites for researching primary sources and discuss the place and use of common online sources like Wikipedia in academic research. We also address the differences between types of online documents and how to tell them apart. As this last point indicates, this edition emphasizes critical thinking and habits of mind that will serve students well in their college classrooms and also in their day-to-day lives outside and beyond academia.

We also added a chapter about the beginning phases of the research process, which are easy to skip, especially with the ready and easy access that we have to information these days. But the early phases are crucial to setting students up for success when it comes to academic research.

MLA: The guide’s examples focus on English and American literature, but there’s a lot in it that will help anyone doing research. Tell us more.

EB and HFC: Yes, there certainly is. Overall, this book will give readers the key tools and strategies they need to conduct academic research at the undergraduate level. It will also help readers understand the general expectations of college-level research assignments and what questions they should ask when faced with a research assignment in any class, no matter the subject.

Students must learn that academic disciplines differ when it comes to research, however, so we try to talk specifically about research on English and American literature in the book. Different academic disciplines often have different expectations, research methods, and practices, as well as different ways of measuring quality, all of which can influence how a student conducts research and writes a paper.

MLA: Students do research every day in the form of web searches. What’s different about the type of research students will be expected to conduct for college-level projects?

EB and HFC: There are things that are the same and things that are very different. We all know that you can find plenty of information about almost any topic by doing a quick Internet search. The key difference for college-level assignments is in the level of evaluation required and in the kind of information that is used. Students must learn to evaluate sources, to look at all sources with a critical eye and differentiate between bad information—information that is manipulative, misleading, or just flat-out false—and good information. In the current climate in our country, this piece of the research process often gets the most attention.

Just as important—and perhaps more important—for college students, however, is assessing what purpose different kinds of information serve. The top results from an Internet search tend to be for websites like Wikipedia, which is, after all, an encyclopedia and is great for getting general background information. But the goal of an encyclopedia or any such general reference resource is to provide basic factual information on a variety of topics. Encyclopedias do not engage in scholarship, which is generally what college instructors are expecting students to use in their research papers. In literature, this scholarship is literary criticism, the goal of which is to analyze or interpret a piece of literature. Scholarship looks slightly different in different academic disciplines, but the key is that scholarly books and articles report on the research, interpretations, and theories of scholars. So distinguishing between the information that students generally find online and the information they’re expected to use for most college assignments is not as simple as saying, “Wikipedia is bad and scholarship is good”; what matters is the type of information and a student’s purpose in using it.

Once students understand that the type of information they are seeking in their academic research is different—and why it is different—from general online sources, it becomes clearer why everyday web searching and academic research differ. Although students will be able to find some scholarly books and articles online, it behooves them to use library databases to find these sources for various reasons, including that this information is not usually available for free online. Students are already paying to access scholarly sources through their college or university library, so they should certainly not pay for it again!

MLA: We asked Ellen Carillo, author of the MLA Guide to Digital Literacy, whether there are new skills or ways of thinking that students bring with them to college as a result of their familiarity with digital media. What’s your take?   

EB and HFC: Yes and no. A fallacy about traditionally college-aged students today is that simply because they are computer-literate or know how to use various pieces of technology (like their phones), they are information-literate. One of the biggest challenges for teachers and librarians is making students aware that not all information is available online and that online information is often not the kind of information they need for their college-level research assignments. And, again, most of the scholarly information available online that does fit the bill for their college assignments is not free. The key to being a successful researcher is knowing what types of resources you need for your assignment, which ones you can expect to find online and which elsewhere, and how to tell the difference between various kinds of information. These are all learned skills—ones that not all students have before they come to college but that we hope this book will help them acquire.

MLA: In her recent Style Center post on making the transition from high school to college research, Alice Yang, an undergraduate student, writes,  “In my papers, I view my secondary sources as a medium that allows me to converse with their authors.” Why is it important to think of research as a conversation, and what skills or practices are needed for researchers to hold up their end of that conversation?

EB and HFC: It is important for students to learn that scholarship is a conversation because this is certainly how their professors and instructors see it and how the authors of the books and articles the students are reading see it. From the beginning, scholars have used articles and books to communicate with one another about their discoveries, theories, results, and so on. And when they’re in the classroom, students are learning how to be scholars in the subject matter of the class. Research papers are meant not only to help students learn about the scholarly conversation around their topic or the work they’re studying but also to give them practice joining it. The more that students view research papers as a way for them to engage in the scholarly conversation rather than to say what they already think and simply support their idea with three to five articles, the more successful they will be in their classes. To successfully join a scholarly conversation, though, students must acquire the necessary research skills to find where it is happening. This book is a step-by-step guide to help students learn those skills and to think critically about all the information encountered during the research process.

MLA: How does learning to do research empower students to think more critically about the information they encounter in daily life?

EB and HFC: Good research skills are key to being able to think critically about information—all information, not just information in an academic context. Anyone can type a few terms into the Google search box and find some information about a topic. But how do you know if that information is factual or from a reputable source? How do you know what type of information it is—whether it’s a press release, an advertisement, a magazine article, a professional report, or something else? How do you know where the information you’re reading came from? Being a good researcher means analyzing everything and being able to think critically about it: thinking about what type of information you need, figuring out the best place to begin looking for that type of information, looking closely at every source—whether it’s a book, a video, a website, or other material—and knowing how to break down key elements to determine credibility and meaning. Perhaps most important, a good researcher knows to ask questions: Who is the author? Who is the target audience? What do I know about the publication? Learning to do research in an academic context using library resources trains students to do this type of thinking automatically and in this way is useful to them whether they’re doing a class assignment or seeking information for a personal need.

Photo of H. Faye Christenberry

H. Faye Christenberry

H. Faye Christenberry is comparative literature and philosophy librarian at the University of Washington. She is the coauthor of the MLA Guide to Undergraduate Research in Literature, forthcoming in 2019.

Photo of Elizabeth Brookbank

Elizabeth Brookbank

Elizabeth Brookbank is associate professor and instruction librarian at Western Oregon University. She is the coauthor of the MLA Guide to Undergraduate Research in Literature, forthcoming in 2019.