The goal of the liberal arts education is to make an informed and thoughtful citizenry. This begins with research and response.
The primary activities in the humanities classroom are research and response. Much of your college career is about learning how to do each effectively. These days, academics call this “critical thinking.” Whatever we want to call it, research and response are about accessing and using knowledge in creative and thoughtful ways. This is what it means to be educated in the liberal arts.
Generally, if we’re interested in something — from a new car to making the best chocolate-chip cookie — we begin by gathering information before making a move. This is the essence of research and response.
Research. Even the word smells musty like a book from the seventeenth century. Research suggests something profound and heavy — something that takes large amounts of time and eventually leads to blindness and pasty skin.
However, don’t get bogged down by your experience with research. If we dispose of the prefix, “search” is probably something you do everyday, if not every few minutes. In fact, I would bet you don’t even think twice about using Google for a quick answer. This, too, is research.
So, what puts the “re-” in “search” and makes it so heavy?
One answer might be in the quality of what we decide to use. When we do a Google search, we get millions of results. We begin clicking on various hits; some seem to have potential while others may be discarded without much thought. When we arrive at a handful, we begin to read them more carefully, perhaps pruning our results further. Finally, we end with a select few sources that seem to compliment each other and give us a pretty good understanding of our topic. This process is the essence of research.
Let’s take it a step further. We’ve all had an English teacher at some point tell us never to cite Wikipedia in our essays. (My English teacher used the word “encyclopedia,” but it’s the same idea.) This is pretty good advice. Do you know why?
Generally, our first hits on a search are what we call “reference material.” These hits are a good place to begin. They give us an overview and a foundational knowledge about our topic. Sometimes this might be enough, but not in a college class. Our job requires us to look deeper — to put that re back in the search. This makes etymological sense, too, since “re” is a Latin prefix meaning “again.” So, to research is to literally “look again.” Research is a deeper look, one that filters the wheat from the chaff.
This is our job as educated people: to use the best sources as the foundation of our ideas — of our knowledge.
Research begins with the tenet: one cannot learn in a vacuum. Any rewarding study of the humanities comes through the primary text, and through commentary and criticism, or secondary texts. Research means the study of secondary texts that address the work of literature, or the primary text. Research in the humanities might attempt to answer the following questions:
How does the piece of art fit into a genre? How does it not? For example: how is the Iliad an example of epic poetry? Not only does research on genre look at a particular work, but it also considers exactly how a genre can be defined. For instance: what is epic poetry?
What is the historical and cultural background of the literary work? What facts are being explored? What fictions have been added? What ideologies inform its construction? What are the major issues, or themes, the work concerns itself with? Who are the primary characters, and what are their backgrounds? Who is the author, and how does the work fit into his or her oeuvre?
What have critics had to say about this work? What are the major and minor interpretations, both historically and generally, about the work? What do various schools of interpretation — feminism, psychoanalysis, new-historicism, deconstruction, etc. — have to say about the work?
No research is complete without a list of works cited and resources for additional reading, usually in the form of links to other web sites. Keep meticulous track of your sources as you research so that you may cite them accurately.
Once research has been collected and organized, it’s time for response. There are many ways to respond to art and its community, but in college writing it has traditionally been some sort of analysis in the form of the essay. The word “essay” might be as odious to college students as “research” — especially when they join forces as the research paper. Who hasn’t sweated out a semester in college dreading this fifteen-page behemoth?
While the essay remains a valid form for response, it is by no means the the only way in which to respond. In fact, in the digital age, the essay has gotten pretty slow and cumbersome. While it may be the most accepted vehicle for response in the academy, it begins to lose its supremacy to more convenient and accessible forms online.
Consider what the role of the essay has always been: an academic conversation. It’s a way to develop one’s argument in an organized and logical fashion with the goal of getting others to do the same. These essays would then be published in periodicals and books as permanent records of an on-going scholarly conversation. It’s tradition. It’s how a scholar makes her name in her field. It’s also woefully out-of-date and unnecessary for the variety of students who have no interest in being academics.
Yet while the form of the essay might be moribund, the spirit of it remains at the heart of education: the response. Look, it’s another re-word. In this case, “sponse” means “call,” so to respond is to “call again,” like a conversation. However, while conversations are off-the-cuff, adding the “re-” implies a deliberate consideration — a thoughtful, careful back-and-forth about a topic of interest.
Additionally, when we respond, we are not only supporting our ides with research, but with our own experiences and forestructure.
Research helps us situate the topic in context; response allows us to add our voice. However, our voice will only be heeded if it is supported with strong evidence.
When written, responses should take the form of a reader response and should critically address an aspect of the text: passage explication, thematic analysis, etc. A response uses your research, but goes beyond facts to state something original about the work — what the work means to you. The best way to respond to a work of literature is to take a small section and look at it closely and then discuss the section’s relevance to the overall work and/or how that section is significant to your life. The best responses cite strong secondary sources, like journal articles and books, and use supporting evidence from the text by quoting passages or referring to specific details.
Finally, in this age of digital production, a response might take the form of creative contribution. Why limit ourselves to written discourse, especially when we might better express our idea through a Prezi, with an Animoto video, or through Second Life? Why not make a video or photographic response, especially since you likely carry around a very capable camera in your pocket? Not only may responses vary, but you might also choose to collaborate with a friend. Whereas school has trained us to do our own work, the digital world encourages us to use each other’s strengths in our responses. Don’t let traditional approaches stifle your creativity.
There you have it: the two most important aspects of education in the liberal arts classroom are research and response. They insist that we engage our materials and community — making us educated individuals in a more enlightened society. While these ideas are traditional, our approaches to them need not be.