Students often wonder how to start a paper: where to search for material, and how far to go with the search. Here are some rules of thumb which may be helpful to you in the beginning stages of researching a paper for a Classical Studies course.
- Your course text is not a sufficient source for a research essay. Occasionally there are constraints which force individuals to rely on the course text; this is often the case with the brief assignments in a distance education course, where access to library resources is more limited. For most students under most circumstances, however, the course text really shouldn't play a major role in the research for your essay. One way in which it can help, though, is in providing further references for the subject about which you're writing. So check out the bibliography(ies) offered by your course text.
- Course bibliographies – most professors provide these for their classes as part of the course outline. Don't ignore them. They're valuable tools (which the prof invested a lot of time in!), and they're generally designed with the specific course in mind (unlike other bibliographic sources which you might find yourself hunting through).
- A library subject search is another way to proceed. Remember to be imaginative and broad in your searching. If your subject is Snails of the ancient Mediterranean, don't type in Snails, Mediterranean, ancient, and expect to find a subject category (you'll have more luck with Mollusks). Incidentally, by the time you go the library, you should really already have a few titles in mind, if you haven't ignored steps 1 and 2. Don't forget that a library subject search has no quality control over the titles it offers you, whereas your professor is not generally going to recommend that you consult a book dedicated to proving that ancient Mediterranean snails were actually intelligent life from Uranus (not knowingly, anyway).
- The Web has more and more interesting sites every day. If you take a look at these Web sites, you'll find not only a vast amount of good material mounted on the Web itself, but also further bibliographies, many of them searchable by keywords. An important word of warning with respect to information on the Web: anyone can put up anything they like, so the remarks about quality control are valid here too. There's some really wonderful stuff on the Web (like Perseus, for example); but there's also some appalling stuff too (and I refuse to offer a link here, on the grounds that I don't want to get into trouble).
- A source not to use: the encyclopedia. This is not to say there are no good encyclopedias, because there are. But usually an encyclopedia entry is too shallow and general, and pays too little attention to its sources, to be used in a university-level essay. This goes for electronic or print versions. An encyclopedia can be a good starting point, if you're completely unfamiliar with a topic. But it's not appropriate as a major component of your research.
You may find, once you've made up your own bibliography for your specific topic, that you have far more books than you can possibly hope to use. After all, if you try to put together a comprehensive bibliography on Julius Caesar, you'll end up with literally hundreds of books (and probably thousands of articles) in many, many languages, all of which have relevant material. Am I supposed to read all that?, you say with just the barest hint of despair in your voice (and who could blame you?). The answer is, of course not. You have to pick and choose, and narrow your choices down to a reasonable amount. But exercise some judgment in your choices. You may not think the field of Classical Studies has changed much in the past 100 years, but nothing could be further from the truth. You can get into real trouble using works that are out-of-date (my particular pet hate is anything with the word Grecian in the title – right away I know it's a relic of the Victorian Age).
How far down should you winnow your bibliography? Students often want to know precisely how many books they are expected to use. That's an unanswerable question of course; it'll change with every course, every topic, every professor and every student. But remember that one purpose of a research essay is to acquaint you with differing, often actively conflicting, interpretations of an issue; this cannot be achieved if you look at only one book. So that is one certainty: one book is not enough. As to an upper limit (there's never really a limit), all I can offer is a generalized picture of my typical expectations. I cannot stress enough that these views are mine; everybody's expectations are different, and you should consult your own professor if you are uncertain about any of this!
General Classical Studies courses
- Here I might expect you to consult anywhere between five and ten books. The number would depend on the course, the topic and the quality and range of the books themselves; I would consider five an absolute minimum, and often insufficient. While I would always encourage you to look at the more specialized research contained in articles, I wouldn't expect it.
Senior courses for majors (300/400 level language courses, senior seminars)
- The course essays tend to be more significant in these courses, and should be the result of greater depth of research. Looking at only five books or so would result in too shallow or restricted a view, unless you fleshed out your interpretation by a considerable emphasis on journal articles as well; in any case, consultation of journal articles is something that I would expect. Those involved in writing one of these senior level essays should take a look at the section on Research (articles).