A presentation for English 1010 by Gordon Miller
The following slides are derived from an in-class
workshop for English 1010 offered by Gordon
Miller. Although some material is specific to this
particular course, the information on the use of
secondary sources can be applied to other courses.
Hello. My name is Geordie and I’m a tutor at the
Writing Centre. Dr. Swan invited me here today to
speak to you about finding and making effective
use of secondary sources, skills which you will
need to write the best essay you can on Beloved.
The Writing Centre
I open with a piece of shameless self-promotion:
You are encouraged to come in and see us at the
W.C. to talk about your paper in whatever stage it
happens to be in (research/brainstorming/first
draft). And since we’re pretty popular, I would
encourage you to make an appointment at least a
week in advance.
Today we’ll be covering the research aspect—the
whats, wheres, whys, and hows of finding and
using secondary material.
I’m going to speak about how to be effective with
your research time, and then we will use the Cheryl
Hall article on Beloved to illustrate how to approach
and incorporate secondary material.
What is a secondary source?
Before I address “why” we use secondary sources, I should
say something about what a secondary source is. In the
context of English, secondary sources are essays or,
sometimes, entire books that have been written by literary
critics/scholars about the text you are studying. So, to write
with some authority about your choice of literary text, you
should familiarize yourself with what has been written about
that text in the past. In fact, one goal of your writing should
be to add something to the body of critical work that has
been done on the text in question. In other words, you should
recognize that you are part of a larger academic community
—that’s part of what it means to be a university student. You
are contributing and learning how to contribute to the
advancement of knowledge. It’s important and not so
university brochure-speak as it sounds.
Why to use secondary
Now, as to the why. Imagine you’re having an
argument with one of your friends about a movie.
Suppose he/she hated the particular movie (let’s
say it was The Social Network, for the sake of
argument) and you loved it. How do you win, or feel
at least feel confident about your position, in the
given argument (as, it must be said, such
arguments are often unwinnable. There’s no
accounting for taste).
Read the book
For starters, it helps if you have seen the movie. In
the context of the essay you will write on Beloved,
this amounts to reading the novel. It’s difficult, very
difficult, to write an essay on a book you haven’t
read. So read it.
Find secondary material
Now, back to the movie argument—another thing
that can help support your cause and strengthen
the positive impressions you had, would be if you
had access to secondary material about the movie
—reviews, or even other friend’s favourable
reviews. I’m not saying that you should rely on
your friends’ impressions of Beloved to support
your arguments about Beloved (in fact, don’t do
this), but in the context of the essay writing, this
second-level of support is what we’ll be exploring
Remember your argument
Notice that your argument (you loved The Social
Network) stays at the forefront. The secondary
material doesn’t make it for you, and can’t, really.
Rather, you reference secondary material to help
clarify and support your position.
Secondary sources provide an additional starting
point for your research, along with your primary
source, Beloved. They will help you get a sense of
how a particular aspect of the novel has been
explored by others (e.g., Beloved and notions of
They help you get a broader, fuller understanding of
Beloved. This is not to suggest that you should or will
agree with everything that a secondary source has to
say, but, often times, what you disagree with will help
you better understand your own position if you ask why
you disagree with what a particular secondary source
has to say. Again, it is your point-of-view, your voice and
argument, that is the most important. Be careful not to
crowd yourself out of your own paper by allowing
material from the sources to take over. The paper is
your own, and the thesis statement and topic sentences
should be yours. However, the sources should help you
develop and support your ideas more fully than you
could without the use of those sources.
Secondary sources provide examples of other
significant secondary sources that can be brought
to bear on your argument; they give you a sense of
where you can find the types of conversations you
want to have about Beloved. Unlike Wikipedia and
Google (which are good for other reasons), these
sources have been peer-reviewed (read and edited
by other scholars before being published) and are
therefore more reliable.
On a level beyond your work for this particular
paper, remember that research is a transferable
skill, as is learning how to think critically about
the material (to pick out its strengths, but also to
be able to question it). The work you learn how to
do when you seek out and then effectively use
secondary sources to support your arguments will
better prepare you to do all kinds of jobs that may
have nothing to do with literature.
Where/How to find
It wasn’t until my second year of university that an
English professor was kind enough to take our class
to the library and give us a how-to-find-secondary-
sources run-through. So you should be very
thankful to Dr. Swan for giving you this lesson early
on in your university career (a lesson which is
applicable across disciplines).
Go to the library
In this case, the library is coming to you, so that when
you go, you’ll know how to be effective and efficient.
And really, that’s why I say that you should be thankful
because once you learn how to use secondary sources
properly and effectively, writing your papers will become
easier, and you’ll be more and more ready for your
upper-year classes where such research is a matter of
course. Now, I want to stress that you should physically
go to the library at some point. Not only has Dr. Swan
put some excellent books on reserve for you (which you
can access by going to the circulation desk with the
course code for this class or, preferably, the name of the
book you’re looking for), but also, there’s a lot of
excellent print material that cannot be accessed via the
world wide interweb.
How to use the library
I don’t want to shock anyone, but those upper
floors of the library don’t just have great window
view study spots, they also have a lot of books.
Books with words in them that can help you write
an excellent essay on Beloved.
So I’m going to walk you through a step-by-step
way of accessing the information directly, in the
form of articles in online scholarly journals, or
finding out where the information is located in the
Using the library website
Go to libraries.dal.ca
From here you have some options under the
“Search Libraries” prompt.
Searching for books
Click on “Books and More” (this will give you
access to books and articles on the search topic
housed online or else at Dalhousie, surrounding
libraries, and the world at large). We’ll discuss
what is helpful to include in your search terms and
how you can go about ordering books not at Dal in
Searching the databases
Click on “Databases.” Here you will want to
include as your search terms a humanities/
literature database (electronic filing cabinets).
There are a number of good ones—I would
recommend JSTOR, Project Muse, Literature
Online, and MLA. When you get on the database,
then you perform the search.
Searching for e-journals
Click on “e-Journals.” Again, you will have to have
a specific e-Journal in mind. For example,
“American Literature,” “American Quarterly,” and
“The Canadian Review of American Studies.” Now,
the “Databases” option will contain a number of
these options within it, so the e-Journals approach
should be your third and final resort.
Notes about search options
Putting the item in quotation marks means that the
search will be for anything with the quoted word in
the title. So, if you search for “Beloved,” it will pull
up all the sources with “Beloved” in the title (more
than 32,000 results under “Books and More”).
These results will be arranged according to their
location (so the ones at Dal will come up first). You
can click on any given result to find out where it is
Notes about search options
The type of source it is, whether book, article,
chapter, or other, is listed directly under the title.
With books, this will mean that the call number
comes up (PS 3563 O8749 B4 1987 for Beloved).
The third floor has items with call numbers from P-
T; the fourth floor A-N; the second floor U-Z.
Notes about search options
If a book is owned by one of the NOVANET libraries,
this means it is not at Dal, but can be delivered (by
clicking on the book title and then the orange Request
If the item is an article, and is owned by Dal, this
means that it is either in a journal in the stacks, the
call number for which you can find by writing down the
journal name and searching that, OR it may be online.
If it’s online, there will be an “ezproxy” hyperlink that
will link you to the journal. You may have to enter the
issue number or year once you get to the journal’s site
(this information shows up once you click on the journal
title, but before the “ezproxy” link).
Notes about search options
Whether you’re searching a database like MLA, an
e-journal like “American Studies,” or the Library
website, you will want to narrow down your choices
by using keywords that relate to the particular
topic you are exploring. Another helpful tip is to
search your keyword along with the author’s last
So, if you’re writing your paper on the use of the
supernatural in Beloved, you could search Beloved
and supernatural (this yielded a more manageable
Evaluating search results
Now, since no one expects you to read through all
126 of these options, you need strategies for
addressing whether the source will be potentially
useful for you.
Partly this involves judging a book by its cover, so
to speak, which is to say that you should look at the
title of the article. Does it talk about Beloved and
only Beloved, or does it compare Morrison’s text to
another? If it’s the latter, it may be less useful to
you, maybe not.
Using the abstract
Often, articles will include “Abstracts.” The
abstract is a summary of the main argument used
in the article. Read the abstract and ask yourself
whether it addresses aspects of the novel that you
want to discuss in your paper.
If the article does not include an abstract, you can
read over the Introductory paragraph of the article
to get a sense of its scope and focus.
Take effective notes
The key thing is that you have arranged your notes
on Beloved in such a way that you have a good
sense of what you want to explore about the novel.
The more thinking you’ve done about your paper
and your argument, the more effective you can be
at evaluating secondary sources.
Now, supposing you find a book on Beloved, and you go
up to the stacks and pull it off the shelf. For example,
The dilemma of “double consciousness”: Toni Morrison’s
How do you decide whether it will be useful to you?
Again, reading the chapter headings helps. As does
looking over the Introduction, as the Intros of scholarly
books usually lay out the arguments that the book will
go on to make. You can also look at the index for key
words (in this case, “supernatural” or “haunting” or
“ghosts”) and flip to the pages where these words are
found to see how the author is addressing the issues
that might interest you.
General searching tips
University presses as publishers are generally solid
sources (again, it’s a sign that the material has
passed through academic channels).
You don’t necessarily need to privilege the present
when evaluating which articles will be useful, but
you probably shouldn’t be citing things that are
more than 50 years old. An added bonus of using
more contemporary material is that you can mine
the bibliographies for sources that that author
used as an additional source of information.
General searching tips
Don’t get overwhelmed by the amount of material
that’s out there. You’re not going to be able to
track down/account for it all; however, knowing
what you’re looking for, and pulling out the key
information and arguments from those sources
will show a command of the secondary material.
Secondary sources should help provide support for
your arguments; they should not make the
arguments for you.
Approach the source openly and be willing to
question it, recognizing its strengths and
The cover page
The cover page has essential publication
information, often reproduced at the top or bottom.
For example, the bibliographical information for the
Cheryl Hall article would appear as
Hall, Cheryl. “Beyond the ‘Literary Habit’: Oral
Tradition and Jazz in Beloved.” MELUS 19.1(1994):
Last name, First name. “Title of article.” Journal
name Issue/Number (Year): Pages.
If it were a book: Last name, First name. Title.
Place of pub.: Pub. name, Year.
The introduction is where the article is framed. Along
with the title, it is good to scan the introduction to get a
sense of whether it will be useful to your research area.
Key words in Hall’s introduction include “responses,”
“controversial,” “deliberate ambiguity,” and “the way
she tells it.”
In fact, the entire last sentence of that Intro (as with
your essays) is key—it may not be the thesis per se, but
does a lot to lay out the point of entry for Hall’s
Some other things to notice on the first page include
Hall’s use of a citation (Bonetti interview—you will, of
course, want to provide a page number with your
parenthetical citation; here, she doesn’t because
different journals have different standards).
You can also scan the article to see what sections
of the novel she addresses. This article includes a
block quotation on the first sexual encounter
between Paul and Sethe.
The Conclusion is a good place to go for a
summing up of the argument and a meditation on
its consequences—like the Intro, it’s worth
scanning in order to assess whether and how useful
it will be to you.
The works cited
The Works Cited page is a good place to look for
the focus of the article as well. Scan the titles of
the sources she uses and check out what kind of
source they are—interviews, popular reviews,
scholarly articles, etc.
Assessing the content of
The next section of Miller’s original presentation
included a group activity designed to illustrate the
types of questions useful in assessing secondary
works. The questions for discussion are presented
in the next slides.
Similar types of questions are useful in assessing
secondary materials you might use in your own
Sample questions for article
Look at the key terms in the title of Hall’s article
("Literary Habit," Oral Tradition, and Jazz) and
examine how Hall defines/employs them to make
Focus on how Hall frames her article--how does
her introduction set up and anticipate what
follows? Do you find it effective? Why or Why not?
Sample questions for article
Look at the extended passage that Hall cites
(90-91) and analyzes with two objectives in mind:
1. Explain how it fits into Hall's overall argument
2. Perform your own close reading to support/
critique Hall's reading.
Discuss the model of reading Hall suggests that
Beloved invites--where does Hall say readers have
gone wrong? What are the qualities/
characteristics of reading that she wants to
Sample questions for article
Single out at least one strong argument and one
weaker argument that Hall makes. Devise some
questions that the selected passages raise.
Now to conclude: We’ve explored where to find
secondary material, why to use it, what to look for
when evaluating and employing it, so what I want to
do last is to provide an example of how you might
incorporate it into your argument—how you might
use secondary material to build on or illustrate one
of your own ideas.
Those are key verbs—“build on” and “illustrate.”
In other words, you are not using secondary
material to make your arguments for you: You are
expanding on an aspect of the material that you
found interesting or perhaps problematic and/or
you are setting up your argument and then using
the secondary material as evidence of your point.
There are plenty of instances of the illustrative
effect in Hall. For example, Hall presents her
point, refers to the scholar House and that author’s
discussion of poetry, and expands on House’s
argument to include jazz.
In using the “build upon” model, suppose you reached a
point in your essay were you wanted to address the novel’s
final chapter. In particular, supposing you wanted to discuss
the repetition of the phrase, “It was not a story to pass
on” (274-75). Hall’s arguments about repetition could help
you in general, but if you wanted to get into the specifics, you
could build on what she says about oral storytelling in slave
culture on (92). So, you could introduce the repeated phrase
and then you could say something like: Cheryl Hall
emphasizes the influence of oral storytelling culture on
Morrison’s narrative, particularly how the content of any
given story is “enriched and modified with every
telling” (92). The final chapter of the novel illustrates how
some stories can go out of circulation, raising questions
about the knowledge that would be lost without the tale of
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