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ENGL 393: Toni Morrison (Knight)

Fall 2022

Understanding & Selecting Sources

Scholarly and Popular Sources:

Scholarly sources are written by experts on a particular subject (for example, a professor or other researcher). They also go through an extra process of review and approval by a group of other experts before they can be published. Usually, scholarly articles are written in 'academic-ese' and designed to be read by other scholars. However, because scholarly sources take a long time to be approved and published, they are not always good sources for current events.  

How can you tell if you have a scholarly article in your hand? 
The chart below compares the characteristics of scholarly vs. popular (non-scholarly) sources:  Handout version of popular vs. scholarly source chart; click to enlarge

AUTHOR Usually staff writers and/or journalists Experts on the topic -- usually researchers, scholars and/or professors
AUDIENCE General public (for "popular" consumption) Other experts (and students) in the field
EDITING & REVIEW Editor(s); generally concerned with grammar, style, etc., with some fact-checking Other experts ("peer reviewed"); generally concerned with quality, thoroughness of research, strength of argument, etc. 

Reasonably brief, typically uses colloquial if not informal language. Often illustrated with graphics, sidebars and other aesthetic elements. Sometimes accompanied by ads.

More extensive in length; tends to be more formal and uses specialized vocabulary. Illustrations and charts are used only when furthering content. 
GOAL OR PURPOSE To entertain; and/or, to share general information To share findings, advance and argument and/or engage with other scholars
SOURCES Few or none; if sources are used, there may not be formal citations.  Typically uses many sources, cited in detailed bibliographies, footnotes and/or endnotes
EXAMPLES Time Magazine; Sports Illustrated; New Yorker; Boston Globe Annual Review of Political Science; American Historical Review; Sociology of Education

How can you tell if you have a scholarly article in your hand? 

Here are some tips: 

  • Most scholarly articles will be published in academic journals. Magazine and newspaper articles are not scholarly.  Some, but not all, books are scholarly -- it depends on who wrote them and how they were published. 
  • Scholarly resources will always include citations and a bibliography. Other resources usually cite very few or no other sources, and will have only a short bibliography or none at all. 
  • If you see citations, that doesn't necessarily mean that the source you have is scholarly. If you're not sure, check for information like: the author's name and professional title; where the article was published (was it an academic journal?); who published the article; or who the article was intended for. 
  • Book reviews and editorials (opinion pieces) are never scholarly, even when they are published in scholarly journals.

Primary and Secondary Sources:

There are many different ways of talking about primary sources in different disciplines. You may be familiar with the idea of primary sources from history classes, and/or of primary literature/research in the sciences. However, we mean something specific and slightly different when we talk about primary and secondary sources in literary study. 

In this context, a primary source reflects the original text in question (or an edition of it) -- the work of literary art that we are trying to understand. A primary text reflects the voice of the author.  For example, in this class, Passing or Jazz (the novels themselves) would be considered primary sources. A primary literary source is its own entity. When your professor asks you to engage with the primary source or text, she means that she wants you to deal with the actual text you are studying and apply your own interpretation to it. 

secondary source, as in other contexts, is a perspective outside of the original text/author, usually one endeavoring to apply some level of analysis. This analysis can occur on a very superficial level (e.g., a brief book review in the New York Times) or on a deeper level (e.g., a critical essay published in an academic journal, or even an anthology of essays published in book format).  Forwards, afterwards, or commentary published in the same volume as a primary text, are also secondary sources.

The question to ask is: is this piece of writing contained within the story / narrative / author's voice? Is it a piece of art that you can analyze? Or is it an outside reflection on or analysis of that piece of art? Even if said reflection is written by the author -- a foreword by Toni Morrison is still secondary relative to the text of the novel!.  

VOICE The original text and/or original voice of the author A second-hand interpretation of the original text by someone other than the original author
ORIGINAL PURPOSE Varies; usually artistic or entertainment, but can be others Usually to convey criticism or analysis, possibly in light of other literary works
RESEARCH USE Original voice or text, a piece of literary art Critical study of a piece of literary art

Often fictional and/or utilizing some form of literary license or artistry

PUBLICATION FORMAT Varies, from manuscripts to (modern) books, short stories and poems Typically "published" sources -- books, journals, magazines, essays
EXAMPLES Toni Morrison's novel Jazz, Homer's Odyssey, a poem by Robert Frost Book reviews; critical essays; a forward to Jazz; your essays!