OK. Your professor has assigned you to write a research paper on Brothers Karamazov. But where do you begin?
Before You Begin
Whether you’ve already written a research paper or are just embarking on your first one, the best way to begin your research paper is to review the section Writing the Academic Paper on the Writing Program web site. All of the information located on that series of web pages directly relates to your research project. As you review the information there, note that the one difference between a course paper and a research paper is the scope of the paper. While your previous academic papers may have focused on the analysis of one or more class readings, the research project asks you to begin with the Brothers Karamazov, and then to broaden your scope, examining how, for example, the book connects to a real-world person, a time period, an ideology, or a literary criticism.
Think of the research project as an exploratory process of thinking, reading, and writing, while constantly revising. You will find that the stages of the process tend to blend together. As you research, new discoveries might force you to rethink your argument or lead you down a new path of inquiry. New information requires a continual process of synthesis and revision. Try to let the process guide your exploration of a topic that interests you.
Finding Your Topic
Although much of your final process will be dictated by your research itself, let us state one definitive “rule” of good research: Pick a topic that interests you. You will inevitably spend much time reading, thinking, and writing about this topic. If you pick a topic that piques your own curiosity, you will have more fun during your research and will produce a better research paper. Guaranteed!
With our “rule” in mind, begin by reviewing the Coming Up With Your Topic section of the Writing Program web site. This page contains invaluable practical suggestions on reading actively, using critical theory, and using invention techniques, all of which will help you to first focus your own ideas in order to find a topic that interests you.
Once you have started getting your own ideas together, browse through the Brothers Karamazov web site. We designed this site primarily to assist you in the research process. To help you to work your ideas into a solid, researchable topic, browse the following:
- Reading Questions. These questions will help you to read the Brothers Karamazov more actively.
- Biography. The biography of Dostoevsky has been written specifically to introduce you to the life of Dostoevsky and the people and ideas which influenced him in his writing.
- Timeline. Similarly, we designed the timeline to pull together Dostoevsky’s life, the life of his mother Russia, and the intellectual climate of his times.
- Intellectual Influences. In this section of the site, we link you to print and web resources on each significant person or idea which influenced Dostoevsky.
- Ideas for Writing. These writing prompts are designed to introduce you to the “scholarly conversation” taking place around the novel.
As you browse these pages, pay close attention to the types of questions and topics that this information suggests. Can you identify several lines of scholarly inquiry? If you identified some specific character or idea from the Brothers Karamazov that interests you, try to frame that character or idea using one of these lines of inquiry.
Generating Your Research Question(s)
You have now found your topic, and armed with your topic, you are ready to head to the library and start cruising the Dartmouth Online Catalog for sources, right? Wrong. Sure, you have a topic that you can key into the library catalog or web search engine. However, you would be making a big, time-consuming mistake in the research process. Before you hit the library, you need to formulate your “Research Question.”
Why take the extra time to formulate a “research question,” you may ask? Well, stop and think for a minute. The library has a wealth of information on Dostoevsky, on the Brothers Karamazov, and on the ideas that are central to the novel. If you walk into the library only thinking, “Gee, I have this 10 page paper due on Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov,” you will have a difficult time. Even if you narrowed your topic sufficiently, you may find fifteen (15) or so sources that pertain to your topic in some way. Without a research question, you have no guide to help you select which information relates directly to your topic.
So, try to formulate some sort of question before you hit the library catalog or the web – even if the question is only basic: Does the Christian notion of love, according to Dostoevsky, require a response? How does humility work in Russian Orthodoxy? What are the different views of suffering? At this point, you don’t need to worry about formulating the perfect question, but the better the question, the more efficient your research will be.
Refining Your Research Question(s)
As you begin your library search, you will probably need to revise your research question, mainly because 1- as you read, you will identify key background information that will modify your question, and 2- you must learn the lingo of your chosen field in order to make your research question research-able.
Early in the research process, your goal at the library is simply to gain some background information. With that goal in mind, consult the following as a bare minimum:
- Dictionaries of Literary/Historical/etc. Terms. These volumes provide discipline-specific definitions of key terms and are usually written for the novice.
- Encyclopedias. Yes, the encyclopedia – that tome that none of us has touched since our middle school English class. While you won’t use the encyclopedia as a source, a quick consultation of an encyclopedia can give you the best 15 minute introduction to a field that the library can offer. Additionally, each article points you toward more in-depth treatments of the subject.
At this point, you may encounter a seemingly large problem: a term from your topic or your research question either is nowhere to be found in the encyclopedia, the dictionary, or the library catalog or is used in a context which is completely foreign. To overcome this problem, you must do a little translation.
For better or worse, researching in a field involves learning a new vocabulary — the vocabulary used by scholars in the field you are researching. For example, Ivan talks to Alyosha about suffering in the context of his belief in God. However, suffering, as a search term, will not generate many sources. In fact, a keyword search for “Dostoevsky AND suffering” in the Dartmouth library catalog or in an encyclopedia will return no entries. Instead, scholars, especially in philosophy, use the terms “theodicy” and the “problem of evil.” Therefore, part of your goal in this early stage of the research process is to bridge this gap in terminology in order to more fully join the scholarly conversation.
But how to bridge this gap? Well, you have a couple of quick and easy ways:
- Library of Congress (LOC) Subject Headings. This multi-volume reference tool, located at Z695.U47 U491 23:1-5 2000 on the wall behind the reference desk in Berry Library, contains a cross reference of subject headings. More importantly, it contains narrower and broader search terms and will direct you to other terms “used for” your topic. All of these categories will help you to refine your question.
- Dartmouth Library Catalog Subject Search. The new web version of the Dartmouth Online Catalog automatically cross-references subject terms.
- Talk to your Professor. Your professor and classmates can help you to narrow your research question. Besides, it is always a good idea to run your topic/research question by your professor before you get too far along in the research process.
- Consult Your Reference Librarians. Even if you discuss your topic with your professor, the Dartmouth Reference Librarians can offer invaluable hints in the research process. These librarians are trained in researching specific disciplines. Use the “Basic Search” feature to search for a reference librarian with a certain specialty. For example, a search for “philosophy” will bring up William Fontaine, who is the library philosophy & religion reference librarian.
Each of these research resources can help you to better formulate your research question in order to make it a more research-able question.
Finding Your Sources
Now, you are ready to begin pulling sources from the stacks in earnest. With your research question in hand, turn to the following places for information about Dartmouth College Library’s holdings:
- Brothers Karamazov Web Site Bibliography. Again, begin with our web site. We offer direct links to the Dartmouth Online Catalog for all the major works of scholarship on Dostoevsky. In addition, we have linked you to annotated bibliographies of other major works of criticism.
- Published Bibliographies. Some topics with abundant scholarship will have a published bibliography. Usually found in the reference section of the library, these bibliographies break down the scholarship into its subfields and annotate the major works of scholarship in the field. An invaluable resource, if your topic has one.
- Wilson Combined Index. While bibliographies will point you to book-length texts, the Wilson Combined Index indexes journal articles on your topic. You should perform the same searches in Wilson that you perform in the library catalog. Journal articles will contain the most current scholarship on your topic.
- Reference Librarians. Again, we cannot stress enough the importance of reference librarians for your research tasks. These folks work with the library acquisitions folks to purchase new scholarship for the library. As such, they have an intimate knowledge of library holdings and current research in their respective fields. Consult them often.
Evaluating Your Sources
OK. You probably have a huge printout of books and articles that seem to relate to your topic in some way. Good. Here is where you put that refined research question to maximum use. As you pull each book or article, you are going to grind that source against your research question, evaluating the source. At a minimum, look at the following for each source:
- Published Book Reviews. Before you hit the stacks, spend an additional moment with the Wilson Combined Index. Look up book reviews for all the recent books on your list. For many books, you can find multiple reviews, each evaluating the audience, the content, and the major argument of the book. Example search for The Dostoevsky Archive by Peter Sekirin.
- Look at the Copyright. After you pull the book from the shelves, look at the copyright. Is this book current? Depending on your topic, a book written in 1840 might not carry the same scholarly weight as a book written in 2000. Though it might, if you are looking to see how Dostoevsky’s work was received in its own time, or if you want to compare criticism from various periods.
- Scan the Table of Contents (TOC). Then, look at the Table of Contents. Are the topics listed there similar to your own? Do any specific chapters appear to address your research question in any way? Note these chapters for more extensive reading.
- Scan the Index. After scanning the TOC, look in the index to see if your topic is mentioned there. Scan the rest of the index entries to get a feel for 1- what the book is about and 2- whether the book contains any information relating to your research question.
- Scan the Intro/Preface. If the book seems to relate to your topic, look at the introduction and preface, concentrating on the organization, the argument, and the tone of the book. Will this book give up its information, or will you have to work for it? Is there a specific chapter or two that seems particularly relevant? Does the author mention other influential works or ideas that you haven’t thought about?
- Scan the Bibliography. If you have a relevant book, look at the bibliography (if it has one) and note any sources that you might have missed in your own search. NOTE: This method can be the best way to quickly find a list of sources that are directly relevant to your topic.
By this point, you should have a good idea about what the library offers on your topic. If you found too many books, you may have to go back and narrow your topic/research question a bit. On the other hand, if you found only a source or two, you may have to broaden your scope. Either way, you will repeat these steps a few times as you move through the research process. As you find new information, you must integrate that information and continue your research.
Developing a Research System
Now that you have a growing list of sources, you should think about a system to keep track of everything — before you begin intently reading your sources. At this point, you might review the Keep Track of Your Sources section of the Writing Program website. Different note/source tracking systems exist. Some people prefer note cards. Others prefer keeping dedicated files or folders on their computer. Still others prefer a notebook of some sort. The key here is to find a system that works for you — and to stick with it. For systems of notetaking and information on effective notetaking, see the Learning Strategies Guides section of the Academic Skills web page.
Reading with Your Argument in Mind
As you read, make sure you take good notes. Review the Summarize Your Sources and Interrogate Your Sources sections of the Writing Program web site. It is very important to summarize and interrogate your sources as you read them. Undoubtedly, you will have many sources, some of which you may only need to read a chapter or two. When you summarize, make sure you somehow link the section of the source that you are reading back to the whole argument of the author’s book. Similarly, note any questions that the source raises. If you wait to do these steps, you will miss something and have to return to the source to find needed information.
Lastly, note well the information on the Make Your Sources Work for You section of the Writing Program web site. The information there bears repeating: Don’t lose your own voice/ideas in your sources. If you followed the steps on this page, you avoided many of the pitfalls that lead to this problem. You thought about your topic/question/argument before going to the library. You evaluated your sources, limiting yourself to the sources that were absolutely relevant to your research question. And lastly, you have been keeping notes, summarizing and interrogating your sources as you read them. Each of these activities will serve your final paper well, because you will better use your sources, rather than be used by them.