What do you do when you don’t recognize a word in your reading? What if there’s a reference to someone who you don’t know or a historical event you’ve never learned about?
It’s time to research. This is where taking notes comes in handy. If you’ve taken good notes by underlining unfamiliar passages or vocabulary, and have asked yourself questions in the margins, research can help you fill in the gaps of your comprehension of each reading.
Research itself is a skill that takes years to develop, and you only get better with practice (much like every other skill). The following isn’t comprehensive for all forms of research, but suits our purposes and needs within the literary analysis class known as Reading Selections.
What to Research
- vocabulary – No matter what you’re reading, it’s likely you’ll come across a word or two you haven’t encountered. You might also find familiar words being used in a way you’ve never seen them used, since many words have two or more meanings. When taking notes, mark these words so you can look them up in a dictionary. If the word is from a foreign language, you might need to look for a decent translator or English-[Other Language] dictionary.
- terms and phrases – Much like vocabulary, some terms or phrases may be unfamiliar because they’re from a specialized field of study or a previous era. These can be a little more difficult to discover, but a standard online search can often uncover not only an explanation of its meaning, but also an origin. It takes more digging, but can reward you with better comprehension of what you’re reading.
- historical events – If there’s a reference to or a setting within a historical event, reading about it through a summary can provide added depth to the selection, and add context for the behavior of the characters and their actions. This is one area where the source of your materials starts to matter most. History can be written in a variety of ways to suit an agenda or perspective, and some people with a strong political ideation do create revisions of history that support a particular, modern agenda.
- the author – While most selections are straightforward in meaning and easy to comprehend the general message, sometimes it takes greater understanding of the author and their life to make a piece make more sense. This is most commonly necessary with poetry and essays. In the former, poetry is often a manifestation of an individual’s emotional and sensory exploration of the world, and understanding who they were, the time they lived in and any pertinent details of their experiences can add to the richness of a poem. With essays or transcribed speeches, understanding the historical context of the author’s life and lived experiences can bring additional context to the piece.
- reviews – When struggling with anything you’re reading, and the first four points of research haven’t offered enough information to help you comprehend its meaning. Look for reviews and essays about your selection written by professionals and academics, both contemporary to the author, and from a modern perspective. Do this ONLY AFTER forming as many of your own opinions as possible about the piece, and after you’ve written and been unable to answer several questions about it as well. I would rather you come with questions, than regurgitating other people’s ideas without understanding them. If you do use other people’s reviews of any selection, please given attribution to them when discussing the topic at our meetings.
With the internet as their first source of information for most people, and so MUCH information (sometimes contradictory) online, it can be difficult to know where to look for accurate sources. Don’t forget, you also have public libraries filled to the gills with information, if you’re willing to seek it out.
The one place you will most likely be looking for help, though, is from dictionaries. Make certain you’re using a credible, reliable dictionary (or multiple ones). While Dictionary.com has a lot of words other dictionaries don’t, I often find a dearth of information for each word, and I’ve come across several words it ought to have recognized, but didn’t (considered too archaic, even within my lifetime), or gives credence to improper spelling and slang terms. Merriam-Webster.com is a better resource as a standard dictionary, if you don’t already have a hard copy at home, or don’t want to dig it out. Meanwhile, if you want to understand the history of a word or its origin, then you’re seeking the etymology. Check out Etymonline.com for all your linguistic curiosities.
As a teacher or guide, I’m not supposed to support using Wikipedia, because it’s a user-created encyclopedia that can be written by almost anyone. Poorly researched information and even wholly inaccurate information (often with a political agenda or a personal vendetta) can be found on Wikipedia for a while, and internet battles have been waged on those who submit information. Knowing its flaws, however, I still recommend Wikipedia as a jumping off point. Why? Because despite its flaws, the overwhelming majority of its pages are generalized enough to not be in contention with modern socio-political struggles. Most historical figures and events are represented with nuanced summaries, and more importantly, with numerous references per page (check the bibliography at the end of each entry to determine where they sourced their information). These references, if good, can be verified, and become resources to which you can search for and read to get direct information. Need to look up a quick fact about an author? Or need to know a little about a country? Wikipedia can tell you. Wanting to see what an albatross looks like and what its characteristics are? Wikipedia’s a quick guide, but it should never be your only source for delving deeply into a subject.
When I was growing up, Encyclopedia Britannica was the resource of choice to begin one’s research. However, with the rapid change in our world thanks to industry, the Space Age, and now the Digital Age, the giant, hoary set of books became unwieldy and its information outdated before printing. Britannica.com now also provides this information, and it’s provided by professional researchers rather than the common user.
With foreign language phrases, you can start with Google Translate, but understand, their translations would likely earn you a “C” grade at best in a language course. Collins Dictionary has some limited foreign language dictionaries and is free and reliable. The grammar is often wrong, as can be the translations of individual words, since the site can’t accurately read context much of the time. Here are some common languages you’re likely to run across in our readings: Spanish, French, Latin and Latin phrases.
Author biographies are an excellent source for understanding an author’s perspective when writing a piece. These can be found in encyclopedias, on official and fan author web sites, and with historical figures, in entire books focused on their lives.
While I’m sure you know to avoid completely unverified sites like Yahoo!Answers, Quora, or similar user-to-user question sites, there’s an even greater danger in finding inaccurate information among news sites. A major topic of 2016 has been the prevalence of fake news sites and their ability to dramatically sway the opinions and views of large groups of people, despite a lack of credibility. Even obvious joke sites like The Onion and The Borowitz Report have been mistaken by some as genuine, even if only for a few minutes. Below is a handy chart floating about to determine when a news site is likely to be accurate, or at least, credible most of the time. Verifying any current or recent news against multiple sources and tracing them to their original point is highly important. You likely won’t have to worry much about these in Reading Selections, but in your general life, both personal and academic, you’re going to be searching through these at some point and wonder if they’re true.
The following links are listed in order of relevance to our class.