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Undergraduate Research: What is Research in English?

The word “research” may conjure images of laboratories and experiments, but in fact, scholarly research work takes many different forms. While humanities research may not involve beakers or lab coats, the core principles of research work remains the same across disciplines. Research work starts with a specific question or a particular problem that one wants to answer or solve. Then, researchers look at existing scholarly work, propose new ways of looking at the issue and posit original responses to the question. The exact methods that researchers use vary based on discipline, and in English, there are a number of ways that researchers develop and respond to their main questions.

In English, researchers ask diverse questions. For instance, they posit queries about a text or group of texts; they investigate modes of persuasion; they consider how people interact with the world (textually, digitally, performatively, etc.); they question how information is organized. Here are some sample research questions drawn from Ohio State English faculty’s work:

Researchers in English use varied methodologies as they develop original arguments in response to their research questions.

Researchers always start by reviewing the existing scholarship that has been done on a given topic, surveying how others have responded to their question or similar questions. This work often helps shape and refine a research question and gives researchers a foundation on which to craft their own original response. Reviewing existing scholarship helps researchers find points to build upon, gaps in the field (and unanswered questions) and/or alternative interpretations.

Indeed, some research in English studies aims to add to the existing body of work on a given topic primarily by responding to existing scholarship. Often, this type of research involves introducing new historical or theoretical contexts that shape new interpretations. For instance, one might consider how early twentieth-century social customs influenced Virginia Woolf’s writing or how theories about the Anthropocene and the environment help us understand Moby Dick.

Researchers in English also employ other methods to add to the scholarly conversation about their topic. Some scholars explore archives, finding new material and additional contexts. Some use qualitative data, like interviews with subjects, to shape their research, while others use quantitative data, like numerically-coded rankings and assessments. Some create and use digital tools in response to research questions. Often, researchers use several methodologies to answer their research question.

If you’re interested in creating your own research question and responding to it, we strongly encourage you to pursue a thesis project or an independent study.

There are many resources at the university that support undergraduate research: