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:
- If African Americans know their achievements inspire their white counterparts to attack, what does that reveal about their insistence upon pursuing achievement anyway? Do African-descended people cultivate particular practices in order to aim for a success that they know will make them targets? (resulting in Dr. Koritha Mitchell’s From Slave Cabins to the White House: Homemade Citizenship in African American Culture. For more information on Professor Mitchell’s book and research process, please see this site).
- How do humans use rhetoric to navigate uncertainty in medical and scientific contexts? (resulting in Dr. Christa Teston’s Bodies in Flux: Scientific Methods for Negotiating Medical Uncertainty).
- Why were the people who mediated at-a-distance dialogues in the nineteenth century (from telephone operators to seance mediums) so often women? Why especially at a time when women had few opportunities for public work? What if we regarded this role of mediation as a single vocation, no matter how wildly dissimilar its expressions? What can viewing mediation in this way tell us about nineteenth-century ideas of communication, privacy and intimate selfhood? (resulting in Dr. Jill Galvan’s The Sympathetic Medium: Feminine Channeling, the Occult, and Communication Technologies, 1859–1919).
- What new forms of storytelling and audience participation emerge when a media form is new (before it has been standardized/industrialized)? What is ultimately exiled with standardization? How does it reappear, either in that media or in a new media form, in the future? (resulting in Dr. Jared Gardner’s publications, including Projections: Comics and the History of Twenty-First-Century Storytelling).
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:
- The Office of Undergraduate Research and Creative Inquiry can help you learn more about research, and they have funding sources and opportunities to present your research.
- The annual Denman Undergraduate Research Forum is an excellent space to present your research.
- The College of Arts and Sciences offers funding opportunities for undergraduate research projects.
- The College of Arts and Sciences Honors Program also offers funding opportunities.
- The Department of English offers Undergraduate Research, Conference, and Thesis Grants.