Writing A Quick and Dirty Term Paper

The Twelve-Step Guide to Producing Literary Scholarship

Jeff Hooks

A famous professor in the nineteenth century - I forget which one - was once asked by a student how long it took him to prepare the wonderful lecture that he had just given to his class. The professor responded immediately with, "A lifetime, young man, a lifetime." The professor was serious, but his assertion presents a problem for those of us today who want to engage in literary scholarship. We cannot exploit others today to the extent we did in the nineteenth century in order to live the privileged life of the gentleman scholar. This problem is compounded when one considers the information explosion. Available data doubled every few years in the nineteenth century; now it doubles almost daily. It's simply impossible to know everything today - even about a limited subject. If today, one were to read, watch, interact with, or download everything that relates to Shakespeare or even Hemingway one would never have time to read the original texts, to write, or to teach. So, today we must carefully select which texts to experience, and the only way to do so is to rely on secondary sources as guides for our scholarship.

I am going to present you with an extreme example. It is possible to use only three references works - Masterplots (nonfiction series), the Oxford English Dictionary, The Encyclopedia of Philosophy - and a single primary literary source to produce what appears to be a solid piece of literary scholarship - an essay, a lecture, or a media presentation that appears to reflect a lifetime of wide reading and deep thought. A purist would say that this isn't real scholarship, or maybe he or she would even go so far as to call it immoral, but it is certainly not plagiarism, and the method is absolutely undetectable once the project is complete. It may not be scholarship as the nineteenth century defined it, but I won't tell anyone, if you don't.

Step 1: Read the primary literary source.

Step 2: Skim the most recent edition of Masterplots (nonfiction series) to find a scholarly theory that may be applied to your work. Photocopy the Masterplots summary of the books that relate to this theory.

Step 3: Check the books summarized by Masterplots out of the library. Skim over these books, looking for the names of philosophers and/or philosophical movements.

Step 4: Look up the philosophers and movements in the Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Photocopy these articles. Check out the books/articles listed in the bibliographies of these articles.

Step 5: Read the photocopies; reread the primary work marking passages that relate to the theory and/or philosophical movements.

Step 6: Skim through the books/articles that you have checked out marking quotes that illustrate the ideas you have found in the primary source.

Step 7: Make a list of key words from all the marked sections of the books/articles. Look up these words in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED).

Step 8: Choose sentences that you find in the OED that use your words and that come from books/articles that you think the library has in stock.

Step 9: Check out these books/articles and mark the passages where the words occur.

Step 10: Copy all marked passages from books/articles into a word processor, making sure that most of the passages come from your primary work.

Step 11: Organize your quotes, explicate passages, delete needless passages.

Step 12: Write an introduction defining key terms and a conclusion relating the theory and your primary source.