Whether you are taking a class in History, English, Sociology, or another social science or humanities field, it is very likely that an essay assignment requiring research and secondary sources awaits you. Secondary sources include peer-reviewed, scholarly articles that are published in academic journals, and are found in your course readings. Including secondary sources in a paper is important because they support the analyses you make, and can help you develop critical thinking and research skills. Writing an essay on only primary text(s) can be challenging enough; therefore, a paper that requires secondary sources may seem confusing and can add to the challenge of essay writing. But fear not, because the following tips will hopefully give you some ideas as to how you can incorporate the words of scholarly authors into your research essays.
1. Taking a Theoretical Approach.
For this method, start off by thinking back to all the theories and theorists that you have come across in your courses so far. Some of the more widely applicable theories are Marxist, Freudian, and feminist theories which you can use as a lens to examine a primary text, a historical event, or a social issue. An example of using this approach might be taking Judith Butler and gender performativity (A theory I learned in a Gender Studies course) to do a feminist reading of a text in an English Literature essay. In this approach, once you have chosen a theory, you would introduce it at the beginning of your paper (in the introduction or a separate paragraph after the introduction) by explaining and contextualizing it (What is this theory about? How does it relate to your topic/ primary text?). This approach allows you to set up a theoretical framework for your analysis so that you are using your chosen theory to support your argument (McDougall). It sounded daunting to me when I first heard about using a ‘theoretical framework,’ but all it really asks you to do is use a theory to help you understand or interpret, to develop insights and analysis about a primary text or issue you examine in your essay.
2. Bringing in Critical Scholarship
As an alternative to using a theory, you may want to use scholarly articles to contextualize and support your argument(s) in an essay. To do that, you would first need to select a couple of peer-reviewed articles written on your topic or primary text. If you have difficulties finding creditable sources I recommend checking out another fun PWA blog for some helpful tips: http://sass.queensu.ca/writingcentre/tips-to-get-you-through-the-research-process/. Also, “Avoiding Accidental Plagiarism” is a workshop at the Writing Centre that offers useful tips on evaluating the credibility and relevance of sources; if you want to learn more, here is the link to the workshop slides: http://sass.queensu.ca/writingcentre/workshop-slides/. Unlike when you use the theory approach, you do not need to introduce your sources at the beginning of your essay; instead, you would bring these scholarly perspectives into your body paragraphs to give critical insights, and as evidence to support your analyses and arguments. Some common ways of incorporating these scholarly viewpoints are showing how an argument agrees or disagrees with a point you are making, giving context to your topic or defining a critical term in your essay (McDougall). Keep in mind as you incorporate these scholarly opinions that your essay should focus on your perspective(s) and not on those of your sources. To ensure that your voice, and not the voice of these sources, dominates your paper, try to be concise by paraphrasing what a source says, and don’t forget to explain how a specific insight is relevant to your argument. Moreover, avoid beginning a body paragraph with a secondary source. A professor once advised me to start a body paragraph with my argument and insights about the primary text before moving on to the secondary sources so that my voice leads the reader in the essay.
(McDougall, Aislinn. OnQ post, ENGL271. February 22, 2017)
3. Defining a term using the OED (Oxford English Dictionary).
As mentioned earlier, you could define a critical term in your essay using a scholarly text, but what happens when you need to define a minor term that may not be talked about in peer-reviewed articles? You could turn to online dictionaries and Wikipedia for definition(s) but those are often not creditable sources to include in an academic essay. In that case, you could look up the word in the OED (Oxford English Dictionary). The OED is a creditable secondary source, and it would show you all the multiple definitions of a word and how its meaning has changed overtime. Best of all, the OED is available online to all Queen’s students at Queen’s Library website and in this link here: http://library.queensu.ca/search/databases?keywords=OED.
To recap, some common ways to incorporate secondary sources in an essay are: 1) using a theory as a lens to examine your topic or primary source, 2) drawing from scholarly articles to give critical insights and to support your arguments, and 3) defining a minor term using the OED. Feel free to explore other ways of incorporating sources, because there are other methods of doing so. But whichever approach you choose, keep in mind that if your essay were a movie, the secondary sources should play supporting roles, whereas your argument should be the star.
Photo courtesy of Bureau of Land Management under Flickr Creative Commons Attribution license 2.0.