Getting an A on an English Paper

Jack Lynch,
Rutgers University – Newark

Research: Internet Resources

Let's see how succinctly I can put this:



Don't get me wrong — the Internet is a wonderful thing. I use it in my research all the time, and I put a lot of my own work up on the Web. (I mean, look — I put this on the Web.) It's the swellest new thing to come along in donkey's years.

But it will be a long, long time before it renders books obsolete. Even the most modest library has far more information than the Web — the millions of books published over the last few millennia haven't been replaced quite yet. Just a tiny fraction of the world's knowledge has been put on-line so far. That might change over time, but it'll be decades, not months.

And it's not just quantity, but quality. Books are far from perfectly reliable, but most things in your library have been subjected to several rounds of inspection and approval. Before anything appears in print, it has to be accepted by a press, which usually involves several critical readings; before it shows up on a library shelf, several more critical people have to read it. This doesn't keep all the crap out of the library, but it does filter out much of the worst stuff.

The Web, on the other hand, is a free-for-all, filled with the ravings of countless crackpots, and there's no easy way to tell the reliable from the nutty. Try this: imagine the dumbest person in your freshman English class, and remember that he or she can have a home page, filled with information on your topic. That should warn you away from trusting things you find on the Web.

The Internet has made it so easy to contact people that another bad habit has sprung up: writing to people with Web sites and asking them to do your research for you.


At least not at first. You'll find most knowledgeable people are glad to share their expertise with those who've done their homework: if you explain your question in detail and mention what you've read already, an expert may well be willing to give you a tip. (Note that the tip will probably be to read something else — you probably won't get a simple answer. But that's okay, because reading is what this business is all about.)

But writing to strangers should never be your first step; do it only when you've reached a dead end. And bear in mind that most experts have become experts by doing a lot of work, which means they're probably still doing a lot of work, which means they're probably very busy. Don't be surprised if you get no answer, or if your answer comes late, or if it's curt.

There is, however, a whole group of people who get paid just to answer your naive questions: reference librarians. They're an amazing breed, schooled in omniscience. (Never play Trivial Pursuit with a reference librarian.) Learn to use them. You should still do your homework first; if you come to them with a vague topic ("I want to write about poetry”), they can't help you very much. But if you say, “I'm interested in the way American poets developed a new voice in the nineteenth century, especially Walt Whitman,” they'll be all over the topic, and suggest all sorts of things you can read.

Once again, you still have to read it. There's no way around it: no one is going to give you answers; you have to read, read, and read some more. As Laurence Sterne writes in his wacky novel, Tristram Shandy:

Read, read, read, read, my unlearned reader! read, — or by the knowledge of the great saint Paraleipomenon — I tell you before-hand, you had better throw down the book at once; for without much reading, by which your reverence knows, I mean much knowledge, you will no more be able to penetrate the moral of the next marbled page (motly emblem of my work!) than the world with all its sagacity has been able to unraval the many opinions, transactions and truths which still lie mystically hid under the dark veil of the black one.

The only people who will give you easy answers are the ones who sell term papers, and they're very, very naughty.

So, to sum up:


(Or did I say that already?)

from Jack Lynch's guide,
Getting an A on an English Paper

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