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Humanities E-497: Crafting the Thesis Proposal in Religion, Dramatic Arts, and English

Harvard Extension School

Handbooks and companions are a stock-in-trade for academic researchers. Typically, they're edited volumes, with chapters written by authorities -- or recognized experts. They synthesize current "consensus" thinking and present the most widely accepted perspectives on a concept, person, movement, etc.  They usually contain extensive bibliography which you can mine as well.

bookmark iconSome major collections you can search within or browse include:

Cambridge Companions Online:  Literature (including Drama) and Classics  ||  Philosophy and Religion

Oxford Handbooks Online:  Literature    ||   Religion 

Oxford Very Short Introductions

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HOLLIS is a also good place to search for these tools. One strategy is just to combine a broad keyword search with this format type e.g.,  gothic AND companion ||  hermenutics AND handbook.

Other terms to try (for rough equivalents of the handbook or companion) are encyclopediaguide,  reader, and sometimes, introduction.

Often the issue in information-seeking isn't scarcity of material, but its overabundance. Annotated bibliographies that are created and curated by scholars aim to address the common problem of knowing what to read, who to read, or which voices in the conversation you should give some fuller attention to. We recommend:

bookmark iconOxford Bibliographies Online

Subjects modules that cover areas of interest to many ALM students with humanities-related projects include:

African American Studies || American Literature || Biblical Studies || British and Irish Literature || Jewish Studies || Latino Studies || Literary and Critical Theory || Victorian Literature

bookmark iconReview Essays

In many humanities fields (including literature, critical theory, performance studies, and religion), the review essay serves roughly the same purpose as the free-standing literature review in the sciences and social sciences and the historiographical essay in the fields of history. 

Review essays are not the same as book or theatrical reviews, though often they take one or more recent publications (or perfomances) as their point of departure. Rather, they are essays that help you easily understand—and contextualize—new and emerging contributions that have been made in your field. They may review trends over time in the scholarly discussions of a topic, or synthesize and connect related work. 

Identifying review essays can be tricky, in spite of their importance, because they aren't consistently tagged as such and don't always announce themselves in the title of the article.

Some (imperfect) general suggestions:

  • in searching HOLLIS, library subject databases or Google Scholar, consider adding the phrase  "research review" or "review essay" (in quotation marks) to a broad keyword search.  Example:

"review essay" AND "musical theater" AND "united states"

  • In Google Scholar, add the limiter intitle:"review essay" to a broad keyword search. Example:

broadway musicals intitle:"review essay"

bookmark iconWiley Blackwell Compass Series

Commissioned from leading researchers, rigorously reviewed, and published monthly, Compass articles combine original research and analysis with a broader understanding of how that work fits—as both contribution and intervention—in the authors’ fields or sub-fields. Articles often help you suss out the state of a discipline at a moment in time. 

Titles that may be of interest to ALM students in humanities fields include: 

History Compass   || Literature Compass  ||  Philosophy Compass || Religion Compass

Literature Reviews in Dissertations

While faculty may have strong opinions on whether dissertations should be cited in your research, they'll often agree that dissertations can gold mines for their bibliographies. 
Moreover, by convention, dissertations always have a literature review section (normally an entire chapter) in which writers lay the groundwork for their studies by identifying and synthesizing what's come before them.  They're often worth a look as you gather a list authorities to track down and read.  

bookmark iconYearbooks and Other Research Compilations

In the humanities, it's not uncommon for scholars to produce a narrative (i.e., bibliographic) essay that identifies and appraises the current state of scholarship. 

Sometimes, a journal will dedicate portions of one or more issues to a research evaluation and roundup, often on a regular or rotating basis.

In Literary Studies, the most prominent examples of the free-standing annually produced research compilation are:

The Year's Work in Cultural and Critical Theory  ||  The Year's Work in English Studies (YWES)

In Religious StudiesRSR (Religious Studies Review) and the "Discussing the Disciplines" section of each issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Religion provide examples of the second type.

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Knowing about the existence of narrative bibliographies is more important than knowing actual titles of them.

That's because bibliographical essays, special sections, research notes, and the like usually turn up in course of searching in the major humanities and subject specific databases described elsewhere in this guide.