Help with undergraduate research: the truth is (not) out there

A few years ago, I got into a dinner conversation about historical theory (I know, I know). It hinged on the question of whether there were facts, and whether the non-factuality of something made a difference. My take on this was that beliefs and practices are more important than facts — not surprising coming from a cultural historian. Early-stage researchers (that’s you, undergrads) tend to believe the opposite. The truth is out there, and they’re going to blow my socks off when they discover it. 

x-files poster the truth is out there I want to believe

Please don’t date me by my memes…

I’m sorry to say that neither is true.

As a disclaimer, while this post is directed at undergrads, I hope my opening anecdote made clear that the issue I’m describing isn’t limited to undergrads. I’ve had similar conversations with many graduates, including people whom I deeply respect. This is a question of skill development. If you have never been taught to question your sources, you won’t question them. If you’ve never been shown that two contemporaries can present the same event in completely different ways, you might not believe it. It’s nice to think that there is a ‘real’ story somewhere, and that if you can just read closely enough, you will find it. There may be classicists and historians who think this way; I am not one of them.

I’ve been reading essays for my class on Women and Gender this week, so the examples are centered on ancient women. But I haven’t used any texts used in those essays, so I hope that no students feel singled out. Lack of critical reading is not an individual problem.

Let’s start with Propertius. Propertius’ first book of poems begins

Cynthia prima suis miserum me cepit ocellis,
    contactum nullis ante cupidinibus.

Cynthia was the first. She grabbed me with her eyes — poor me, who had never felt any desire before!

(translation mine)

What does this couplet tell us about Cynthia and Propertius? Both more and less than you might think, depending on how deeply you read. 

  1. On the most obvious level: Cynthia is female. She has nice eyes. Propertius loves her. She is his first love. This level of reading is surface-only. You don’t need any information about Rome, Propertius, or Cynthia to reach your conclusions; you only need to understand English (or Latin). You have not asked questions.
  2. A bit more deeply: Propertius is unhappy. Love is an unpleasant experience. He lacks control. This level of reading could be called skin-deep. You still don’t need any information about Rome, Propertius, or Cynthia to arrive on it, but you’re reading a bit between the lines. You’ve realized that some of the words suggest violence (such as ‘grabbed‘), and you’ve noticed an odd discrepancy that you might want to consider further: although in modern society we tend to think of love as a pleasant experience (“I’m Walking on Sunshine“), Propertius presents it rather differently. Here is an opportunity to think more deeply and approach level 3: why might that be?
  3. More deeply: Maybe Propertius’ love isn’t returned. Cynthia might be married. Or dead, and Propertius is now remembering her and mourning. This level of reading is critical. At this point, although you might not realize it, you’re asking questions of the text. You still don’t need to know any information about Rome, but this is the furthest you can go without doing a bit of research.
  4. You’ve done some research. Propertius writes in elegiac couplets, which are used for both funerary poems and love poetry. Maybe there is some connection between death and love. Propertius could be mourning his lost innocence … or his loss of control over his emotions as a man. Cynthia is still a mystery. Her name is similar to ‘Diana’, the moon. This level of reading is informed-critical. You’re doing your research, and your research has led you to more questions. Don’t worry: it’s actually a good thing.
  5. More research. Many of Propertius’ poems are about Cynthia. It’s not clear if she’s a person. She might be real: a woman of lower status. In that case, her eyes are real eyes, and I’ve solved my puzzle: a real affair that made Propertius miserable. But she might be fictional. In that case, Propertius is talking about love generally, but what are her ‘eyes’? This level is advanced. You’re thinking deeply about what you’re reading and how it stacks up against your primary source of evidence, which is Propertius. Many undergrads founder here: they start to rely on scholars’ authority, rather than checking those explanations against the original. Never trust an academic on authority. Use authority to check the evidence. (We’ll get into this again when we talk about citation.)
  6. Reading your sources critically. Many scholars now believe that poets in antiquity used a ‘persona‘. So “Propertius” may not be our writer, in which case we know even less about him than we do about Cynthia. But instead we can say that he presents himself as a relatively young and inexperienced male. Cynthia is captivating. Some scholars think that she represents Propertius’ poetry; maybe her ‘eyes’ can refer to reading. This final level is iterative; you’ve gone as far as you can go without reading the original Latin, and your main way to improve is to keep on reading and asking questions.

You’ll notice that I didn’t end up with an answer. To a certain degree, that’s because I wasn’t asking a question; I was reading critically. But even if I had a question to answer (maybe “who is Cynthia?”), I wouldn’t necessarily need to come up with a Big Important Answer. The Big Important Answer is, for the most part, elusive. The best answer I could come up with would weigh all of the bits of evidence I came up with in levels 1-6, and decide what answer is preferable. Maybe it’s that Cynthia is a person, or a book; maybe it’s that you think there’s no real evidence either way. That answer is up to you. The important part of your paper is explaining how you got there.


 

~J.

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