Experiencing an English 190: Research Seminar
EUA Vice President
English and Anthropology Major
Going into the required research seminar can seem daunting in the beginning. The idea of having to develop an original argument for your topic can stop any writer in their tracks but it is called a seminar for a reason. You are prepared throughout the entire semester and exposed to so many interesting literary works and secondary theoretical sources that make it a bit easier to choose a topic. Aside from the written material, there is one person that can provide you with an abundance of sources and advice–your professor!
I went into my research seminar, Literature on Law taught by Professor Celeste Langan, with an interest in how concepts of justice and law are applied in literature. In contrast to the majority of students in my class, I had no exposure to legal studies classes or law and Romanticism as a topic. At first, I was concerned that I would not be able to contribute as much as others in the class would be able to. However, my professor, made it so that each student engaged with the reading via Bcourses posts each week. This not only helped get the creative juices flowing but allowed for the exchange of ideas among peers. The responses of students also served as a guide for directed discussion in class. The secondary readings for class at times were a bit dense and confusing but Professor Langan always provided us with background information and worked through the concepts with us. As for assignments, there was a short keyword essay each student was required to do and present to the class. My word was “conviction.” I presented the etymology of the word, its definition taken from the Oxford English Dictionary (which is accessible via the UC Berkeley library website), and provided examples from literary work and court cases that supported its legal, moral, and theological meanings. The following assignment was a short research assignment summarizing two academic articles on the topic of your choosing. The goal was to close read the articles to not only summarize them but take note on how these authors wrote their critical arguments. I chose to focus on articles written about The Cenci, a closet play written by Percy Bysshe Shelley based on a real-life case in Italy in 1599. The two articles I focused on were Laurence S. Lockridge’s “Justice in The Cenci” and Jane Kim’s “Jobian Suffering in Shelley’s The Cenci.” From these two articles, I was able to gain new insights into The Cenci and how each respective author developed their argument. For instance, Lockridge used a combination of textual evidence from the play and the Preface, rhetorical questions, a character analysis of Beatrice, and the sprinkling of other Romantic writers’ convictions to support his argument. Kim, on the other hand, used textual evidence from the play and the Book of Job, Mary Shelley’s journals, and a personal historical account of Shelley to support her claims of the influence of the story of Job in The Cenci and on the author. These two authors provided me with two different frameworks with which I could possibly apply to my own research paper. These assignments helped sharpen student’s research skills in finding sources, close reading articles from academic journals, and synthesis of sources.
Furthermore, a required office hours meeting with her also helped students keep on schedule with choosing a research topic and discussing ideas. I chose to write about religious justice and divine authority in The Cenci. During her office hours, Professor Langan gave me advice on articles to review for my topic that were very helpful. I used those as a starting point to develop my argument and continue with my source research. The UC Berkeley Library website has access to a plethora of databases that are great when doing research for instance, Kanopy for media sources as well as access to online academic journals, style writing manuals, and help from a librarian if you prefer in-person assistance for research help.
Moreover, during the last week of classes, we had a series of writing workshops. Paired with a partner who was working on a similar topic or focusing on the same literary work proved very helpful! Having a second pair of eyes to look at close readings and discuss ideas, types of sources and feedback for ways to improve arguments helped me gain my footing and feel more prepared to take on the research paper. Additionally, Professor Langan provided students with tips on writing a research paper, an example of an introductory research paper paragraph, and an excerpt from Birkenstein and Graff’s book, “They Say / I Say” The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing,” to help with the writing process.
Not every seminar is the same but I can say one thing for certain: you don’t have to have your topic ready to go from the beginning. It is a long process and you will obtain all the help you need. From finding a topic that interests you to getting guidance in researching sources. The research seminar is a challenging and rewarding experience. As a senior at UC Berkeley, the research seminar is a testament to the training and skills you have gained through the English major. Don’t let the research seminar scare you, instead embrace the challenge!