Friday 7 June 2024

Art of Literary Research

 The Art of Literary Research - Richard Altick and John Fenstermaker

Video 1: Critic, Researcher, and Scholar

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Introduction to the Coursework

The syllabus for the first paper of the PhD coursework in English Studies includes "The Art of Literary Research" by Richard Altick and John Fenstermaker. This book focuses not on the technical aspects of writing, such as literature reviews or academic writing, but on the mindset necessary for research. In research, there are two perspectives: the technical side, involving data collection and scientific methods (hardware), and the mindset or approach (software).

Understanding the Terms: Critic, Researcher, and Scholar

As research scholars, it's important to understand the roles of a critic, a researcher, and a scholar. These terms are often used interchangeably, but they can have distinct meanings depending on the context.

  1. Critic: A critic primarily focuses on a literary work itself, analyzing its style, structure, and content. The critic interprets the text using various analytical tools and insights.
  2. Scholar: A scholar goes beyond the text, considering its genesis and historical context. A scholar’s work is essential for understanding the broader implications and historical significance of a literary work.
  3. Researcher: A researcher must have a vivid sense of history and the ability to immerse themselves in different historical periods. This requires intellectual curiosity, precision, and imaginative response.

The Interconnected Roles of Critic, Scholar, and Researcher

  • Common Pursuits: Both critics and scholars share a common pursuit: the study of literature. Their work is interdependent; a critic’s findings are valuable to scholars, and vice versa.
  • Combining Roles: Every good student of literature often combines the roles of critic and scholar, sometimes without realizing it. The boundary between being a critic and a scholar is fluid.

Differences and Emphases

  • Critics: Critics are primarily concerned with the literary work itself, focusing on its internal elements like style, structure, and content.
  • Scholars: Scholars, on the other hand, look at the literary work within a larger context, including its genesis and subsequent history. They seek to illuminate the work from various angles to make it as comprehensible as possible.

Examples and Practical Applications

  • New Criticism: Focuses on the text itself, as seen in the works of I.A. Richards and T.S. Eliot. Practical criticism involves detailed textual analysis.
  • Theoretical Approaches: Scholars like Northrop Frye take a broader view, considering world literature as a unified body and looking for common patterns across different texts.

Scholar’s Perspective

George Whalley, in his work "Scholarship and Criticism" (1959), emphasizes that no true scholar can lack critical acumen. A scholar must have a poet’s eye, always searching for unknown insights. This dual vision—seeing the past and understanding its implications in the present—is crucial for a scholar.

Researcher's Insight

A researcher must be able to time travel intellectually, understanding the historical and cultural context of the work they study. This requires a blend of intellectual insight and imaginative response. Researchers must adjust their thinking to the context of different periods and disciplines.

Methodology and Approach

  • Scientific Approach: Researchers and scholars in literature should adopt a rigorous, scientific approach to their work. This involves intellectual curiosity, precision, imagination, and the ability to suggest new hypotheses and strategies.
  • Collaboration and Systematic Work: Unlike isolated efforts, a collective approach where scholars and researchers share their findings can illuminate the entire field, similar to how scientists work.

Researcher vs Scholar

One can be a researcher, full of knowledge, without also being a scholar. Research is the 'means', scholarship the 'end': research is an occupation, scholarship is a habit of mind and a way of life. Scholars are more than researchers, for while they may be gifted in the discovery and assessment of facts, they are, besides, persons of broad and luminous learning. They have both the wisdom and the knowledge that enable them to put facts in their place - in two senses. They are never either engulfed or overawed by mere data because their minds are able to see them in the long perspective of mankind's artistic ambitions and achievements. (Altick, The Art of Literary Research)


Humane scholarship ... moves and must move within two worlds at once – the world of scientific method and the world, in whatever degree, of creative art. The postulates of the two are radically different. And our exquisitely difficult task is to conform at once to the stipulations of each without infringing on those of the other. The path of least resistance is to follow one and let the other go.
Research, which is the primary instrument of science, is felt to be the easier and it is also the more alluring. I too have heard the Sirens sing, and I know whereof I speak. And so we tend to become enamoured of the methods, and at times to forget the end; to allow, in a word, the fascination of the means to distract us from the very object for which they are employed. And that end is, in the broadest sense of the word, interpretation – the interpretation, in the light of all that our researches can reveal, of the literature which is our field. (John Livingston Lowes - “The Modern Language Association and Humane Scholarship,” PMLA, 48 (1933), 1403. The whole article, and most especially pages 1403-8, still is well worth reading.)


Understanding the distinctions and connections between being a critic, researcher, and scholar is essential for any research scholar in English Studies. Each role requires specific skills and approaches, but they are ultimately interconnected and mutually beneficial. A comprehensive approach that combines critical analysis, historical context, and scientific rigor will lead to more profound and insightful research.

Video 2: Mind and Temperament of a Research Scholar

Click here to watch the video on YouTube

Introduction to the Session Welcome to today’s PhD coursework session where we are exploring the art of literary research. Yesterday, we discussed the vocation and spirit of scholarship, distinguishing between a critic, a researcher, and a scholar. While these roles overlap, it's important to understand their unique contributions and how one can evolve from being a critic to a researcher, and ultimately, a scholar, ensuring our work embodies true scholarship.

Cultivating the Scholar’s Mindset Continuing in this vein, today's topics focus on cultivating the mindset necessary for successful research. Our first topic is the essential elements that make a research project rewarding. These elements pertain to the intellectual and mental preparation required to transform from a student to a research scholar. This transformation involves technical skills and a unique mental makeup distinct from undergraduate or postgraduate students. We need to reimagine and reinvent our cognitive abilities to embrace the scholar's mindset.

Characteristics of a Rewarding Research Project A rewarding research project means that you are eager to share your work because you have contributed something significant and novel to the field. This requires a fair degree of imagination, originality of approach, and a solid foundation of learning. Additionally, one must have the will and wish to view literary works and their creators from new perspectives. This combination enhances the likelihood that your research will be impactful and well-received.

The Role of Imagination in Research Imagination is crucial, even though research is scientific. All great scientific advancements were born from imaginative thinking. For instance, the Wright brothers imagined flight despite the scientific understanding of their time. Similarly, originality in approach is vital. During your MA, you explored various critical approaches to texts, such as moral, philosophical, feminist, psychoanalytical, and cultural studies. Now, as a researcher, you must develop new approaches or apply existing ones in novel ways to ensure originality.

The Importance of Solid Learning Solid learning is the bedrock of successful research. Comprehensive literature reviews and knowledge from multiple disciplines strengthen your foundation, distinguishing between reading for pleasure and reading for research. The pursuit of academic pleasures should drive your work. If you lack this, reconsider your research path, as it can otherwise lead to an unfulfilling experience.

New Perspectives in Literary Studies Approaching retellings and adaptations, like turning Shakespeare's Hamlet into Haider, exemplifies seeing things from new perspectives. Divergent thinking, alongside imagination and originality, is essential. While the specifics of how to achieve this may not always be clear, maintaining an open, imaginative approach ensures originality and prevents stagnation.

The "Publish or Perish" Paradigm The second topic is the notion of "publish or perish," a harmful yet pervasive idea in academia. This concept pressures scholars to publish for career advancement, often at the expense of research quality. Originating in American universities in the 1960s, this notion ties promotions to publications, fostering a stressful environment that can detract from meaningful scholarship. Young scholars must navigate this reality while striving to cultivate a genuine love for knowledge and avoid becoming unhappy scholars.

Qualities of a Successful and Happy Scholar Lastly, we discuss the chief qualities of mind and temperament necessary for a successful and happy scholar. While intellectual pursuits and happiness may seem at odds, redefining happiness in the context of scholarship is crucial. Two professions, law and journalism, offer valuable insights for researchers. From law, we learn the principles of evidence and proof, ensuring our research statements are well-supported. From journalism, particularly investigative reporting, we gain resourcefulness, knowing where to find information, how to obtain it, and the tenacity to pursue facts.

Learning from Law and Journalism These disciplines emphasize organization skills and the ability to compile facts cohesively, which are critical for effective research writing. Emulating the meticulous fact-gathering and reporting methods of investigative journalists can greatly benefit your research process.

Balancing Scientific Method and Creative Art In conclusion, human scholarship must navigate the worlds of scientific method and creative art. While scientific methods provide structure, the ultimate aim of literary research is interpretation. Balancing these aspects ensures that our research remains both methodologically sound and creatively insightful.

Open Discussion If you have any questions or comments, feel free to share. Let's open the floor for discussion and address any points of clarification or additional thoughts you might have.

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