Using secondary sources to
support your interpretations
The need to use secondary sources
in your essays is one of the most obvious ways in which degree-level study
differs from that at lower academic levels. Why is it important to do background
reading? It is a requirement because the nature of literary study at degree
level is much broader than at A-level or on access courses. You are encouraged
to be aware of and to engage with the range and diversity of critical opinions
and interpretations which exist in relation to particular texts, authors and
genres. Although the basis of your essay will be your own ideas about the
text(s) you are studying, these will be enhanced if they are informed by an
awareness of what others have thought and written about those texts.
reading is obviously useful to you if there are aspects
of the texts you are studying which you find difficult to
understand. Beyond this, reading literary criticism is
one of the principal ways in which you can develop your
own critical skills and interpretative abilities. As you
progress through the course your competencies as a reader
and critic will be expanded by your looking at how others
analyse and understand literature, and you will be better
able to enter into literary discussion and debate.
When you are selecting secondary
texts to consult in writing your essay, it can be helpful to know or find
out where the authors are 'coming from'. For example, what is their particular
critical stance (e.g. feminist? Marxist?) and how does it compares to other
schools of critical thought? This can help you in evaluating the usefulness
of that criticism in relation to the subject you are writing about.
Be aware of
over-relying on any single critical source in your essay:
in deciding what you think about a text or issue, it
always helps to look at a number of critical viewpoints
on it rather than just one.
Background reading should inform
your own interpretation and critical analysis of texts. It can usefully shape
your ideas and influence your thinking, but it must not appear replace your
own views. You need to demonstrate that you are giving something of a personal
response (which is nonetheless influenced by your reading).
Secondary sources are more than
just a resource which you can plunder to support what it is you are saying
about the text(s). It will help you in developing your understanding (and
writing style) if you try to read whole critical articles, rather than just
skim-reading them for suitable quotes.
You do not have to accept what
you read in secondary texts uncritically. You are entitled to use or reject
secondary material as you wish. You can introduce material from a secondary
text in order to support a particular interpretation which you are making
(i.e. you agree with what the critic has said). Alternatively, you could quote
from a secondary text and then take issue with the opinion it represents/contains,
disagreeing with it and giving your preferred point of view or interpretation.
Your bibliography must include
all critical sources which you have consulted in writing the essay. If you
have made use of a specific idea from a secondary critical source, you must
cite that author within the essay itself. Plagiarism, which is the unacknowledged
use of someone else's work, is taken very seriously by tutors. If you are
accused of plagiarism and found guilty, there may be repercussions beyond
your merely failing the assignment. Refer to any advice that you have been
given about referencing, bibliography, use of footnotes and plagiarism.