CURF 2: Becoming a Researcher in Literature

Hi everyone.

My journey towards the research I am currently doing has been interesting. This spring is just one stage in my process of working towards my BPhil. In broadest terms the subject of my research is how the novels One Hundred Years of Solitude (Gabriel García Márquez 1967) and The Old Drift (Namwali Serpell 2019) think about the national community in the Global South and subvert various kinds of determinist discourses about Latin America and Africa respectively. For this I am not only reading both novels and academic writing about them, but also theories of nationalism, political discourse by Global South nationalist leaders, biographical material about and nonfiction writing by both authors, and academic texts about historical figures who appear or are alluded to in the novels. I had known I wanted to do a BPhil pretty much since I started at Pitt but what really got me excited about doing research, and what keeps me excited about it to this day, is being able to do focussed reading on the subjects that most interest me in a way that I could never do in an official class. 

My research mentor is Daniel Balderston, Mellon Professor of Hispanic Languages and Literatures in the Spanish department at Pitt. He has written extensively on the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges (he is co-editor of the Variaciones Borges journal), his contemporaries and subsequent authors who have responded to his work. He also works on gender and sexuality studies in Latin America and in literary translation (he has translated authors such as Ricardo Piglia, Silvina Ocampo and Juan Carlos Onetti) and translation studies. I first met Professor Balderston during my freshman year because of my interest in the Spanish minor. Randall Halle, a professor in Film and Media Studies whom I know, introduced me to him as someone who could tell me more about the Spanish department. Then partly because I had met him and partly because I was interested in the course subject matter I took SPAN 1426 Literature of the Southern Cone Countries with him in the fall of my sophomore year. This is when we really began to get to know each other. After that we stayed in touch and when I did a research project for the Curiosity Grant offered by the OUR last summer I asked him to be my research mentor. We have since gotten to know each other very well. Having this connection is incredible. I am currently studying abroad in Chile and without my having asked for it Professor Balderston kindly put me in touch with some of his Chilean friends, many of them also academics. This has immeasurably increased my immersion in Chilean culture as I am becoming exposed to perspectives very different from those of my host family and university peers. It also contributes to my research as the people I am meeting are also very knowledgeable about Latin American literary traditions and have their own perspectives on subjects such as the relationship between a Latin American and a national (e.g. Chilean) identity. Best of all, it’s an opportunity for me to meet wonderful and interesting people. 

While Professor Balderston and I both broadly focus on Latin American literature, the authors and countries we are most interested in differ. I think this is an important point to make: in the humanities, so long as your research mentor is broadly in the same field as you, you don’t need to have the same specializations as they do, it’s more important that you get on well and have a good working relationship with them. Nonetheless, Professor Balderston’s research and mine do share some important themes. For example, one of the things I find most intriguing about the novels I’m working on is how they write about history, not just historical events but the narratives and myths that are created about history. In a similar vein, many of the essays in Professor Balderston’s book Leído primero y escrito después (read first and written after) are concerned with the different approaches writers Augusto Roa Bastos, Ricardo Piglia and Juan José Saer take when writing about history. 

My current and previous research experience makes me feel qualified to give some advice to students embarking on research in literature for the first time. The first important thing to do is to find a text or texts (these can be fiction or nonfiction: novel, short story, comic book, poem, essay, etc.) you want to write about and what themes or ideas in the text(s) you find most interesting. You may not immediately find the texts you want to work with. I know people who started with a broader idea first (a genre or a motif) and found their primary texts in the earlier stage of their research. Either in the process of finding the main texts you’re going to work with or after you’ve identified them, you should start looking for secondary sources, the majority of which will be scholarly books or articles. Some will be directly about your main text(s) but others will fulfill other functions such as providing a theoretical framework or historical context. When it comes to the former I recommend finding a single theorist whose ideas chime with yours and whom you can use to structure your academic writing. While websites like the MLA International Bibliography and JSTOR are incredibly useful, I think the best way to find secondary sources is by asking. Ask your research mentor, ask other students in your major, ask professors in other classes you are taking.  Share with them what you find interesting about the texts you want to work with, what you would like to know more about, and if you already have them what questions you have about these works that you want to answer. Talking about the first two things can help you figure out what your research question will be. I know this might seem daunting at first but overcoming your hesitations here is incredibly rewarding. Professors love to meet students who are genuinely passionate about something related to their area of research. They can suggest ways of thinking about your research topic that might never have occurred to you and as I have myself experienced, having a good relationship with a professor in your area of study can be a great way of getting to know other scholars with interests similar to yours. 

While I’m not completely certain about my long term career goals, I have decided I will go on to graduate school. Whatever subject I choose (Comparative Literature and Latin American Studies are likely candidates), the research I am doing now will prepare me for the kind of research I will need to do then. 

Left: Picture of me in front of the Biblioteca de Humanidades (Library of Humanities) – one of the libraries I have access to at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile where I am studying abroad. 

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