I had always known it was coming.
I had been forewarned. I even anticipated it with that prematurely weary excitement one feels just before looking at a list of syllabi at the beginning of a semester. In the back of my mind, summer 2020 was the mental image of a laptop surrounded by piles of books on a library desk surrounded by bookshelves. It was tabs and tabs and tabs of databases, articles, and one notetaking Word document. It was split-screen reading and strained eyes, both “why am I doing this to myself?” and “wow I can feel my brain getting bigger.” With the foundation of a year of postbaccalaureate study, in summer 2020, I would finally begin independent research.
At San Diego State University’s M.A. in English program, graduate students have the option of a thesis or a portfolio for the culminating experience. I chose the portfolio option, which entails the revision of one graduate seminar paper with the intent to submit it for publication in a journal, and one secondary paper with a plan for revision. Knowing that I would have to face a portfolio defense before I completed the requirements for the degree, I was determined to use the independent study course in my penultimate semester to lay the foundation for my star paper. All of the course texts were up to me, so I planned to use summer to select contemporary readings and support them with thoroughly researched secondary sources. If my goal for the fall was to develop expertise in Asian American children’s literature, I would have to use the preceding summer well.
So, of course, I didn’t. In reality, summer 2020 went more like my previous summers as a student: fun – until I realized that August was soon approaching. Mid-July, I sheepishly recalled the words my professor spoke as we met on Zoom for the first time since the move to remote learning: “I am going to give you two contradictory pieces of advice: take as much time as you need to recover and heal, but also keep in mind that summer is a great opportunity to research widely.” Having excelled at the first point, I resigned myself to giving up my last month of summer to personal literary, cultural, and critical research.
Thank goodness for the internet! As I began to browse the SDSU library website – stress mode activated and in high gear – I read that I could request physical books for “domeside pickup.” I missed the feel of turning pages and gladly placed holds on around twenty-five fiction and literary criticism books. With no guarantee that the physical books would have the content I was looking for, I dug into online databases to see what articles I could find. I found myself getting back into the groove of skimming – sometimes discarding, sometimes keeping essays I found relevant to my area of study. I did the same with the chapters of the literary criticism books, while I read the fiction novels in full. It wasn’t clear what I was searching for, but I knew that I had to find topics and stories that I could enjoy spending hours on. Slowly, I built up a list of articles, chapters, and texts that seemed promising to include on the independent study list. My next task was to compile the best texts into a themed syllabus.
This Asian American children’s literature syllabus would follow the organization of the Chicanx children’s literature course I had taken in my first semester of graduate study, so I included texts from the beginnings of Asian American children’s books publication as well as texts published in the early 2000s. Most of my list was comprised of books published within the last five years, as I wanted my research to focus on contemporary depictions of Asian Americans from a range of diasporic experiences. Once the novels, picture books, and graphic novels were in place, I found scholarly articles that either directly analyzed those main texts or could be paired for productive conversation. In total, I had fifteen main texts and seventeen articles – roughly two to four readings a week. In crafting this syllabus, I noticed a trend in the content of the books I had selected, which called to mind a term for a category that I had learned in an undergraduate Tolkien class. There it was – the theme for my independent study: the künstlerroman in contemporary Asian American stories.
With this exciting payoff after condensing a summer’s worth of research into a few weeks, I tidied up the document, submitted the independent study request form, and sent the syllabus to my professor. We have met once since the semester started late-August, and thankfully he approved the course theme as a final paper topic. My path to a star paper for my portfolio is becoming clearer, and I plan to use the course’s midterm assignment to revise my secondary paper. By the end of the semester, I hope to have two polished papers in hand for the spring’s portfolio workshop course.
As I reflect on my summer experience – COVID-19 aside, if such a thing is possible – I can see that most difficult part of research was just starting. The lull in my studies had made me lazy, but delving back into the world of literature and criticism reminded me that I do enjoy what I study. If I had any advice to share with other students undertaking a research project, it would have to be to choose a topic that goes beyond you. In other words, make the topic of your research something that is of interest to you as a researcher specifically because other writers are not talking about it. There is something so encouraging about doing research and not finding information on what you are searching for – it leaves room for your contribution to the conversation. Don’t be discouraged by the high quality of the writing you encounter: every article you come across will have come out of a research foray just like yours. By offering an original argument through your paper, you are joining the scholarly community that produced the articles you are reading. Enjoy the process!