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AFAM 101 | Dr. Livingston

Definitional Essay

Definitional Essay: What is African American Studies?

Note: Please review assignment guidelines posted on the canvas page for this course.

Your assignment is to use a minimum of two essays from our course readings, with at least two more from another formal academic source beyond our course readings to write a definitional essay answering the question, What is African American Studies?

Concept Mapping

A concept map is:

  • a visual tool for generating and organizing ideas
  • a way to explore different aspects of a topic
  • a method for triggering word associations

Use a concept map to:

  • aid thinking at the beginning of the research process
  • create a visual overview of a topic
  • develop questions on a topic
  • reveal patterns, themes, and associations between ideas
  • generate search terms to conduct research

The process is simple: start with the subject of your research question in the center, then in the space around the central concept, write words or phrases for any relevant subtopics or ideas. Then, for each of your focus subtopics, add related keywords or terms to your map.         Concept map with "research question" in the center. Four lines radiate out from the central idea, each labelled "main idea" with each of those having three smaller bubbles coming off it, all labeled "keyword"

You can use concept mapping software from Miro or Figma to create your concept map. Pencil and paper also work.

Example of a mind map on Will Smith's body in science fiction films

Getting Started with Subject Encyclopedias

The value of using encyclopedias in the beginning stages of the  research process:

  • a broad overview of a topic that is more in-depth than in general encyclopedias
  • Discussion of how scholars have approached, explored, and debated the topic over time (historiography)
  • words, phrases, names, dates, and events that can be used as keywords when searching a database
  • bibliographies in articles to find other sources (both primary and secondary)
  • cross-references to find related topics

Encyclopedias come in two varieties:  general and subject.

General encyclopedias are good for quickly looking up basic facts about a topic.  Wikipedia, Encyclopedia Britannica and World Book are all examples of general encyclopedias.

Subject encyclopedias are best to use when you are in the first stages of a college-level research project.  Each entry is written by a scholar in the field. 

The scholar aims to provide not just the basic facts on a topic, but also a sense of how these facts have been debated or interpreted over time. The sources in the bibliographies are selected specifically as next steps to consult in the research process and typically include a mix of primary and secondary sources.

Online Encyclopedias

Subject Databases

Google Scholar

General Databases

Oxford African American Studies Center

The Oxford African American Studies Center includes the full text of the following reference works: Africana, Encyclopedia of African American History, Black Women in America, African American National Biography, and other key works.

Use the search phrase "black studies"

Note: Limited to 3 simultaneous users


Database Search Tips

When search databases, keep these techniques in mind.

Quotation marks search for an exact phrase.

 "African American Studies"  finds results with that exact phrase.

   Without the quotation marks, you may also get African and American and Studies

Add more words when you want to narrow your search. Use the word AND to connect different concepts.

 "African American Studies" AND curriculum

Use OR to find related terms.

  "African American Studies" OR "black studies"

Use an asterisk * to find variant word endings. Be careful not to shorten your word too much, because this can bring back results that are not relevant.

defin* retrieves define, defines, defining, definition, defintional, etc.