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AFAM 101: Dr. Livingston


Definitional Essay: What is African American Studies?

Note: Please review assignment guidelines posted on Canvas.

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

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.

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


Online Encyclopedias

Print Encyclopedias

Encyclopedias provide background information for your definitional essay about African American Studies. REF indicates the book is in print and shelved on the main floor.

In-Class Exercise: Subject Encyclopedias

Review the subject encyclopedia article you have been given and answer the following questions.

  • Who is the author of the entry?
  • What is the title of the article? Title of source?
  • What are some useful or important features of the article?
  • What is the scope, timespan, and scale of coverage for the article?
  • How is the narrative organized in the article?
  • What are some key concepts, dates, and names? Make note of a relevant sentence.
  • How does this source help you address questions for your definitional essay?
  • What questions do you have now that you've read the entry?
  • Do you think the resources listed in the bibliography would help you answer your questions?

Searching Primo for Books

Use Primo to find resources on your topic at Collins Library and beyond. Request books held by Summit libraries for delivery to Collins Library in about 5 days. Books that are unavailable from Summit libraries can be requested via Interlibrary loan for delivery in about 12 days.

For books on the subject of African American Studies, click the following terms.

Library Map - Use this map which shows what's available on each floor.

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.

Subject Databases

General Databases

Google Scholar

How to Create a Concept Map

The process is simple: start with the subject of your research question in the center, then:

1. In the space around the central concept, write words or phrases for any relevant subtopics.

2. For each of your focus subtopics, add related terms/concepts to your map.





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


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