Guide to Humanities and Creative Arts Research

Humanities Research:

Researchers in the humanities ask big questions about ethics, beliefs, and aesthetics: What is right? What connects us? What is beautiful?  These questions are answered in a multitude of ways by relying on a diversity of sources.  All humanities researchers seek to make meaning of things that are not easily measured or quantified; they often seek out the intangibles of life.


Creative Arts Research:

Is producing something research?  Well, let’s reframe the question: Can research shape your creative endeavors?  Visiting archives with historical materials or traveling through a particular region may make your novella or film more accurate in its representations of a time, place, and/or people.  Learning from or performing with musicians who practice a particular style may help you with your own original compositions.  The answer is a resounding “Yes!” 


What Are Some Projects that Students Have Done?


Creative Arts


What Is Research Like in My Field?

View our videos of faculty talking about research in different fields.

“Research In…” Playlist


So, I Do It All Alone? 

Though the term suggests otherwise, “independent research” is not a solitary endeavor; independent research requires getting all sorts of help.  Not convinced?  Pick up your favorite scholarly book.  Note how many people are acknowledged for their assistance.  Such assistance can be invaluable at the outset, when researchers have lots of questions, but few concrete ideas for how or where to find answers. 


Are There Opportunities To Learn How To Do Research? 

Sure, but it isn’t as simple as joining a lab is for science folks.  Since most research in the humanities and creative arts is conducted individually, you rarely experience your faculty working on their research projects.  You see them teach, but not engage in their research. 

However, we have the Undergraduate Research Assistant Program to help by offering funding for faculty to hire and mentor research assistants.  Most faculty are still unaware of this new program, so ask them to apply and hire you, so you can learn.


Brainstorming Process: 

Summarize in two sentences the period(s), people(s), text(s), and/or place(s) that you want to study. 

Ask two questions that you would like to answer about the period(s), people(s), text(s), and/or place(s) that you want to study. 

List two secondary sources (e.g., scholarly books, journal articles, etc.) that are relevant to the period(s), people(s), text(s), and/or place(s) that you want to study. 

Describe two kinds of primary sources (e.g., historical documents, literary texts, images, films) that would shed light on the period(s), people(s), text(s), and/or place(s) that you want to study. 

Run this quick self-diagnostic test every 10-14 days as you are brainstorming about possible research projects.  Compare new answers to old ones so you can see the direction in which your project is moving.


Sources for Project Ideas

  • Faculty

Search Northwestern Scholars by concept to find faculty who share your interests. Even if you’ve never taken a class with this professor, you can reach out.

Learn about Working with Faculty.

  • Browse, Read, and Find a Research Hole to Fill

Try scholarly databases, journalistic sites, think tanks, the library, and scholarly works. Look for a hole that your research could fill.


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