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AFAM 101: Dr. Livingston: Definitional Essay

This course guide is intended as a starting point for research assignments in AFAM 101.

Short Paper Assignment

Definitional Essay: What is African American Studies?

Note: Please review assignment guidelines posted on Canvas.

Definitional Essay (Five pages, not including the page or pages with the bibliographic sources


Your assignment is to use a minimum of three essays from our course readings to write a definitional essay answering the question, What is African American Studies?


A definition of African American Studies will be useful to our understanding of the discipline, as it will lay out in clear terms the elements that make up this entity. Still, developing such a definition is a challenging task.

Your essay will:

1) Make use of the essays from our course syllabus

2) Begin with a basic definition;

3) Then provide full explanation and defense of the various parts of this definition;

4) Address issues of the scope and function of African American Studies;

5) Engage the following questions as conceptualizing and organizing points:

a) What is it?

b) What is its role?

c) What is its history?

d) What is its future?

e) How does it operate?

6) Be 5 pages not including the page with the bibliography

7) Use a minimum of four sources. Please note that this is the very minimum of sources.

8) Have a bibliography

9) Cite the sources within your essay


Cite sources in the bibliography using the MLA style guide. See also the Collins Library quick MLA citation guide for commonly used types of sources.

Finding Supplementary Readings in Turbulent Voyage

The supplementary readings are listed at the end of each section of text. To use these sources for your short paper, you must first identify the citation. Is it a book or article? When a publisher is included, it typically means the source is a book. In the example below, the works by the first three authors are books. The work by Bailey is a journal article as it includes a volume number and pages. Use Primo to find books and journal titles.

Getting Started with 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 Subject Encyclopedias

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 5-7 days. Due to Covid-19, books are available for local Tacoma pickup only at Collins Library. You may request scans of chapters or pages from books in the Collins Library collection.

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

  • "African Americans -- Study and teaching"
  • "African Americans -- Study and teaching Higher"
  • "Americans    Study   and   teaching    History   20th century"
  • "Blacks -- Study and teaching Higher"
  • "Blacks -- Study and teaching"
  • "United States -- Race relations -- Study and teaching Higher"

Location Chart - Use this chart to to find which floor a book is shelved by call number. You can also check the 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

Primary Sources