The votes for our most recent poll are in, and the school-related topic that our readers want me to write about the most is the research and writing process. We also received some votes for the workshops and reading list, and there was one write-in vote for ‘Playing W.O.W. with Gathercole’…Mom, you’re such a jokester. It would make my day to see Dr Gathercole dressed up as a warlock, and some of the lecturers here do like to walk around in robes a lot, but Dr Gathercole hasn’t invited me to play World of Warcraft with him yet 😦 Incidentally, if you’d like a fascinating look inside the world of role playing games (RPG’s), I recommend watching ‘Dungeon Masters’.
Anyway, the research and writing process. Despite the title of this post, I’m not really going to give a ‘how to guide’ for doing research. Everybody has a research style that works for them, and I’m not really qualified to tell anyone how they ought to work. I’m just going to describe what I do, and maybe that will be helpful or interesting to some of our readers. In this post I’ll describe the process of finding resources, and in another post I’ll talk about how I organize and manage information. Then, I’ll do a post about writing.
Before we came to England, Rachael was really excited to shop at the charity shops. All her friends had told her about how great these shops were. ‘They’re like American Goodwill’s or Salvation Army’s, but way better! All kinds of great stuff, super cheap!’ Well, when we got here, Rachael went to a few charity shops, and it wasn’t long before she was frustrated. Just like America, the charity shops have racks and racks of clothes, and you’ve got to be willing to search to find something worth picking up. Rachael didn’t know what to look for. She didn’t know where to look. And since she didn’t know any of the brands, she had no frame of reference for the difference between good brands and bad brands, bargains and rip-offs. The charity shops were just a waste of time. Rachael should have known, because she can’t stand stores like Goodwill, Salvation Army, Ross, or TJ Maxx in the US. She needs displays and structure, not racks and racks of chaos.
Why the long and revealing story about Rachael’s taste in shopping venues? Well, the same things that make a good shopper at a charity shop make an efficient and effective researcher. Most information doesn’t come nicely packaged and put on a shelf; you’ve got to be willing to do some looking. The ‘search’ part of re-search implies that research involves looking for something, and I think that being an effective researcher is all about knowing what to look for, knowing where to find it, and having a frame of reference for recognizing the difference between junk and treasure. Also, patience, plenty of patience.
Knowing what to Look for
The first step of research is figuring out what to look for. If you search for nothing, you’re likely to find it. A lot of times this first stage of the research process is described as ‘formulating a research question’. When I was younger, I used to just pick up books for school and read them without any specific goal in mind other than to get done with the reading. I wasn’t really looking for anything, just hoping that by some mysterious process of osmosis the information on the page would seep into my brain. This sort of reading is inefficient, because we all forget far more than we remember. Without a filter to sift out irrelevant or extraneous material, I used to get bogged down.
Now, when I set aside some time for reading or researching, I like to have a specific target in mind. If I pick up a book, I have a reason for reading the book, a question that I’m hoping the book will address in some way. If I set out to do some research, I try to have an idea of what I’m looking for. For example, if I want to research something that I know very little about, my initial goal would be to gain a basic orientation to the issue/discipline/problem. I’d look at introductory texts, dictionary and encyclopedia articles, histories of research in technical monographs – maybe even wikipedia if I really had no idea where to begin. I’d be trying to orient myself to the topic, and I’d be compiling a list of works to look into if I wanted to dig deeper. What are the sources multiple authors cite? What are the core issues that keep coming up in all of the sources? What are the questions that still need to be answered? As I orient myself to the topic, some aspects of the topic may seem interesting, and some may seem irrelevant, so my interests would naturally be narrowing as I read.
The mistake that I have made before at this stage is trying to research something specific within a topic when I don’t have a basic frame of reference for understanding and evaluating what I am researching. If you go too narrow too fast, you’re probably going to miss something important. For myself, I like to make sure that I’ve perused at least a couple broad introductions to a topic before I jump into more specialized books and articles. It helps me make sense of everything else I’ll be reading. Having done some grading of papers, I’d say that ‘jumping into the deep end without your floaties’ is one of the common traps that students fall into.
By the way, when I say ‘introductory’ or ‘general’ as opposed to ‘specialized’ or ‘technical’, it’s all relative. A general introduction to calculus would be way too technical for me at this stage in my mathmatic education. I’d need some basics first – algebra, geometry, other stuff?!? On the other hand, an aspiring mathmatician interested in some facet of advanced calculus might consult a chapter from a general introductory textbook as a starting point for research into a more technical aspect of math, or a chapter in a general introductory textbook might even be too general for the mathmatician. My point is that whether a resource is introductory or technical to you will depend upon the prior knowledge that you bring to the material. Things I consider general now would have seemed pretty technical to me a year or two ago, and so on and so forth.
Knowing Where to Look
Here’s a weekly scenario in our house:
Rachael: ‘Can you grab my Bible for me?’
Ben: ‘Okay…where is it?’
Rachael: ‘……………Taylor Swift sing-a-long……………’
Ben: ‘…grunting…sighs of desparation…Still can’t find it…’
Rachael: ‘Found it…it was in my purse.’
Once you know what you’re looking for, you need to know where to find it. Once you’ve got a question, you need to know how to find the answer. Otherwise you’ll just get frustrated. Sometimes you can search and search and never find what you’re looking for – that’s a clue that you need to adapt your research question. Most of the time, however, the answer is out there somewhere.
The process of finding relevant information is different for every area of study, but there are some principles that probably apply across the disciplines. For one thing, I never read whole articles or book chapters, let alone books, unless I’m reasonably confident that what I am reading is going to contribute to an answer to my research question. How do I know that? Well, it’s a special psychic ability I picked up as an underling of Raz Azul in Tibet…Actually, I scan and cheat before I jump into an article or book. I pay attention to the title. I look at the table of contents. I read the introduction. I read the conclusion. I scan through the section headings. About a third of the time, that’s all I need to decide that I don’t need to read the article, at least not at this point in time. Another third of the time, that process of scanning lets me know I only need to focus on part of the work – maybe I’ll skim through the rest, but my close reading only needs to be concentrated on a small section. Another third of the time, that process lets me know I’ve found exactly what I’m looking for, and then I’m happy to read the whole thing.
Another thing I do to find what I’m looking for is use bibliographies from introductions and short articles. I mentioned this above, so I won’t say to much about it. Rather than playing a guessing game with search terms in a library catalogue or online database, I compile a list of resources from the footnotes and bibliographies of the sources I already have.
What else? Well, if I happen to know somebody who might already have what I’m looking for or who might at least know where to find it, I talk to that person. This is one thing that makes too much sense, so I only do it occasionally. Maybe I’m afraid the ‘expert’ will go into a rage at my request…Anyway, if something is interesting enough for you to look into, then you can bet that somebody, somewhere has probably already looked into it as well. So, why not find that person and get what you’re looking for from them? With this in mind, I’m trying to get in the habit of asking the following questions whenever I start thinking through a topic or issue: Who knows the answer to my question(s)? How can I get in touch with them?
All of these ideas in this section are about efficiency. I don’t like to waste time looking in the wrong places for what I need.
Comparison Shopping: Getting a Frame of Reference for What you’re Finding
When Rachael and I lived in California, we found a diamond while we were playing basketball at the park behind our apartment. Let me rephrase that: We thought we might have found a diamond. We couldn’t really know for sure. It looked like a diamond to us. It was small, shiny, sharp. This could have been our lucky break! So, I looked online and found all kinds of ways to authenticate a real diamond. I tried to read the newspaper through the center. I tried to see if it would cut glass, but I didn’t want to harm the jewel, so I was gentle. After a series of experiments, my results were inconclusive. I had no frame of reference to know whether I was holding a real diamond or just a chipped off piece of a cracker-jack ring.
So, Rachael and I took the diamond to our friend Tim the Jeweler. Tim’s an expert. He handles diamonds all the time, so as soon as he held our stone, he could tell the weight wasn’t right. He put it on some newspaper, and he could see that the light wasn’t passing through it like it would on a real diamond. He used his official tools just to make sure, but he knew pretty much right off the bat that it was a fake. Oh well.
That’s what having a frame of reference is all about. We rely on a frame of reference all the time when money is on the line, but for some reason when it comes to research there’s a tendency to throw caution to the wind and go with the first thing you find. I say this because I read plenty of books and articles in which the authors are overly reliant on a certain source or school of thought, and it’s clear that they haven’t really interacted with the relevant literature on their topic. Above I mentioned the importance of having a basic orientation to a topic before you jump too deep into the fray of research. Along with that, I’d just add that it’s important to withhold judgment for a sufficient time to weigh evidence.
We all probably fall into this trap from time to time. I know it’s hard for me to maintain a posture of objectivity long enough to weigh all the evidence when I’m looking at an issue. Still, I try to do some comparison shopping whenever I do research. I try to look at opposing viewpoints. I try not to make up my mind until I’ve looked into enough to feel confident that I’m not missing anything.
Patience, Plenty of Patience
If I were single, 75% of my meals would be microwaved, and the other 25% would be fast food. We live in a society of instant gratification. Things like email, online shopping, the commodification of everything under the sun, and amazingly fast means of transportation all support the illusion that we can have whatever we want whenever we want it. Good research, on the other hand, usually takes time. This is why our news outlets are increasingly little more than unfiltered lenses into the lives of the rich and famous (unfiltered by the news outlets; heavily filtered by people obsessed with their image). Very few people are willing to spend the kind of time necessary to produce good research.
Good research takes patience. Good research takes hard work. Good research builds character. This is one of the reasons why a seminary or Christian university ought to demand a standard of academic excellence from its students. For Christians, the process of research, like everything else in life, should not be disconnected from the walk of faith. From this perspective, the task of research is seen as another one of the means by which the Spirit forms the character of Christ in us.
Next academic post will be on managing information.