Research guidance

This is how I teach it, starting with the world history surveys. I wrote it down for the online class I’m teaching now. The whole process is meant to be recursive, generating new questions and diving back into the research. All of the research projects are written up in three phases culminating in the masterpiece.

Education can be a lot of jumping through hoops, and you may not be used to studying things you’re interested in. In this class, you learn by engaging your curiosity and then developing the skills and knowledge you need because there’s something you actually want to figure out and understand better.

Somebody has to do the research and find the sources that support informed and reliable historical knowledge. If you’re writing the paper, that somebody is you! There are some skills involved in good research, but there’s also a disposition. Good researchers are curious, stubborn, and persistent. They want to know, they’re confident the information they need is out there, and they keep digging until they hit it. Good researchers don’t say “I can’t find anything,” they say “let’s try another approach.”

If you can’t find the sources, you can’t be informed and reliable, and you can’t write a paper on that topic. There are two ways to handle this (well, three, if you count giving up). You can pick a different topic where the sources are easier to find. Or you can get stubborn, persist, and find the sources you need, becoming more ‘resourceful’ in the process.

Overview research

For any topic, it helps to have a general understanding of how that topic works in itself, and a general overview of that topic as part of a place and time with various other things going on. For this kind of orientation, encyclopedias and brief online summaries from reliable providers are fine! You can even go ‘Wikipedia surfing’ – find the entry for your topic and then click all the links, and then click all the links, and so on until you feel like you have a pretty good idea of the main outlines and features of your topic. Sometimes the citations, bibliography, and external links on better Wikipedia pages can even guide you toward more serious research.

Overview research is the common knowledge level of investigation. You’re just getting up to speed on what anyone who knows anything about the topic already knows. Any educated person with a device can do this step in a few minutes. You have not yet “done the research,” you have “informed yourself.” It’s very good to be informed, and a great start for serious research. But none of this basic information belongs in a research study. You only make yourself useful when you get way, way past Wikipedia and the first page of Google, and figure out something that wasn’t common knowledge.

Search terms

Other than general knowledge, the most important takeaway from overview research is an enhanced list of search terms. Most failed searches are just worded badly, and part of getting better at research is getting better at words. Make note of words and phrases that characterize your topic, then plug them back into your search to get more informed and specialized results. Keep doing this as you go to achieve a virtuous knowledge spiral.

Secondary sources

Most of your overview research will be what’s called “secondary sources.” In this case what makes them secondary is that they are written after the fact (second hand) by people with no direct experience of the topic. Secondary sources come in different grades of reliability and different levels of elaboration. For historical research, specialized sources published by scholars are usually where the reliable knowledge in depth is. They’re usually “peer reviewed,” which means approved by other people who study in that field. And they’re usually long format, starting in the 15-20 page range. You should get used to seeking out and reading research in that range.

Google

Regular Google searches move ads to the front, and after that are designed to give you the common knowledge overview, because that’s what most people want. So if you’re not careful, Google can distort your research and even your understanding of how knowledge works toward the superficial and trivial. Over time you can teach Google to take you more seriously and return better quality results automatically, but in the meantime you can go direct to Google Scholar and do your search at https://scholar.google.com/.

Proquest

There’s lots of great free scholarly content on the web. But if you hit a paywall, or you want to get straight to the good stuff without fighting through garbage, and also take advantage of your tuition dollars at work, it’s best to go through an academic database. At Davis Memorial Library the one database to rule them all is Proquest. It comes in a lot of curated subsections, but unless you know for sure that you only want the results from a narrowed search, go with Proquest Central, which is all of it. Look under P in the Digital Resources section of the library web page, (). (For History specifically, JSTOR is also great. Look under J.)

Primary sources

Primary sources are really important in historical research, because they were produced at the time you are studying by the people you are studying (primary in this case means first-hand). They can be a little tricky to find and may require some creative flexibility. The Library has what are called “LibGuides” that offer access to some primary source collections. There’s a link to the LibGuides on the main library page, and they’re organized by general topic area, including World History. Lots of libraries have terrific libguides online and you can use any of them, but signing in and going through MU’s libguides can help with paywalls if that’s an issue.

If you know the specific primary sources you’re looking for, Google can work fine. There are also collections of primary sources online that can be accessed directly if you know what they are, or discovered by searching your topic plus the search terms “primary source” and/or “archive” (an archive is a place where old writing is stored). Obviously you should have lots of different ways of saying your topic to the computer so you don’t miss the resources you need just because of bad wording.

Reading

Finding great sources is terrific, but then obviously you have to read them. In good research where you develop knowledge in depth, you should expect to find and read hundreds of pages, including lots that don’t turn out to be all that useful. This is why it’s so incredibly important to pick a topic you find genuinely fascinating. For guidance on extracting information and understanding from sources by reading them, see “Reading for Evidence.”

Research help

You can schedule a personal consult with a research librarian. They will help you find what you’re looking for. It’s not even cheating! Here’s the link: ()

(Also posted at Dead Voles.)

3 Comments

  1. This is good. I wish I could give as succinct a description for my undergrads and grads trying to understand what a research process looks like (would look like). It would also be nice to have a description like this that would link their reading process to their identification and development of topics. A lot of these kinds of student decisions and transitions and processes still feel pretty opaque to me.

  2. Hi Dave! Sorry to miss this, I really must set up my comment notifications. I agree, the transitions and processes are pretty opaque. I think I know that it’s not a linear transmission of data kind of situation, that there’s a kind of lumpy or even turbulent accumulation phase that only sometimes tips into criticality and phase shifts. Donella Meadows says you can’t control complex systems, but you can dance with them. A handout like this might be exactly the right step at the right time for some students who are ready to dance, and completely miss some others who are still wallflowering.

    You are more than welcome to mine this for your own purposes if there’s anything here that seems useful. My cousin is a research librarian who works with mostly engineering students. She’s sometimes able to partner with faculty members who want to get serious about research process but don’t know how or don’t have that in their bandwidth budget.

  3. Here’s a reply I just wrote to a student in an online class about their posted rough draft. What’s interesting here is that the student has been seeking feedback, and has had access to this and other process guidance prompts. But still here I am walking them through how the guidance applies to their own work. Sometimes obviously this can be attention seeking, or more commonly probing to calibrate the minimum acceptable effort. But in my experience it’s most commonly a real lack of familiarity with learning from instruction, which is pretty heartbreaking. So what I’ve done is get very specific about how the instruction applies to the case.

    Thank you for this great post. I’m sure it helped some people. I hope that as we develop skills and confidence as researchers, more people will feel comfortable making themselves helpful with observations and suggestions.

    What I see here is the product of good overview research. You’ve taken a look, found some things, and generally informed yourself. Here’s what the Research Guidance module says about overview research:

    Overview research

    For any topic, it helps to have a general understanding of how that topic works in itself, and a general overview of that topic as part of a place and time with various other things going on. For this kind of orientation, encyclopedias and brief online summaries from reliable providers are fine! You can go ‘Wikipedia surfing’ – find the entry for your topic and then click all the links, and then click all the links, and so on until you feel like you have a pretty good idea of the main outlines and features of your topic. Sometimes the citations, bibliography, and external links on better Wikipedia and other overview pages can even guide you toward more serious research.

    Overview research is the common knowledge level of investigation. You’re just getting up to speed on what anyone who knows anything about the topic already knows. Any educated person with a device can do this step in a few minutes. You have not yet “done the research,” you have “begun to inform yourself.” It’s very good to begin to be informed, and a great start for serious research. But none of this basic information belongs in a research study. You only make yourself useful when you get way, way past Wikipedia and the first page of Google, and figure out something that wasn’t common knowledge.

    You’ve made a start, and there’s more to do, starting with gathering search terms:

    Search terms

    Other than general knowledge, the most important takeaway from overview research is an enhanced list of search terms. Most failed searches are just worded badly, and part of getting better at research is getting better at words. Make note of words and phrases that characterize your topic, then plug them back into your search to get more informed and specialized results. Keep doing this as you go to achieve a virtuous knowledge spiral.

    At a glance I see several search terms to gather here: Kung Fu, Wushu, Shaolin, Buddhabhadra, Ba Tuo, and Tang Dynasty. That’s not much to go on yet, but you’ll add more as you get deeper into the research:

    Secondary sources

    Most of your overview research will be what’s called “secondary sources.” In this case what makes them secondary is that they are written after the fact (second hand) by people with no direct experience of the topic. Secondary sources come in different grades of reliability and different levels of elaboration. For historical research, specialized sources published by scholars are usually where the reliable knowledge in depth is. They’re usually “peer reviewed,” which means approved by other people who study in that field. And they’re usually long format, starting in the 15-20 page range. You should get used to seeking out and reading research in that range.

    Google

    Regular Google searches move ads to the front, and after that are designed to give you the common knowledge overview, because that’s what most people want. So if you’re not careful, Google can distort your research and even your understanding of how knowledge works toward the superficial and trivial. Over time you can teach Google to take you more seriously and return better quality results automatically, but in the meantime you can go direct to Google Scholar and do your search at https://scholar.google.com/.

    Proquest

    There’s lots of great free scholarly content on the web. But if you hit a paywall, or you want to get straight to the good stuff without fighting through garbage, and also take advantage of your tuition dollars at work, it’s best to go through an academic database. At Davis Memorial Library the one database to rule them all is Proquest. It comes in a lot of curated subsections, but unless you know for sure that you only want the results from a narrowed search, go with Proquest Central, which is all of it. Look under P in the Digital Resources section of the library web page, http://libguides.methodist.edu/az.php. (For History specifically, JSTOR is also great. Look under J.)

    Jumping right to Proquest and doing a few rough searches of peer reviewed sources, I had a little success with “martial arts” plus “Tang dynasty.” For example, I found a review of a book titled The Shaolin Monastery: History, Religion, and the Chinese Martial Arts, by Meir Shahar. This looks to be right on point and you should get your hands on it, probably through interlibrary loan. The review itself is brief but full of information, including much more specialized search terms, such as the “gun” and “quart” styles.

    I also found a full text in-depth article on “Martial Monks in Medieval Chinese Buddhism,” by Nikolas Broy, which you will obviously want to find and read. Both of these sources come with extensive bibliographies, so you should have no trouble finding more to look at just by following up their references.

    This may seem like a lot of work. It is! Knowing what you’re talking about is a lot of work. But it’s worth it, because then you know what you’re talking about.

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