Searching for Substance

NOTE: This is written specifically for Section 005.  Some content does not apply to all sections of our course.

We’re now at the close of week three of the course (time is a crazy thing…) and everyone is starting to hone where they’re headed with the Inquiry Project (hooray!)  This week also marked the beginning of journeying outward to find research useful to your inquiry projects to add to what we have already discovered with the New Media readings.  As I mentioned before, the activities throughout the class are designed to provide  you with the necessary skills for writing and researching, as well as pertinent content to use in your writing.  The New Media readings and nugget posts are meant to influence the way you think about your inquiry topics, where you can take your analyses of the nuggets and incorporate them in the larger Inquiry Project: pulling the claims and assertions the authors make–rather than just the mere data and descriptions they include–and applying them to your own arguments.  As Dr. Coats mentions,

Our expectation is that you will use as much of these five readings in your inquiry projects as possible; they’re not digressions or tangents from the main work of the course: they are the common content that allows the individuals in this course to become a learning community. Supplementing those new media readings will be some outside secondary sources that we will find and annotate (with the help of classmates in this and other sections, hopefully). We will then synthesize all of this material into a working theory that will be used to make sense of a primary digital text.

In addition to the outside research you find, will be asked to incorporate at least three of the New Media readings for your final Inquiry Project. (This is, in part, why the nugget posts have been tailored to get you thinking of how the ideas and arguments posited in the readings can apply to your primary texts given your specific topics.)  It may be the case that some of the concepts and assertions in the New Media readings do not directly  address your topic.  This is totally fine, natural, and often desirable.  The point here is not to try and find out only what has already been written directly about your topics, but to find key arguments to connect and apply to how YOU believe people should understand it.  (And they all can connect in some way.  Pinky swear.) Making ideas portable and stretching them for application is a skill, and one that ultimately helps you make novel and meaningful arguments.  

Additionally, the research you find beyond the New Media readings may also not directly address your inquiry topic.  Many topics in this course are new, which means that there may not be many sources directly addressing them (like scholarly articles, for instance).  This does not necessarily mean that you should switch topics.  Rather, it may mean that your interest in the topic is original and worthy of pursuit–a huge goal for many writers.  The trick is to find things that are related to your topic and apply them to the issue at hand.

When investigating beyond the New Media readings to see what’s out there and relevant to your inquiry project, it’s important to consider the kinds of sources that may and may not be useful.  Everything has virtues and limitations, and this is especially true given the specific kind of project you are developing.  Oftentimes this deals with the credibility of a source, particularly with its author, publisher, and intended audience.  Here is a useful breakdown of secondary sources:

  1. Scholarly sources: sources written by experts in a particular discipline. The intended audience are academics within the discipline, so the language is often dense and filled with discipline-specific concepts and terminology. Authors of scholarly sources don’t typically take the time to define particular terms (unless they are arguing to embrace new definitions) because it’s assumed that the audience already understands them. This is why they can be very difficult to read and digest.  However, they are (typically) very useful because they contain arguments meant to offer new perspectives within the field. They are found in scholarly journals and are only accepted after the article passes through a vetting process refereed by other scholars within the field.  “Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework” is an example of a scholarly source.
  2. Substantive sources: sources that are perhaps not written by scholars in a particular field, but are nevertheless in-depth looks at an issue.  They are written for larger audiences than scholarly sources, though they (typically) include sophisticated writing (both in style and thought).  They often contain arguments, though not always. They are published in periodicals such as Harpers, The New Yorker, and The Atlantic Monthly.  “As We May Think” is a an example of a substantive source.
  3. Popular sources: sources typically written by staff writers, meant for a very large audience, and are typically written to either entertain or quickly inform.  They’re usually short and do not contain in-depth looks at an issue.  Articles ranging from Entertainment Weekly  to short news reports from The New York Times are popular sources.  These are useful to analyze, but not very useful for pulling together support for an argument.

Your Inquiry Project will include various kinds of sources–secondary and not–but it’s important to survey the first two of these kinds of sources as much and as thoroughly as possible; scholarly and substantive sources will provide the wonderful and necessary fodder for your Inquiry Project.  Remember, the point of your investigation is to discover the arguments and ideas you will apply to your own: pulling the meaningful assertions for support rather than just the facts for descriptions.  Data is important, but only insofar as to provide enough context for the reader to understand the issue at hand.  Consider Mirna’s nugget for “Augmenting Human Intellect”:

First any possibility for improving the effective utilization of the intellectual power of society’s problem solvers warrants the most serious consideration. This is because man’s problem-solving capability represents possibly the most important resource possessed by a society. The other contenders for first importance are all critically dependent for their development and use upon this resource. Any possibility for evolving an art or science that can couple directly and significantly to the continued development of that resource should warrant doubly serious consideration.

This is a valuable idea from Engelbart: an integral assertion for his work rather than a mere fact. It can be applied to other ideas and to help establish a methodological framework for an argument.  Definitions and terminology invoked by thinkers can also help with this.  Zahra does this in her post when including the definition of “augmenting human intellect” from Engelbart.  Much like this concept, it is often necessary to establish how one is thinking of certain terms and ideas for clear support (especially because people use terms differently).

A quick and dirty rule: sources are only as useful as the arguments that are being made.  Sources providing only swift accounts of things (news reports, short articles from Psychology Today etc.) won’t be very useful to build your bank of sources for your project because not much work is being done with them.  WebMD, for instance, covers a wide array of symptoms, diagnoses, and medical treatments for various ailments.  However!  It’s function for research is very limited: the pages aren’t thorough, information often goes without citations, and it isn’t always clear who wrote the article.  Most importantly, there aren’t any arguments being made. It can be a useful resource, but not for quality support.  A similar point can be made with Wikipedia.  You can find an incredible amount of information moving through it (I once spent three hours clicking on links through the Marvel Universe pages, starting here), though you can only find accounts of theories, criticisms, debates, and so on rather than the direct theories, criticisms, debates, and so on.  Wikipedia is a wonderful place to get curious and inquire (as tertiary sources tend to be), but it should always be used as a gateway to the direct sources being referenced and discussed.  So, whenever finding quality material on Wikipedia, be sure find the original source (often referenced at the bottom of the page).

As we move forward, keep trying to find the major points and premises of the arguments being made in the sources you pursue and keep applying them as robustly as possible to your topic. Additionally, continue to look to each other for what everyone is finding and how they are understanding and applying content.  Many connections in class so far have been stellar, and will be particularly valuable as we continue to build resources for information and ideas.  Helen put this beautifully:

Students are not only sharing their writings, but they are creating an opinion that they have passion for and by reading their blogs, I find people with beautiful souls.

We create meaning when we connect and engage mindfully.  Let’s continue doing so!


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