In order for students to locate their own arguments, they must first spend time organizing, assessing, and unpacking their sources. Once they can see clearly what kinds of voices and perspectives address their research questions, they can enter into the conversation by addressing counter-arguments as well as articulating and supporting their own arguments. On a more formal level, some kinds of research projects require a literature review section. These exercises will help students draft this section.
The following exercises provide a systematic process by which students can achieve the kind of familiarity with their sources that is requisite for incorporating them into their own arguments. Students should complete the exercises outside of class. You may assign them in sequence or you may decide to use only one or two of the following:
- Assessing Sources
- Creating a Matrix
- Writing a Literature Review
Begin the process of evaluating the sources you are finding by first reading the text and summarizing the author's main points by making notes, written or mental, annotations, or other means. In academic writing, you also need to be fully informed about the sources that look relevant to your research: for example, who is the writer and what are his/her credentials, what is the purpose of and audience for the publication and how does a particular source fit into the larger, ongoing conversation about this question. In other words, look at the factors external to the source in order to help you determine its credibility and authority. Answer the following sets of questions for each of your sources:
Conduct a brief search on the author to determine his/her expertise, reputation, and credibility.
Look at citations, articles, and books by this author to find information about who the author is, what his/her credentials are, and what occupation or position s/he holds. Also check library reference sources
(e.g., Who's Who in American Education, American Scholars' Directory) for author information.
Publication and Audience
- Examine the publication for which the author is writing to determine the author's intended audience, and the publication's reputation, credibility, and target reader/researcher.
- Look in the text for clues to what audience the author is addressing, e.g., specialized or general vocabulary, types of sources cited, explicit references to the audience.
- Look at the publication itself: front/back cover, submission guidelines, editorial board. Use Library reference sources such as Magazines for Libraries, which give an indication of audience and types of articles. Once you're satisfied that your source is credible and reliable, you are ready to analyze the text itself.
- Carefully read the text, looking at the evidence the author is using and the structure of the argument (e.g., whether it moves logically from point to point).
- Identify the range of evidence (personal opinions or observations, research, case studies, analogies, statistics, facts, quotations, etc.).
- Assess how the author presents and discusses alternative perspectives in relation to his/her thesis?
- Locate any gaps or inconsistencies in the development of the argument.
- Analyze the text in relation to your question and developing thesis, and in relation to other sources you've been reading.
- If it supports your thinking, identify the assumptions/biases/perspectives influencing the writer, and how they compare to your own and those of other writers with whom this one agrees.
- If it is an opposing perspective, identify the assumptions/biases/perspectives influencing the writer, and how they compare to your own and those of other writers with whom this one agrees?
- Determine how this source contributes to your understanding or to generating new questions in your thinking?
CREATING A MATRIX
From your initial forays into the sources, you should have some sense of the range of ways authors answer your question and that there are, in fact, several reasonable and defensible answers to your question. It is important to begin understanding what influences different writers to answer your question differently. This exercise will help you start identifying the perspectives, schools of thought, sets of variables, etc., that influence the question you're trying to answer. It will also help you organize your readings into categories that will help you choose the main arguments in support of and in opposition to your thesis.
The following shows one way in which you might draw your matrix:
|Source #1||Source #2 ||Source #3 |
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Yours may look different depending upon the number of sources you are working with at this stage and depending upon the kind of research question you are raising. For example, if you are looking at quantitative studies of the incidence of chronic depression among working mothers you might want a category in the left column for the demographic make-up of the subjects of each study. Or if you are doing a comparative study of Baby Boomers and Gen Xers relationships to their careers across the country, you might have a category that identifies geographic location.
As you begin to fill out your matrix, it will start to look something like this:
Research Question: How do Gen Xers and Baby Boomers different relationship to work reflect larger cultural shifts in attitudes toward the individual in society?
Cultural texts: magazines, the news, films, literature
Quantitative studies of careers/salaries of individuals over 40 as compared with individuals under 30.
Close-reads the various cultural texts and places them in conversation (comparison/
contrast) with each other. Looks specifically at popular magazines
Generation Xers and Baby Boomers.
Surveys and interviews primarily white subjects (from similar socio-economic background) from two different age categories.
Uses Marxist theories of production and alienation. Takes a less-critical look at Gen X than popular
press-criticizes discussions of Gen Xers as "lazy."
Hypothesis, methods and conclusions based on prior quantitative studies. Assumptions are based on criticisms of Gen Xers as apathetic, as products of economic prosperity, and the end of the Cold War.
Gen Xers approach their work/career lives as temporary and requisite for supporting their commitment to individual freedom (understood in terms of "creative production"), whereas Baby Boomers have experienced their careers as expressions of their individual freedom.
Individuals under 30, on average, stay in jobs for 2-3 years; whereas individuals over 40 remain in one place for 7-9 years. This is an indication of the ways in which influences such as the media, internet, relative wealth of parents, post Cold War mentality have fostered short attention spans in 20-30 year olds.
As we can see, so far, neither source directly answers the research question, but they each suggest approaches toward answering the question and each will provide arguments or counter-arguments in relationship to your own argument.
The next step is to begin to position your own argument (as well as your own assumptions) in relation to these sources. For more information, see Developing a Thesis.
WRITING A LITERATURE REVIEW
Bearing in mind that a viable research question produces more than one reasonable answer, the literature review:
- Describes the kind of search that was conducted
- Summarizes, analyzes, and organizes the various responses found in the scholarly conversation regarding the question
- Explains why different scholars provide different answers for the same or related questions (i.e. accounts for the debate/tension in the literature
As a result, the literature review does more than report the conclusions of researchers; it accounts for HOW those conclusions are reached.
The literature review plays an important role in research projects because:
- It locates our research question within the scholarly debate relevant to our concerns
- We don't need to reinvent the wheel, so we need to discover what has been done and represent it
- We let the reader see the history of the question and demonstrate that we have done our homework
- We identify what has not been done, or what has not been done well
Use the following steps in writing your literature review:
- Organize your sources by detecting a pattern that helps you explain why one group of sources comes up with one answer and another group comes up with another answer. Creating a matrix, as shown in Part II, is a very effective way of doing this.
- Summarize these different groups of sources in terms of how they address the question: what methodology, evidence, critical concepts, etc. do they employ?
- Analyze the content of these sources in terms of the answer they provide to your central question or in terms of the question they raise (which may be slightly different from your question). Show how they offer important insights. Show how they neglect particular areas.