Before you Write: Preparing Secondary Research
1. 21st century literacy entails many higher order skills. You need to be able to critically evaluate the reliability of diverse sources of knowledge in order to construct knowledge with scientific methods. 21st century literacy also entails openly arguing with diverse groups of people to explain and prove the truth that you have found. But 21st century skills are built on the foundation of traditional literacy: reading and writing. This chapter will review the basic skills you will need in order to prepare and create an academic essay or speech.
2. Most students don't realize the fundamental key to all good writing: good research. Knowledge is the essential first step, as we have already discussed. Research can take many forms. But there is a single basic theoretical approach that will help you understand how to write about your research. The literary critic Kenneth Burke (1941/1973) described the marketplace of ideas as one vast "unending conversation" throughout human history (pp. 110-111). As you listen to your first lecture or read your first newspaper or academic book, you enter a long conversation, which has been taking place for years, decades, or sometimes even centuries. Academic experts, policy makers, and the public at large have been discussing important contemporary topics for a long time, way before you entered the conversation by picking up the newspaper. And most likely, a new generation will be discussing these same topics long after you have died.
3. Your job is to "enter" a conversation that you find interesting or important. You first participate as a listener (or reader) so that you can understand how the topic is being discussed: what are the issues at hand? What are the central concepts and keywords? What are the problems that need to be solved? What are the possible solutions? Have any already been tried, and if so, how did they work? How much money or resources are available? What do the experts say? You need to first listen to the conversation in order to become knowledgeable. Eventually, once you have some knowledge to share with the group, you can "join" the conversation and become a participant.
4. While knowledge is the all important first step, most students want to rush past it. Ludwig Wittgenstein and Bertrand Russell were two of the most famous philosophers of the early 20th century. In an influential book (Wittgenstein, 1921/2011) based on ideas they exchanged, they warned that no one should ever rush into any important public conversation. In fact, they forcefully stated that if you don't actually have any real knowledge to share, then you should just sit silently. They made this principle one of their foundational axioms in their book on human knowledge and the limits of science.
5. Quoting Wittgenstein, Russell (1921/2011) declared, "What can be said at all can be said clearly; and whereof one cannot speak thereof one must be silent" (p. xix). This rather simple statement contains several complex claims. First, a person must be knowledgeable before opening his or her mouth to speak. Second, one of the best tests of knowledge is clarity: can you clearly explain what you're talking about. If you can't, you don't truly know. Many people try to hide the fact that they don't actually know what they're talking about, which is a form of lying. They use vague language, especially big, important-sounding words, like "society" or "religion," to make it seem as if they have knowledge. But they don't. They are just throwing around big words, as a smoke screen, without any understanding of the topic.
6. We call this vague, insincere nonsense "bullshit" (Frankfurt, 2005; Fredal, 2011), and it is the favorite tactic of many know-nothings, including students, teachers, politicians, and barflies. Frankfurt (2005) goes so far to say that bullshitting is worse than lying! He argues, "The bullshitter...does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are" (p. 61). If you know your topic, then you would be able to talk about it in clear and detailed language. If you can't, you don't have real knowledge. This led to Wittgenstein and Russell's last point. If you don't have knowledge, then keep your mouth shut. No one wants to waste time listening to lies or bullshit. If you don't really know, then say so, and seek out someone who does.
7. However, it is important to remember that these lessons are not meant for us in our everyday life. These rules were meant to govern public speaking. If we tried to live up to these principles in our private lives, then most of us would walk around as mutes. No, these principles were meant specifically for scientists, and in a larger sense, for concerned citizens, professionals, politicians, and all who have a role and a responsibility in addressing public problems and shaping public policy (Feinberg, 2012, p. 17). As students entering into a professional discipline in a research university, these principles were certainly meant for you. You are currently being trained to be a scientist, or you are being trained to be a professional who can understand scientific literature and use it to make informed decisions. Thus, you need to take these principles to heart.
8. So the question becomes: How do you acquire the knowledge you need in order to be able to communicate clearly with an audience? The answer to this question is the important subject of this chapter. First, let me turn to psychology to point out an important feature of our brain in relation to the acquisition of professional expertise. Daniel Kahneman (2011) has explained that while the skill and knowledge of a professional might seem magical, it is, in fact, a "large collection of mini-skills," which have been refined through "thousands of hours of practice" (pp. 238-41). It is also important to read information several times to produce "cognitive ease" (pp. 61-62), which helps with both understanding and memory. The more times you see and think about information, the more likely you are to understand it and remember it.
9. This chapter will introduce you to the skilled use of three important tools that professional researchers use to read, to fully understand what they read, and to prepare information for inclusion in a research paper or speech. Most researchers use all three of these tools as a single process. First, while you read a source you should be annotating as you go along. Then, you should skim the source again and re-read your annotation so that you can outline the thesis, main ideas, and major details of the source, especially noting the page numbers where important information is located. Finally, you should re-read your outline and write an abstract, which is a short summary (and sometimes analysis) of the source. Doing all three steps of this process with every major source will not only help you become more knowledgeable, but it will also help you remember this important information.
10. These three steps help produce knowledge, albeit a lesser form of knowledge because you are not actually producing anything new. Reading the knowledge of other people is known as "secondary research," which is not as important as "primary research." Secondary research refers to reading the primary research of other scholars and summarizing it, but you do not engage in the conduct of primary research yourself. The best form of knowledge comes from conducting primary research through the scientific methods discussed in a previous chapter of this book. For primary research, you directly design a research study with the methodology appropriate to the discipline you are working in, collect and analyze data, and draw conclusions from your data and analysis. Most likely you will not engage in primary research until your junior or senior year, if at all, as an undergraduate. Most students aren't taught how to do real primary research until graduate school. Secondary knowledge is an important form of knowledge, and much better than common sense, but its validity should not be overstated. This form of knowledge is limited because what you "know" is basically the summary of other people's knowledge.
11. The practice of annotation is as old as writing. It’s the process of reading a book with a pen in hand and underlining important passages or writing notes in the margins. It’s a way to leave footprints in the text so that you can easily and quickly find the thesis, main ideas, and key concepts of the text without having to re-read the whole thing. It is also a way to physically and intellectually have a conversation with the author by writing responses onto the text. Annotation is also known as "glossing" or "marginalia," which in effect are short "conversations" between reader and author, which the reader writes into the book.
12. Writing marginalia is an important exercise for a couple of reasons. First, it keeps you alert and engaged with the text, as if you were listening to a lecture and constantly looking to raise your hand to ask questions or make critical comments. Second, it helps you make focused comments or ask questions that get to the heart of the main ideas, which you might be able to use in your own writing. Third, by reading and re-reading important parts of a text, you are actively thinking about the information and building a longer-term memory of it, which will help you more clearly remember the text's important data or arguments. Finally, it is a time-saving mechanism. By writing notes on all of the important pages of the books, you can quickly and easily find the main ideas of the text for future reference, especially if you are going to use the book for years to come. I read many of the books on my shelf decades ago, and I simply don't have time to re-read every book when I need to use it again. But because I have left footprints in all of my books via annotation, I can quickly skim through each book to find all of the important parts within hours, instead of spending days re-reading the entire book.
13. Outlines are another important tool, for both note taking and thinking. Outlines are effective because they combine both written and visual communication, and they force a researcher to crystallize the thesis and main ideas of a text in short, clear language. What information goes on an outline? All of the important information in a text: topic, thesis, main ideas, some major details, and page numbers. You may also want to include important references cited in the text, which you might want to read to more fully understand the topic. I will show you a sample outline in the next chapter.
14. The basic task of an outline is to organize information, both thematically and visually. You break down a text into its fundamental parts so that you can identify all of the parts and understand how they all fit together to prove the author's thesis. Outlining can also help you identify the weaknesses of the text. Some authors don't fully prove each point with enough evidence. Some don't make clear points at all. Some main ideas may support the thesis, but some may be unrelated, which signals disorganized thought. Some points may not be documented, and some documentation may be sloppy. By organizing all of the important information on an outline, you are going part by part to analyze and evaluate the strength of the text. You are also demonstrating your knowledge of the text by clearly summarizing the topic, thesis, main ideas, and major details. This process of analysis, evaluation, and summary (activities that will be fully explained in later chapters) also help you understand and remember the information of the text, which prepares you for using the text in your own research or writing.
15. The final stage of understanding and preparing your secondary research involves a short summary and analysis of each major source. This summary is called an abstract and it should include properly formatted in-text citations and references. While this last stage might seem like a lot of extra work, there are many reasons for writing an abstract. First, by reviewing your annotation and outlines, you are consciously re-thinking about the thesis, main ideas, and major details, which helps you understand and remember the material. Understanding and memory are also reinforced by turning the short visually organized information on the outline into verbally organized information in sentences and paragraphs. Second, you can more fully summarize and analyze a secondary source via sentences and paragraphs than on an outline. Writing an abstract forces you to more fully explain and critique the information, which helps you understand it better. Finally, the abstract prepares this secondary information for inclusion in a longer research paper. While most scholars don't simply cut and paste abstracts into a research paper, you might be able to re-use some sentences or maybe even a paragraph.
16. In an abstract, you will have crystallized your understanding of a source in clear and organized language. When they go to write, many scholars re-read and summarize their abstracts (rather than re-reading the whole book or article). By focusing on the abstract, rather than the original text, a scholar has all of the important information clearly stated, while still having the verbal flexibility to write about that information in a way that fits the future organization and purpose of the research paper. Cutting and pasting the exact same language of an abstract is dangerous: these old sentences or paragraphs may break up the flow and coherence of the future research paper.
17. It is important to remember that annotation, outlining, and abstracts are just tools to help you understand and remember information. They are not finished products in and of themselves. Going through this three-step process is the most effective way to understand and remember all of the information you read, especially if you are reading many sources in preparation for a long research paper. The more work you put into the initial research stage, the better the final research paper will be. There is a reason academic articles and books take many months and years to write. It takes a long time to read and understand all of the secondary literature on any given topic, all of which has to be finished before a scholar can even begin to conduct primary research. The creation of knowledge is not an easy or quick endeavor.
Burke, K. (1941/1973). The philosophy of literary form. (3rd Ed). Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1973. (Original work published 1941)
Feinberg, W. (2012, March). The idea of a public education. Review of Research in Education, 36: 1-22.
Frankfurt, H. G. (2005). On bullshit. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Fredal, J. (2011, Jan). Rhetoric and bullshit. College English, 73(3): 243-59.
Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Russell, B. (2011). Introduction. In L. Wittgenstein, Tractatus logico-philosophicus. Seattle, WA: Pacific Publishing Studio. (Original work published 1921)
Wittgenstein, L. (2011). Seattle, WA: Pacific Publishing Studio. (Original work published 1921)
To cite this chapter in a reference page using APA:
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