Confessions of an Academic Forty-Niner

The year was 1849.  I packed my bags, kissed my family goodbye, and left home in a hurry so I wouldn’t miss out on the action happening in California.  Gold was my goal, and I was ready to procure it by whatever means necessary.

Looking for the good stuff alongside my trusty ass, Jack.

When researching, I often feel as though I’m living in the Wild West, hoping to stumble across a motherlode of information that will help me make my case.  More often, however, I find only nuggets of gold amongst pounds and pounds of useless sediment.  These nuggets are immensely useful; they have value and can help make for a richer argument.  But they are hard to find.  They require a great deal of sifting and patience, and can only help so much until another nugget is needed.

Even researching how to research can feel like gold mining.  As I read through “Craft of Research Reading,” I found a number of informative nuggets that helped refine my view of my role as a writer.  Most provocative of these was the idea that creating a research paper requires an inversion of the roles of student and teacher.  As a student, it’s nice to think that the teacher has all of the answers.  And most teachers have a lot of answers.  They’re the teacher for a reason.  But for a research assignment, when twenty students are each pursuing independent, complex topics, it’s improbable that the teacher knows everything about everyone’s topic.  Suddenly, the student is the expert, and the teacher is learning from them.

You should, however, accept that you will never be smart enough to impress Hermione.

I suppose this is something that I’ve always known, but it’s comforting to see it acknowledged by authors who seem to be both teachers and researchers.  I’m not a particularly bold person.  It has always felt strange to pronounce myself the supposed expert on a topic, and I’m sure that my insecurity about doing so shows in my writing.  That’s why reading that students should feel comfortable doing this felt like striking gold.  Sure, somewhere in the world there is almost definitely someone with views more profound than mine about the ethical implications of the British Museum owning the Parthenon Marbles.  But in the classroom, my research and analysis have likely made me the most knowledgable about the topic, just as each of my classmates is the most knowledgable about their own projects.  It’s helpful to know that it’s OK to speak with authority, and that the audience, including any teachers who might be part of it, want to learn.

Reading “Craft of Research Reading” had yielded some gold, and I was glad for it.  But as I continued to search through the text for more insights (and I absolutely found some), I also came across information that I didn’t find useful, and some ideas I found downright objectionable.  When I looked at the section on the different ways to read sources, I was frustrated.  The text classified three separate ways of doing this (“Reading for a Problem,” “Reading for an Argument,” and “Reading for Evidence”).  I understand the authors’ point that at different points in the research process, different information is most useful.  What I object to is the notion that this information can’t be gathered at once.  The authors contend, for example, that when looking for a topic, reading should be quick and shouldn’t involve detailed note-taking.

As much as I would love to read each of these books thrice, I would also love to, you know, sleep once in a while.

Why shouldn’t it?  Just because a topic hasn’t been picked yet doesn’t mean that there aren’t nuggets or facts that will be useful once it has been decided.  It makes sense to keep a record of any information that might be helpful.  The fact of the matter is, we’re undergraduates.  Perhaps if we were academics on sabbatical, sipping tea on a veranda with a view of some bucolic valley, we could spend our days perusing texts again and again looking for different things.  But we are not.  We have other classes, we have jobs, we have familial commitments that necessitate our working with both efficiency and vigilance.  Doing this is not “lazy” as the authors suggest; it simply means that, interesting as our research might be, we cannot devote our entire focus to it at all times.  We can look for inspiration, for argumentative structures, and for evidence all at once if we do so carefully.

Reading “Craft of Research Reading” mirrors reading actual research texts; when doing it, there is both gold and sediment will be found.  It is incumbent upon us, then, to sift out what is valuable from what is not.  In doing this, we can strike it rich.  We can make ourselves better informed and better able to articulate our arguments.  We can make our research into something that the world will find useful.

One thought to “Confessions of an Academic Forty-Niner”

  1. Hi Michael!
    First, I just want to say I love your writing. It is so captivating and I always look forward to reading your blog posts every week! (Especially your reaction gifs–they are perf.) I really liked your take-away that a student can hold as much authority as the teacher in a classroom setting, and that basically, our voices as students DO matter. I think that’s such an awesome realization, and a nice motivation as I work on my annotated bibliography. I also agree with your sentiment about really delving deep into your sources and trying to obtain as much information as possible for our projects. Like you said, we are super busy undergrads with a billion other things to do. We don’t have time to leisurely scan sources without any substantive look at what the sources truly have to offer our research.
    My one question for you is pertaining to balancing time with your writing. I often struggle to find enough time out of my busy schedule to dedicate to my writing for this class (and other classes). How do you find that balance to dedicate enough time to your writing? You always seem to have such well-thought out and thorough responses; I am genuinely curious how you do it.

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