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Before we start talking about how to choose search terms and where to search for sources, it can help to get a sense of what we’re hoping to get out of the research. We might think that in order to support a thesis we should only look for sources that prove an idea we want to promote. But since writing academic papers is about joining a conversation, what we really need is to gather the sources that will help us situate our ideas within that ongoing conversation. What we should look for first is not support but the conversation itself: who is saying what about our topic?
The sources that make up the conversation may have various kinds of points to make and ultimately may play very different roles in our paper. After all, as we have seen in Chapter 2, an argument can involve not just evidence for a claim but limits, counterarguments, and rebuttals. Sometimes we will want to cite a research finding that provides strong evidence for a point; at other times, we will summarize someone else’s ideas in order to explain how our own opinion differs or to note how someone else’s concept applies to a new situation.
As you find sources on a topic, look for points of connection, similarity and difference between them. In your paper, you will need to show not just what each one says, but how they relate to each other in a conversation. Describing this conversation can be the springboard for your own original point.
Here are five common ways research papers can build on multiple sources to come up with an original point:
Combine research findings from multiple sources to make a larger summary argument. You might find that none of the sources you’re working with specifically claim that early 20th-century British literature was preoccupied with changing gender roles but that, together, their findings all point to that broader conclusion.
Combine research findings from multiple sources to make a claim about their implications. You might review papers that explore various factors shaping voting behavior to argue that a particular voting-reform proposal will likely have positive impacts.
Identify underlying areas of agreement. You may argue that the literature on cancer and the literature on violence both describe the unrecognized importance of prevention and early intervention. This similarity will support your claim that insights about one set of problems may be useful for the other.
Identify underlying areas of disagreement. You may find that the controversies surrounding educational reform—and its debates about accountability, curricula, school funding—ultimately stem from different assumptions about the role of schools in society.
Identify unanswered questions. Perhaps you review studies of the genetic and behavioral contributors to diabetes in order to highlight unknown factors and argue for more in-depth research on the role of the environment.
There are certainly other ways authors use sources to build theses, but these examples illustrate how original thinking in academic writing involves making connections with and between a strategically chosen set of sources.
Here’s a passage of academic writing (an excerpt, not a complete paper) that gives an example of how a writer can describe a conversation among sources and use it to make an original point:
Willingham (2011) draws on cognitive science to explain that students must be able to regulate their emotions in order to learn. Emotional self-regulation enables students to ignore distractions and channel their attention and behaviors in appropriate ways. Other research findings confirm that anxiety interferes with learning and academic performance because it makes distractions harder to resist (Perkins and Graham-Bermann, 2012; Putwain and Best, 2011). Other cognitive scientists point out that deep learning is itself stressful because it requires people to think hard about complex, unfamiliar material instead of relying on cognitive short-cuts.
Kahneman (2011) describes this difference in terms of two systems for thinking: one fast and one slow. Fast thinking is based on assumptions and habits and doesn’t require a lot of effort. For example, driving a familiar route or a routine grocery-shopping trip are not usually intellectually taxing activities. Slow thinking, on the other hand, is what we do when we encounter novel problems and situations. It’s effortful, and it usually feels tedious and confusing. It is emotionally challenging as well because we are, by definition, incompetent while we’re doing it, which provokes some anxiety. Solving a tough problem is rewarding, but the path itself is often unpleasant.
These insights from cognitive science enable us to critically assess the claims made on both sides of the education reform debate. On one hand, they cast doubt on the claims of education reformers that measuring teachers’ performance by student test scores is the best way to improve education. For example, the Center for Education Reform promotes “the implementation of strong, data-driven, performance-based accountability systems that ensure teachers are rewarded, retained and advanced based on how they perform in adding value to the students who they teach, measured predominantly by student achievement." The research that Willingham (2011) and Kahneman (2011) describe suggests that frequent high-stakes testing may actually work against learning by introducing greater anxiety into the school environment.
At the same time, opponents of education reform should acknowledge that these research findings should prompt us to take a fresh look at how we educate our children. While Stan Karp of Rethinking Schools is correct when he argues that “data-driven formulas [based on standardized testing] lack both statistical credibility and a basic understanding of the human motivations and relationships that make good schooling possible," it doesn’t necessarily follow that all education reform proposals lack merit. Challenging standards, together with specific training in emotional self-regulation, will likely enable more students to succeed.
In that example, the ideas of Willingham and Kahneman are summarized approvingly, bolstered with additional research findings, and then applied to a new realm: the current debate surrounding education reform. Voices in that debate were portrayed as accurately as possible, sometimes with representative quotes. Most importantly, all references were tied directly to the author’s own interpretative point, which relies on the source’s claims.
As you can see, there are times when you should quote or paraphrase sources that you don’t agree with or do not find particularly compelling. They may convey ideas and opinions that help explain and justify your own argument. Whether or not we agree with a source, we can focus on what it claims and how exactly its claims relate to other sources and to our own ideas.
1Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein, They Say/I Say: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing, (New York: W.W. Norton & Co, 2009).
2The sources cited in this example:
- Daniel T. Willingham, “Can teachers increase students’ self control?” American Educator 35, no. 2 (2011): 22-27.
- Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow.
- Suzanne Perkins and Sandra Graham-Bermann, “Violence exposure and the development of school-related functioning: mental health, neurocognition, and learning,” Aggression and Violent Behavior 17, no. 1(2012): 89-98.
- David William Putwain and Natalie Best, “Fear appeals in the primary classroom: Effects on test anxiety and test grade,” Learning and Individual Differences 21, no. 5 (2011): 580-584.