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Research Workshop

Lecture: Meet ALEA

Research Overview Slideshow
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ASK a meaningful question with good scope and well-chosen key concepts.

There are three things you may struggle with as you begin your research:

(1) Starting with a question. This is vital. Do not start your research with a statement, an opinion, or a thesis. Why? It is (usually unintentionally) a sort of hubris. You are saying, "I already know what I think. I don't need to consider or address what has been said in this conversation. All I need are a couple of quotes that look like they support what I have already decided, since apparently that is required to pass this paper."

It also encourages you to slant your research. What if you find arguments that go against yours? What about positions that complicate your argument? If you are just out to prove your preconceived notions, you will be tempted to ignore or skim over those things when you find them, which is dishonest and lazy. Start with a question and be truly interested in the answer. Act as though you don't know the answer yet. This frames your research in humility and honesty, frees you from ill-considered opinions (yours or others'), and ensures that you will actually gain something from your project--it will stick. Although it will require mental effort and hard work, it will be vastly more interesting to write and to read.

(2) Scope. Scope refers to the focus of your project. Almost universally, students start out with too broad a scope for their projects ("Abortion is evil," " Marijuana should/shouldn't be legal," "All CCM is lame," etc.). Narrow it down! You can't solve a big issue in a 1,000-word paper. Find a subset of that topic and narrow your focus as much as possible.

(3) Key concepts. These are the main terms in your topic. For instance, if you are researching a question like "What was the role of Unferth's kin-slaying and treachery in Beowulf?", your obvious key terms are "Unferth," "kin-slaying," "treachery," and "Beowulf." These are the terms you will use to search for resources, so find related terms or synonyms as well and record them in a research journal. "Kin," "family," "kin-slayer," "treason," "deceit," "betrayal," and "betray" are all different forms of key terms you can use in your topic. Think through what the main elements of your question are, record the terms, and find as many variations as you can. (For more information on key concepts, see Lesson 2.)

LISTEN to relevant, authoritative, scholarly contributions.

Once you have a question you are researching, you have to know where to find the answers. There is a certain workflow to good research that usually looks something like this:

(1) Start with reference sources, which give you a good idea of the scope of your topic, the most important authors to consider, and ideas for key terms. They often have bibliographies as well, which can put you on a fast track to the best resources for your project.

(2) Move to books. Remember that you don't have to read an entire book for it to be a good resource: scan the index for your search terms, look at the table of contents to find the most relevant chapters, and just read through the sections you need. Of course, read enough to be sure that you understand the author's argument, but don't feel that you have to read an entire volume when all you need is a particular section.

(3) Search journal databases. Keep in mind that Google and Wikipedia are not considered "academic" sources; anyone and their Uncle Fred's dog can contribute there. You want recognized and authoritative sources, and that means journal databases. The Tyndale library website has a list of available databases. Start there first, taking special note of the "subjects" drop-down bar at the top of the page.

ENGAGE thoughtfully with your sources, bringing them into conversation with one another.

Once you have formed a question, considered your sources, obtained a decent grasp of the main elements of your topic, and pulled material from your research, you need to put it all together in a way that makes sense for your paper. Consider what other people in the conversation are saying. Can you paraphrase their contributions correctly and honestly? What do you think about them? What do they think about each other?

Take notes of those things--literally. Write them down! By asking yourself these questions and by engaging with them on paper, you will begin to bring an outline of your own argument into view.

One of the best ways to organize your research and bring it into harmony is to identify what role each source is playing in your project.

  • Is it supporting your argument?
  • Is it opposing or complicating your argument?
  • Is it background information?
  • Is it bringing up a new or interesting line of thought?

Usually your sources are doing one of the above. Sort out which is which and your paper will begin to take shape.

ANSWER your question with a well-conceived, focused, and precise thesis statement.

Your thesis statement answers the question that you have so carefully crafted over the course of your research. Note a couple of things here:

(1) Your thesis statement comes after your research, and possibly after an outline or at least some rough notes. It is the culmination of your hard work. It is the finish line, not the starting block. It is your polished and thoughtful contribution to the conversation, not your hastily-formed and ill-considered opinion.

(2) A thesis statement does not have to be a single sentence; it can also be two closely connected sentences (though more than that is probably too long).

(3) A thesis statement should:

  • take a stand
  • use specific language
  • be textually supported
  • express one main idea

Don't forget, you can always ask your professor (or a librarian) for help with this!


As you may have realized by now, good research takes time; you cannot whip through this process the night (or even two nights) before your paper's due. Plan ahead--weeks ahead. Establish reasonable deadlines for yourself, and stick to them. One way to do this is to work backwards from your paper's due date like this:

  1. Make a note of when your paper is due.
  2. Give yourself a week to actually write, re-write, polish, and get feedback on your paper.
  3. Give yourself at least two weeks to do the research, and actually set aside time on your weekly schedule for that purpose.
  4. Give yourself a few days to come up with a topic, form a starter question, and consult a few reference sources for a headstart.

This means that if your paper is due at the end of week 6, you need to have a question fired up and ready to go by the end of week 3 at the latest. Basically, get started as soon as possible!

Exercise 1


1. Plan out a timeline for one of your papers this term.
2. Type it out in week-by-week format. For example:

  • Week 1: Read syllabus
  • Week 2: Talk with professor and/or classmates about possible topics
  • Week 3: Create a research question and read reference sources
  • Week 4: Research
  • Week 5: Research
  • Week 6: Write paper
  • Week 6 (Friday): Submit paper

3. Schedule at least two hours per week for research, and write down when they are (e.g., "Tuesdays 2:00-4:00").
4. Submit a PDF document containing #2-3 under the "Exercise 1" assignment on the Populi class page.

We realize, of course, that this is just a plan. Plans go haywire. Your actual research timeline may look totally different by the end of the term. We're not going to be checking up on how exactly you followed your deadlines. The point is that you have them.

P.S. Did we mention that all documents must be submitted in PDF format?