Writing and Information Competency in Small Bytes

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Define the research topic


What do you need to know and do? What does your professor expect you to do—that is, what demands grow out of the assignment itself? Consider your "research topic" to be tentative and dynamic as you enter into the process of discovering information. Your research question is more than a general subject, but is tied to some particular aspects or dimensions of the subject your paper will be about.

The ancient Greeks and Romans, 2300 years ago, laid down some ideas about communication that still work. One of these useful ideas was the concept of stasis, or the balancing point in an argument. Imagine any argument or debate in which people disagree about a problem. What are the people really disagreeing about? If you could state and analyze all the arguments on both sides, a central question can be seen. There are four of these central questions:

Exigency: Does the problem exist?

Fact: What are the facts about the problem and how do we label them?

Value: How do we evaluate these facts?

Policy: What should be done to solve the problem?

Take a problem area such as water. Some people present pragmatic solutions to the problem of managing and conserving our water supplies, whereas others don't even recognize that the problem is there. "We need to regulate the amount of water each house in Fresno is allowed to use" vs. "Didn't we just have a flood?"

As a student doing research, you might find the stasis questions helpful for framing your thinking and inquiry. If a professor assigns to you the task of developing and presenting a solution to a problem, consider how you might use these questions. It doesn't matter much what academic field you are studying--the essential quest for information, how you evaluate and use information, and the principles of effective communication are very much the same across all fields of learning in a university. The research question that drives you is tied to what you intend to do with the information once you have it.

In the research stage, you will progress through each stasis area in order and you will find that you have different information needs in each area.

Does the problem exist? We tend to focus in life on the problems we know about. For example, everyone has heard about "Jerry's Kids," and they know that muscular dystrophy is a terrible crippling disease, but the typical "everyone" would have to be convinced we need to spend money on a disease like lupus erythematosis. The "fact" is that lupus is indeed a terrible disease and cripples as many people as muscular dystrophy does. That most Americans are unaware that lupus exists doesn't diminish the need to do something about it, but, again, people focus on problems they know about. In the exigency stage, you will need information to convince yourself and others that the problem exists.

What are the facts about the problem and how do we label them? Having decided that a problem is worth spending time on, what do you need to know about it. Your need for "facts" depends on what research question you are trying to answer. If you are studying "teenage pregnancy" as a topic, one research question about teenage pregnancy might need facts about the number of teenage pregnancies in Fresno County 1993-98, details about how the schools handle pregnant students today, costs of various hospital and medical programs, etc. But another research question might need facts on psychological and sociological dimensions of raising a child as a single parent. In the fact stage, you need information to understand the problem fully in terms of facts relevant to your research question. Note that if you don't know very much about a problem or topic, you need to get through the exigency stage before you can even begin to state what you need to know about the problem in this stage.

How do you react to the facts? What values are important in evaluating facts? You might need information to help clarify for you the answer to these questions. In the evaluation stage, you look for authoritative opinion about what how factual conditions should be judged. Fact: families in poverty tend to have more children than affluent families. Is this good or bad? Who says so? Why should we pay attention to what they think about it? What is the reason for their judgments?

What should we do about it? How can the problem be solved? What aspects of the problem are you going to focus on and develop solutions for? Can you do things to prevent the problem (e.g., banning cigarettes to prevent cancer) or can you do things to help the victims (e.g., organize a support organization for families of cancer victims). In the policy stage, you look for information to help forge plans to solve problems that meet general standards such as efficacy, cost effectiveness, benefits, etc.

In any particular case, your research question might be in any one of these areas. Some research papers have the purpose of only mapping out the nature of a problem, while others may evaluate the effectiveness of an existing government program. As you do your research and get more and more information, you will find that your research question itself comes into clearer focus for you. You have to keep in mind what you are trying to find out for the purpose of this particular inquiry.

There are many approaches to generating a research question besides the stasis approach just discussed. Another useful model is SPIRE. It is a simple acronym to remind you of some common "dimensions" of virtually any problem.

In the Summer Bridge, you are assigned to write about a "culture topic"--that is, you are to write on some topic related to the Culture class, often related to your own cultural heritage. You could write about history, about customs, about art, about family, about religion, about problems, about economics, and so on and so on. To have an example, let's say you decide to write on "bilingual education" because the controversial California state proposition on bilingual education which passed in June of 1998 makes it timely. Using SPIRE, you can generate an "angle" to use in approaching the topic.

S: What are the social effects of bilingual education? In terms of scientific knowledge of language, what is the most effective way to handle students who do not speak the language used by teachers and students in a school?

P: Or you could write about the political controversy surrounding the question in California or the political history of that proposition on the June ballot. How do students react psychologically to a bilingual school environment and what is the evidence for it?

I: What are the intellectual arguments in the debate on bilingual education? Or what technologies exist and are used to help students learn language in schools or could be used in the home?

R: Are there religious elements to the bilingual question? Should our recreational facilities have bilingual workers, signs, and so forth?

E: How much does it cost a school system to have a bilingual program? How effective are different models of bilingual education in terms of the students' later achievement and success?

SPIRE is just a tool to help bring to mind different aspects of a topic. What interests you the most is something you should decide.

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fstlogo.gif (4428 bytes) Writing and Information Competency in Small Bytes
John A. Cagle, Ph.D.
Summer Bridge Program
California State University, Fresno

1998 by John A. Cagle, Professor of Communication, California State University, Fresno.

This information competency website was designed by John A. Cagle (Department of Communication) and Ross LaBaugh (Librarian) as part of a grant from the California State University.  It continues to be under construction.