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Monday Master Class: You’re Not Smarter Than a 5th Grader (When it Comes to Starting Your Paper Research)

Humble BeginningsScaffolding

The last paper I wrote was a research paper for an art history seminar. When I began the process, I had a suitably erudite topic in mind. I was going to examine a particular piece of installation art and make some interesting connections to information theory; the standard fare of big complicated ideas that form the backbone of these types of papers.

But here’s the thing: I didn’t start my researching looking at these big complicated ideas. Instead, I went back to the basics.

Way back…

The Return of the 5th Grade Research Paper

My first step was to find a handful of basic books about the artists in questions: one was written by their son (it was a husband wife team), and the other two were exhibition catalogs. I then used these high level sources to reconstruct the basics of their life story. Piece by piece — asking the simple questions:

  • Where did they get started?
  • What were there first works?
  • What were their jobs?
  • Where did they live?

I captured all of this information in a carefully dated time line (captured in a table titled “basic chronology” in my paper research database.)

This should sound familar. The technique I used here was exactly how I was taught to research in the 5th grade. You find the big, basic overview sources and carefully write down the facts.

As we move through college we accumulate a disdain for such 5th grade simplicity. Good papers deal with complicated ideas. Facts are boring. Intricate arguments in obscure journal articles and cleverly titled monographs are where to find the real action!

So why did I bother with the remedial time line?

The Importance of the Fact Scaffolding

There was a time when I did not build these basic information time lines — which I now call fact scaffolding. This technique is actually one I learned later in my undergraduate career, as I began to research how straight-A humanities majors consistently churned out top papers.

My early papers suffer due to this omission. They suffer for two reasons:

  1. Lack of Confidence: No matter how complicated your argument, if you’re hazy on the basic facts structuring the events, or people, or ideas in question, it shows. You begin taking exaggerated side-steps around the potholes of your knowledge. On the other hand, when you know, in detail, the storyline on which your argument is located, this understanding shines through. Read a good non-fiction book. Notice the ease with which the author makes asides or little comments (e.g., “interestingly, he had heard similar arguments back in his undergraduate years at Oxford under…”) that give you confidence that he knows what the hell he is talking about.
  2. Undirected Research: Research is hard when you don’t know the world in which you’re searching for your ideas. My early papers miss and misuse all sorts of sources because I was diving in head first without first taking the time to see where I was. Once you know the story, you know both where to look and what you are finding.

Building a Fact Scaffolding

There is no magic method here. Instead, just a simple rule: before you begin your paper research, build a high-level understanding of the people, events, and ideas that are relevant to your topic. And here’s a crucial addendum: Date everything carefully! There’s nothing worst than getting halfway through your paper and not knowing which event happened first or the order in which ideas were first presented — these small bits of information can have a huge impact on your argument!

A few thoughts to help you get started:

  1. Grab Beginners Books: You’ll grapple with the hard stuff later. Right now, you’re in 5th grader mode. Find a textbook or suitably easy introduction to the topic. In the beginning: the more simple, the better.
  2. You Can Use Wikipedia: I’ve written before about avoiding Wikipedia as a cited source. Here, however, is one place where it is really useful: getting a quick, very high-level overview on the topics you will later be researching in more detail. It’s especially useful for pinning down quick bios on people.
  3. Don’t Forget Ideas: Fact scaffoldings are not just about people and events. They also can include ideas. What are all of the schools of thought relevant to the one you’re studying in detail? Summarize each. At a real high-level: how are they different? Who promoted each? What are their relevant time lines?

In Summary

The idea is simple. Put aside a few days at the beginning of your paper writing process to master all of the fact-based information surrounding your topic. Only then should you dive into the deep research on your big ideas. The confidence and insight of this strong foundation will support a powerful paper.

4 thoughts on “Monday Master Class: You’re Not Smarter Than a 5th Grader (When it Comes to Starting Your Paper Research)”

  1. With this idea in mind, I have purchased a couple of junior high/high school science textbooks to give me a little bit simpler definitions for some of the things I study. I bought them for very cheap off of Amazon, and I like having them around for the complicated things that I might study.

  2. I agree 100% with your comments on wikipedia. It’s great for becoming familiar with the topic area you’re dealing with, on a more general level. If you’re writing a history paper about a single person in particular, look up the time period or region they lived in to familiarize yourself with the subject matter. Good tips!

  3. I love wikipedia. I would never use it for a paper, but as a history major I am always reading names that I have never heard of, and wikipedia gives me all the background info I need in a matter of a minute.


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