3. Research Questions

NOTE:  Assignment 3 is the gateway assignment for the rest of the course.  This means that you must write a research question that I accept to pass the rest of the course.

You will get to revise if you need to.  

TOPICS – you will need to develop a topic related to Old World (Europe, Africa & western Asia) ancient history between about 4,000 BCE and 700CE.  This gives you a lot of possibilities:  Greek sages, Roman generals, Byzantine emperors (and empresses), Franks,   Nubians, Carthaginians, Persians,  Harappans, climate change as the reason the Roman Empire fell, new theories on how the pyramids were built,  and many, many more .  NO VIKINGS AND NO CELTS.*  

HISTORY MAJORS:   can choose any historical time and any place to write about EXCEPT  Vikings & Celts.

You cannot use any topics I use for examples for your own research question.  Since I’m using less common topics, it shouldn’t be a problem.

*Why no Vikings or Celts?  Mostly because I’m tired of seeing them abused.   The Vikings and their history are much more complicated  (and interesting) than the History Channel’s fictional show.  And there’s a lot more to the Celts than the Druids; plus, there are more groups of Celts than the ones that end up in Britain and Ireland.

Okay, if you absolutely have to write about Celts, you can write about the Galatians or the Celtic attacks on Greece and Rome.

NOTE:  want to write on a religious topic?  READ:  Since this is a library science course on history,  you have to use historical standards of evidence.  For this class, that means you must use evidence that someone who doesn’t share your beliefs will accept.

For example:  you’re interested in miracles.  You cannot write that miracles are proof of Jesus’ divine nature, because there isn’t  evidence that a non-believer would accept.  However, you can write that people who followed Jesus believed in miracles because there is evidence that would be acceptable to non-believers.

RESEARCH QUESTIONS

One of the goals of this course is to teach you ways to find better information (i.e. the types of sources your instructor wants) with less work.  You have to have a good research question to accomplish this goal.

Most instructors have their own definition of research question.  Some prefer that students do complex research questions while others (like me) believe a simpler question is more useful.  For the purposes of this class, a research question is a way of focusing and simplifying your topic to make it easier to find appropriate sources.

A research question is NOT:
  • A thesis statement
  • An explanation of what you expect to find
  • An introduction to your paper

Writing a good research question is not as easy as it sounds.  You need to walk a fine line between a question that is too general and one that is too focused.  There are different ways to do this.  One way that I’ve found useful is to start by determining the topic, writing a core question and then using the core question as the basis for a research question.

Writing a research question:

        1. Topic
                   1.   If you have an assigned topic or theme, you need to decide how you’re going to approach the topic  –  this class falls here.

        2.  You need to choose a topic that fits the instructions your professor gave

                  No clue about a topic?  Check out your textbook, Wikipedia,  magazines or journals, ask a librarian, Google it, etc.

       2.  Core question
1.    The core question is a focused version of your topic in question form.

2.  A core question serves as a draft version of a research question.

At the core question stage, you need to have the basic components of what you want to research figured out.

For example:  topic = the later Roman empire

For the core question, I need to decide what about the later Roman Empire I’m interested in.

For example:  I decide that I’m interested in the role of women in the later empire.  This is too broad, so I decide to look at the role of royal women.    Still too broad, so I consider adding the term “Christian;”  however, all the royal women in the later Roman empire are at least nominally Christian, so that doesn’t help.  I decide to look at the role of royal women in the evolution of Christianity in the later Roman Empire.  This is much better, but there were a surprising number of empresses, queens, sisters and daughters, who fit into this category, so I  decide to focus on Galla Placidia, who unlike the other queens and empresses , was active in the Western Empire and a support of the papacy.

You may be wondering how I came up with this information.  In my case, it was easy:  course work, teaching and I read a lot.  I would expect you to start narrowing down on topics you don’t know a lot about by using Google, Wikipedia, an encyclopedia or something similar.

So, my core question might be:  what role did Galla Placidia play in the Roman Papacy?

I don’t need to add a time period because we know when Galla Placidia lived and was active in church matters, plus there wasn’t another person with that name.

  1. Research question
    1. A research question is your core question rewritten using appropriate (usually = academic)  keywords and phrases.
    2. You need to choose the best keywords and key phrases for the particular type of information that you need to find:
      1. If you use informal keywords & phrases, you will find more popular sources such as newspapers and magazines.
      2. If you use more formal, academic and/or technical terms, you will find more peer-reviewed and scholarly sources.
      3. NOTE:  In history you may need to use the same or similar  words to find popular and scholarly sources.  However, the language in the scholarly sources will be more formal.
        1. For example:   you’re interested in what kids were expected to do at home in the 1950s
          1. To find popular sources, use a research question like:  What kinds of work did kids do around the house in the 1950s?
          2. To find scholarly sources, use a question like:  What chores did children do in the 1950s?  
          3.  So, for scholarly sources use children instead of kids and chores instead of work around the house.  NOTE:  using the word chores will usually limit you to work around the home, but if not, try a phrase like:  household chores.
  2.  Be as concise as you can be while including all of the concepts you’re researching.

It isn’t always clear in history what is scholarly and what is not.  We’ll look at additional ways to tell  later in the class, but for the purposes of writing a research question, think in terms of using more formal, academic language.  More formal, academic language does not mean sounding like you swallowed a dictionary – that’s bad formal/academic language.

Example 1: (examples are  not limited to history in order to give you an idea of how the process works in all subject fields)

Assigned topic:  childhood obesity  (I must find both popular and scholarly sources.)

My approach to the topic:  the relationship (if any) between time spent on a computer and how much a kid weighs

My core question:  Does too much computer time make kids fat?

My research question:  Does computer use promote obesity in children?
(I am using more formal language because I need to find scholarly sources.  These terms will probably find some popular sources as well.)

Example 2:  

A topic I chose:  Was there an ocean in Kansas?

My core question:  What is the fossil evidence for an ocean in Kansas?

My research question: (Because of the technical vocabulary, the difference between popular and scholarly topics in scientific fields is more defined than in other areas.)

I need mostly popular sources with a few scholarly sources

  • I’ll use my core question for my research question:  What is the fossil evidence for an ocean in Kansas?

I need all scholarly sources:

  • My research question:  What is the vertebrate evidence for the Western Interior Seaway in late Cretaceous Kansas?  (I’ve limited the type of fossil (vertebrate) and the time period (late Cretaceous) and used one of the technical terms for the ocean (Western Interior Seaway).

HINT:  as you research, keep a list of keywords and key phrases you find in your sources – different library and web sources may use one term instead of another and there may be different terms for the same subject.  For example:  the Western Interior Seaway can also be called the inland sea, the Cretaceous Seaway and a couple of other names.   Keeping a list also keeps you from repeating searches because you can’t remember what you did earlier.

Also keep a list of where you’ve searched.  More on that in another reading.

Common problems with research questions:

  1. Topic is not appropriate for assignment
    For example:  You try to turn in a topic on Vikings for this course.  OR  You want to do a very current topic, but need 10 pages and scholarly sources (see below.)
  2. Question is not written in language appropriate for the assignment (you need formal, academic and/or technical language to find scholarly sources.)
  3. Research question is too unfocused/broad
  4. Research question is too focused/narrow
    1. Topic is too local – Usually, you can only find popular sources, such as newspaper articles and local TV websites,  on local topics.  You can do local topics, but expect to do oral interviews, use archives, etc.  Often, there are no scholarly articles on a local topic.
    2. Topic is too current – Usually, you can only find popular sources such as newspaper articles, CNN, etc.  It can take a year or more for a scholarly article to get published, even online.)
  5. Questions that can be answered by
    1. Yes/no
    2. A number
    3. A fact
      These types of questions don’t give you anything to research
  6.   High School questions –  these are very general questions such as “compare the Romans and the Greeks.”  These are okay in high school  because they’re trying to get you to learn about content and writing about the differences between Greeks and Romans helps you learn that information.   As a rule, you will not find these types of questions acceptable at the university level.
    1. If you do find these questions at the college level, it’s usually for one of two reasons:
      1. You have a brand new instructor who’s just learning
      2. Your instructor has an ulterior motive of some sort.  I had an instructor once who asked us to discuss the Bronze Age.  He wanted people to take one focused aspect (I did trade routes) and show how the chosen aspect  fit into the idea of a global (- the Americas) Bronze Age.

Not sure what to write on? 

  1. Scan magazines and/or journals in the topic area
  2. Ask your instructor
  3. Ask a librarian
  4. Ask friends
  5. Try a Google search
  6. Check out Wikipedia

Assigned topic?

  1. Do a Google Search
  2. Check out Wikipedia
  3. Remember, you can almost always manipulate an assigned topic into something you’re interested in:
    1. Have to write on geometry?  Do a paper on geometry and hair styling or geometry and baseball or geometry and snowboarding.
    2. Remember Barbie dolls fondly?  Write on the evolution of the Barbie doll as indicative of the role of women in American society.
    3. Still have scars from the very existence of Barbie dolls?  Write about the influence of the unrealistic proportions of Barbie dolls on female body image in the United States.
    4. Want to write about hunting for a history class?  Write about the role of hunting in the development of wildlife conservation legislation or the role of hunting in Britain’s royal families.
    5. Need a new and different topic for a presentation in automotive technology?   Research all the things that were developed because of cars (traffic lights, traffic police, driver’s licenses, license plates, car seats for children, seat belts, good roads, motels, truck stops, rest areas . . .)

 

Effect vs. Affect

You need to be able to tell the difference between these two words.  Using the wrong word often means you will not find what you are looking for.

Effect

  • almost always used as a noun
  • means result or consequences
    • the effects of flooding on the town…

Affect

  • almost always used as a verb
  • means to influence, to have an influence on
    • the flooding affected the town…
  • exception:  in psychology affect (as a noun) refers to emotional states or the lack thereof
    • serial killers often have flat affects

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