Monday, September 28, 2009

Thinking Analytically

Thanks to Suzanne Le-May Sheffield for such a productive presentation and discussion this afternoon. Next week we move from teaching to research. Though the authors of the Craft of Research do not attempt to be provocative, their book is similar to Neil Postman's article in two important respects: they parse the elements of logical analysis; and their writing is deceptively simple.

The book may appear simplistic at times -- you may say to yourself, "I don't need someone to tell me what a question or a problem is" -- but it is more sophisticated than it appears at first glance. I want to draw your attention to two passages in the book, which we'll cover on Monday. First, on p. 36, the authors discuss the differences between a question and a problem. Second, on pp. 52-53, they discuss the difference between practical problems and research problems, and they offer a graph for understanding the relationship between the two.

On Monday, I would like to discuss aspects of both the theory and the practice of designing a successful research project. In preparing for our discussion, I would like you to think of research as a process. This process involves a number of inter-related activities: identifying initial interests and general topics; developing a focused topic and a research problem; and engaging with primary and secondary sources. It is invariably messy, typically nonlinear, and often frustrating. Research can often involve several false starts and dead ends that force you to redesign your project and reorient your question(s). And it always demands more reading and fresh thinking, as new evidence raises new problems. Like Carr's definition of history, research is a dialogue, though this dialogue is between you, your research problem, and your sources.

The dividing line between unsuccessful and successful research is never absolute. Sometimes a project can be highly successful because of a particular difficulty, rather than in spite of it. I know that some of my best work has come as a result of trying to resolve a particular research conundrum. Like teaching, research does not comform to the type of either/or thinking that Postman indentified in his analysis of stupidity. If this fallacy strikes you as very simplistic, keep in mind that it's also very common. Disjunctive syllogisms can be quite alluring, and it's important to keep in mind the difference between contradictories and contraries.

If you have any questions or comments for Monday's seminar, please post a comment.

1 comment:

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