SOME THOUGHTS ON DOING RESEARCH
By James F. O’Neil
“To spend too much time in studies is sloth; to use them too much for ornament, is affectation; to make judgment wholly by their rules, is the humour of a scholar. . . Read not to contradict and confute; nor to believe and take for granted; nor to find talk and discourse; but to weigh and consider. Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be digested. . . . Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man. . . .” –“Of Studies,” Francis Bacon (1561-1626).
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My first research paper, as I re-call, was finding out about Scotland. This search had to be started in sixth or seventh grade. I discovered lakes, cities, and climate–and probably something about wool, whiskey, and politics. I had only the encyclopedia: that’s all we had back then. I learned the basics from that first paper. (I have often referred to that kind of paper as “The Switzerland Paper”: about banks, lakes, and chocolates. And that is basic.)
SOME SWISS CHOCOLATE
During high school, I am sure I wrote a few research papers (“term papers”); but I recollect one in particular for an education class: I wrote about Friedrich Froebel and the founding of the kindergarten. I may have had eight or ten sources. Yet what I do remember more than anything else–not the long hours writing nor the time-consuming typing on my portable 1955 (manual) Underwood typewriter nor the submitting the paper, but the thrill of being in a library, a great library, doing serious research. I delighted being in the Chicago Public Library (downtown) and also at the Newberry Library, a special place for researchers then over age sixteen.
NEWBERRY LIBRARY, CHICAGO
Throughout college, the papers came and went, and on into graduate school and post graduate work: papers, papers, papers: Shakespeare, sonnets, Jesus and school administration, Arthurian romances, the G.I. Bill, teachers and in-service activities, manic depression and school administrators, chaos and adultery, public service, the aorist tense in Greek, “Poe the Philosopher,” water symbolism in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man–and more, many more.
Some papers I hated as chores; most I loved as opportunities for knowledge and writing experience. From this, despite the grade and the time spent, I learned time-use, planning, and library skills. More than that, I learned organizational skills and meeting deadlines. All this was not easy; learning sometimes hurts. (And, I am sure, there were tears of frustration–but never a late paper.)
From this, I also developed a sense of researching–and my three questions: What do I already know? What do I want to know? And, What do I need to know? Where those questions came from, I do not know. But they have always worked for me.
Of course, I had to learn documentation skills: “the old Turabian” was all we had back then. And I learned it–and even wrote a little research handbook for students. Now MLA, APA, and OWL far exceed anything we had–but so has the amount of knowledge increased, with electronic access to this knowledge. How lucky I am now to see this, to use this, to be a part of global knowledge and learning. “I just love the Internet!”
But the smell of books, walking the stacks, sitting and reading and taking notes in England at the Cambridge University Library, or at the US Library of Congress, the libraries at the University of Minnesota, and in any small-town public library does more for me than sitting at the computer, drinking coffee, doing a Google Search. “I love the smell of a musty book in the morning!” Nothing like doing research . . . But I found that it takes heart, organizational skills, and a sense of the past: where I came from, where I have been, what I have done. All this enters into my questions: What am I doing this for? What do I want out of this? To me, that is what doing research is all about. “What’s it to me?”
Having done professional stained-glass work, I learned the most difficult aspect of craftsmanship was not cutting the glass, not the pattern making, not the assembly–no matter how large or small the project–but choosing the right glass, the right textures, the right colors.
GLASS RESTORATION PROJECT: CUT AND READY FOR COPPER FOIL, THEN SOLDER
Choosing the right glass is likened to the most difficult aspect of doing a research project: choosing the right topic. “Choice of topic: the hardest part of all,” I say.
I have never chosen anything dumb or stupid; I have chosen (for the most part) wisely. Not everything came back an A, of course. Can’t have all A’s. But can’t have all gold medals, can’t always win the Super Bowl, can’t always be #1, and can’t always be perfect. However, I have learned I can do my best, and have that sense of accomplishment (relief?) when I submit the project. AHHH! Done. And on to the next, for there is always a next–no matter how big or small, no matter in school or on the job: “Look this up for me, will ya’?” “You have a paper due . . .” “I need to find . . . Can you help?” “As a member of this parent-teacher committee, . . . ”
“Hafta’ what?” Know facts. Document. Have opinions. Present feelings. Solve problems. Search. Learn. And make a presentation: to the family, a board, a committee, a boss, a reading club, a course instructor, a hearing officer, a judge–on and on and on. There is no easy way. And it all begins with the basics, with “My Switzerland Paper.”
And these are my thoughts today on doing research.
© JAMES F. O’NEIL 2019
PS: All of the above is rated at the 6th grade reading level: my computer figured that out; but I used to know how to do it without the computer. I researched it . . .
PPS: I was once told that a “good” 1500-word paper takes about 40 hours–plus typing–from choosing the topic to the last bit of punctuation. (Getting it right takes time.)