In this episode of College Writing, Actually I'm joined by Jessica Tabak as we talk about some tips and tricks to conquer the research question. As the first frontier to writing your paper, the research question can give you that necessary burst of energy and inspiration or be the elephant in the room you awkwardly ignore. Listen in to find out how to nab that fleeting fuel: THE RESEARCH QUESTION!
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Britt Threatt, host (BT)
Jessica Tabak, guest (JT)
[00:00] Music intro
[00:05] BT: Hello writers! I’m Britt Threatt and you’re listening to “College Writing, Actually” where we talk about the how-to and how-come of college writing and writing instruction every other Wednesday while school is in session. Today, I’m joined by Jessica Tabak, a freelance writing educator & consultant. Thank you for making time to talk to us today, Jess.
JT: Oh, it's my pleasure. It's so nice to see you.
BT: Jess customizes writing and reading support for learners seeking guidance honing a range of skills, including: analytic reading and writing, professional writing like cover letters and college apps, research project and paper development, and if that's not enough, Jess also helps organizations create their own programs for writing support. Jess has worked in a number of higher education positions as well, including directing writing support programs at Providence College and Brown. We actually worked together for a summer and it was great.
JT: Aw, that's sweet of you to say. We did and it was.
[00:59] BT: It was and that summer we worked together was actually there when the idea for College Writing, Actually was born. Story time, real quick! So, while Jess was the assistant director at Brown, she was over like undergrad stuff, like it was a lot. And one of the programs that she worked on was like an undergrad orientation. So for like first coming into Brown who wanted to self-select into this program to help them get ready to transition into college writing. And the program's called Excellence@Brown. So Jess was over it. I was the graduate student director and I was putting together like a reflective anti-racist resource list. And I wanted to have like a glossary on it for terms they were gonna hear a lot of but I also wanted auditory resources because y'all know I love like podcasts, audiobooks, I'm a fan of the audio space.
[01:57] So I wanted to find podcasts for them. But a lot of the podcasts were creative writing and not academic writing. And there are some like Rhetoricity and Lexicon Valley like there are a couple but I wanted something that was focused on college writing and there are not a lot of them that are geared towards students. And so when I was telling this to Jess she was like "I think that you actually found like a niche that has gone unfilled in the podcast universe." And literally at the same time we were like, "huh, I didn't think there was one." And from there College Writing, Actually was born.
[02:41] JT: Yay!
BT: Yay! We're here! So anyway, Jess has a real passion for making writing a practical experience and also a positive experience so of course I had to have her come and talk about a question that can often invoke negative feelings: “how do you actually create a research question?”
[03:03] Music interlude
BT: This is the question to begin all questions when it comes to writing a research paper. Before we get into curating a thesis or organizing body paragraphs, how in the world do I decide on a paper-worthy research question?
JT: Yes. I love that as the question to begin all questions. The first. The question to rule all of the questions. And in a way it sort of creates-- it sets the way for your entire paper, right? So I'd start with just a couple of things about a good research question and then we can kind of get into detail on some stuff.
A good research question I think is one that inspires exploration. The word "explore" is really, really important. You can ask yourself: Could I answer this question by looking at a single source on the internet, like through a quick internet search? Or would it require carefully examining a range of sources to be be able to answer it, right?
[04:00] There should be room for your to explore, because when there's room to explore, there's room to discover and when there's room to discover your research is actually going-- I promise--it's actually going to be fun.You're going to be excited to be doing it.
The second thing that I like to say about a research question thinking broadly is that a good research question follows the Goldilocks rule — it’s neither too small nor too big, but just right. If it's too big, it's gonna take a book for you to answer it and that's something you can do should you decide to go onto graduate studies. Britt can talk to you all about that at a later date.
BT: Through many tears.
JT: Through tears, I hope, of joy as well as challenge. If it's too short, it’s gonna be resolvable without a lot of thought, right? There's not gonna be a lot of "there" there. So the right “sized” question is one that can be fully explored within the scope of whatever assignment it is that you're looking at.
[05:00] And then, in most college research class, you know, early on in your career, that's probably gonna be somewhere between eight and fifteen pages.
BT: Mm, yeah. And scope is something I’ve seen a lot of writers struggle with. And what you’re saying makes sense and the check questions are clear, the internet search, but I wonder is there something writers can do, some exercise that can help them see how long it would take to execute the argument of a research question? Does that make sense. Like how do you tell if I have a five page paper, a three page paper, an eight page paper, a fifteen page paper? How do I size this question appropriately once I feel like I'm in the field of the question that I wanna ask. How do I get specific enough? How do I leave it open enough?
[05:48] JT: Well, I think, one thing that I have often told or encouraged writers to do is to follow the Google test. And that's basically type your question or your hypothetical question, your potential question, into Google, right. And then see what comes up, right. There are two things that you wanna see. One, that the search terms that you're putting in, that are nestled in your question, right, that it's specific enough that you're not getting five thousand hits. Because how on earth are you gonna be able to look at that, right? You want something that's going to be bringing up something that's manageable, right? You know, something that's a scrollable number of pages. Whether you're writing a five page paper or, you know, a fifteen page paper.
[06:38] The other thing you wanna do is you wanna make sure is that when you put in your question you're not getting back sources that directly answer your question, right. Because if there are sources that are directly, specifically answering your exact question then you're kind of hanging out in a space that's already been pretty well trod, right? You wanna be trying to find something that is in conversation with other folks but at the same time creating your own path, creating your own perspective. So that's one thing I recommend to students to think about when they're trying to think about "is this too big, is this too small? What do I do with scope?" And I would say, I know Britt you said that, you know, "a five page paper...fifteen page paper...twenty page paper..."
[07:29] One rule of thumb I say is that if you're gonna be meaningfully engaging with a source, it's gonna take a least a page. So if you're writing a five page research paper, mmm figure intro/conclusion, you can maybe do two to three questions. If that sounds about right, right, for what it is that you're doing, then I would kinda go use that as a rule of thumb. As long as there's nothing in the prompt that suggests something different, I would say about a page a source to be able to meaningfully engage with the source is gonna give you about the right amount of material.
[07:59] BT: Mmm, that's good. I hadn't thought about the source engagement. Because I definitely see students drown in source material when they are trying to make sure that they'er engaging sources and "oh my gosh, they're all speaking exactly to my question!" Which, like, possibly is a red flag that your question has already been over-covered. But I think that rule of thumb is a good one. Like you need a page, not five pages, not half a page, you need to like really dig into it not just use them to say your thing. So that gets into another conversation about analysis that we won't get into today.
JT: Oh, I wish we could. Oh my god, it's my favorite thing in the whole world.
BT: Mercy, analysis! That...my goodness.
08:49 JT: I know. Well, cause that's a question too. It's a question of like well if you're not giving a really like a pretty meaty paragraph thinking about a source, then it's probably not a source that you're engaging with in a meaningful enough way, right. Like it's probably not a good source for you. So yes but anyway we will table that.
BT: We'll table that but that's a good nugget. Just because a source is legit, just because you didn't find it on a phishing site, just because the source is like peer-reviewed doesn't mean it's a good source for you for this paper. For example, they want you to have two sources and you know you're free to have sources that are not on this list-- I mean we'll talk about that more you know later days-- but if you want to work with other sources that have not been given by the professor you definitely do wanna think "is this source good for me?
[09:47] Does this source help me to think more deeply about this or are they just saying exactly what I wanna say?" Right? And maybe that gathering of sources can help you hone in even more on your research question. Has someone already said it? Do you feel like you have nothing to add? Okay. Well, maybe you focus on a different aspect of your broader research question so that you can actually say "here is my contribution to this discourse." And those are the papers that are really strong and compelling because you're showing your reader where you fit into an ongoing conversation. And I think good research question open up, they make evident the broader conversation and they make evident where they fit into that conversation and that is sort of how sources can help you to do that to say "here's what others have said. Here's what I'm saying." Either with or against that or alongside that or whatever.
[10:42] So sources can be a really great way not just to help you to unpack the research but to think "do I want to take this question up or do I need to pivot a little bit?"
[10:51] Music interlude
[10:59] BT: Okay, great. All good fundamentals for creating a research question, but you know the one thing that i find most useful for actually writing the whole paper? And you touched on it at the very beginning when you mentioned inspiring exploration: you gotta like the question! Like, you have to be interested in the answer or you're just, like, you're gonna get to page two and be like, "this a five page joint? I gotta stop." Like you have to like it.
JT: Yeah. 100% You have to like it because you're the one that has to live with it. Right? And you're literally going to be living with it, right. For a little bit. And so, yeah, it's actually a wonderful thing that you as you know a writer are so often given the gift of being able to choose your own research question, because then you have agency, right.
[11:52] When you're given that choice, if you can think of it, if we can think of it not as "oh my goodness" but "oh, think goodness." You know? I'm not getting stuck with some question that I'm not really jazzed about at all." Right?
JT: Yeah totally, which is wonderful. And so when we think about a good research question, we want it to be one that inspires curiosity. Right? I will say for myself when I am writing my own work but then also when I am reading student work, I love research questions that ask something surprising, something that stemmed from an observation someone made that's a little bit weird, unexpected. When somebody says, "you know, I'm reading this text and this and this all are fine whatever, but there's this very strange thing that happens, right, in this moment in this--" let's say it's a novel or let's say it's a study, right. You know, if you're doing something in the social sciences or sciences. I wanna find our more about that.
[12:55] I'm gonna write my research question about this strange thing, right, to see if I can make some sense of it, right? Cause everybody wants us to make sense of things that are mysterious or strange. That is half the podcasts in the world are unsolved mysteries, right, revealed. So it's like...right? So I think that is if you think it's a little weird or you think it's a little curious, right, that mystery is going to spur you on and it's also going to spur your reader on when this becomes something for a reader.
Related to that, when you're finding something unusual that hasn't been explored, you start turning over rocks that have been sitting there for a while, right, that's when you're gonna discover something new. You know I mentioned that word discovery before but it's so important. If your question is taking you down a road that’s too well-traveled, there's just not gonna be-- and Britt, you were saying this too when we were just kind of riffing about sources-- there's not gonna be a lot of time for you to make a unique discovery, make a unique contribution, bring your own unique voice and perspective to the party.
[13:57] Right? So, instead consider taking a side road on your topic — or going completely off-road if that's your choice— in order to find your own way and to kind of blaze your own trail on this topic. And that's where, to sort of circle back, the idea of kind of doing that Google search, what I was saying, if there are lots of-- if there are articles and magazines like The Atlantic or The New Yorker or you know these sort of big big piece type magazines that have the exact same question they're answering. It's probably, you probably wanna do something a little different. Those could be great articles to read to get ideas about something strange or curious, right? To explore more, you probably want to find something a bit different.
[14:43] And then the last thing, I think, about exploration is that a good research question generates more questions for you as you begin researching it. And I wanted to talk a little bit about this piece that's very, very widely-- it's anthologized-- but it's also widely available online if you are curious about exploring it after you listen to this podcast. And it's called "Consider the Lobster." It's by David Foster Wallace who was a novelist but also did a lot of nonfiction writing and it's hilarious. He was writing this article. He was given-- Gourmet magazine, right, the food magazine sent him to the main lobster festival. And they were like "okay, go ahead and write a review of the lobster festival." Okay, fine. But it's David Foster Wallace and David Foster Wallace's brain is going a mile a minute in any space he's ever in.
[15:36] And so he's in this lobster festival and he just starts noticing the gross consumption all of the waste, the piles of trash and cans that are just covered in-- and pardon me. If you are a vegetarian, this may be difficult but like essentially animal carcasses. And he starts asking these questions like where did this practice of eating whole lobsters come from? And then he starts researching that and then he starts doing more of that research and he's like "and why do we boil them alive?" And then he starts researching that. And then he starts thinking, "can they really not feel pain or is that something we just tell ourselves?" He goes down this wild rabbit hole, right? In what's supposed to be a review of Gourmet magazine, which is hilarious. They changed the ending on it but you can find the real ending in some anthologized books because he got a little too dark.
[16:34] I used to have students read this essay because it's such an amazing example of going somewhere and just getting curious. Finding something strange, doing a little digging. Huh. Then finding something else strange and doing a little more digging so this like fluff piece that he's supposed to write ends up becoming this piece about the ethics of how we treat animals, right. Who would have thought? Who would have expected? But it's because David Foster Wallace was an exceptionally curious person, right. And because he was using that curiosity to drive questions that he would explore and that would then lead to more questions. So I think when you can get-- if you've got a questions that leads to other questions, that means that you are on the right track. And by the right track I mean a new track. Something interesting. Something that's gonna lead you to discover something new.
[17:30] Music interlude
BT: Wow, I had myself muted because I don't want y'all to hear all the noise that goes on around me on a regular day but could y'all but hear me and could you but see my face, I was going through the entire motions of that story. I was like "huh! What? Oh, that's gross! Can they not?" Like I was living off of every plot twist of the lobsters. And now I wanna know like "can they not feel pain?" So just to annotate, the questions that you ask, you are in a...maybe call it a sympathetic position, right? You are in a position as the writer to think about your reader. You are doing this narration. You are telling this story. You are doing this work to answer questions that you have and you're cognizant of the fact that your reader probably wants to know the same things, right?
[18:27] Have some confidence in yourself, like you are intelligent person. You ask good questions. Follow them, right? And that's part of the glory-- I see students and I was definitely at one point a student-- well, actually no I wasn't because I don't like being told what to do. But I see students come into the writing center and they're like "oh my gosh, just tell me what to write. I don't want to have to write my own thing and come up with my own thing." But it's an exceptionally powerful position that encourages you to take your autonomy as a thinker. Right? You tell me what is of import and you tell me why and convince me. Right? So like make your case. And I think that's really...thank you Jess for that essay. Y'all definitely go read it. That's a really powerful example of how you can do what you wanna do.
[19:17] Because if Wallace wanted to, if he was writing this for Professor Applewhite, he coulda said, "well Professor Applewhite, I think we should think about the concept of reviews. I am reviewing this lobster festival and I am offering now a critical review. I see before me..." Right? You can take the assignment for what it is but words are multiplicitous. As the writer take advantage of that. What is a review? I'ma offer this kind of review? What is a literary criticism? I'm gon' offer this kind of criticism. Like do what you want to is the moral I got from David Foster Wallace. Thank you for the permission. I bequeath it unto you.
[19:57] JT: Yeah, I love that Britt. And I would add to when you were talking about how students often come to the writing center and they will say "oh my gosh, I wish they would just tell me what to write." I think a lot of that comes from fear, right?
BT: 100% agree.
JT: Right? And it's like "oh, I don't know if that's what my professor wants. I don't really, you know. And I'll say two things. One, if you're thinking about doing something off the beaten path, like we're describing, you can always run it by your professor if you're not sure, right. You can always say, "hey, I'm thinking about doing, you know, you said I should do a review of this festival? I'm actually noticing this other stuff and I wanna do a critical review for this, this, and this reason, right. Here's like a brief outline or can I come to your office hours and have that conversation?
[20:43] As a professor, those were the kinds of conversations I was always really excited to have, right. Yes, absolutely. And they may say, "well, actually I'm really looking for specific things for this assignment and I need you to look at certain skills." Okay fine. You're in the clear. But they may be like "oh my god, go for it." And I would say, a lot of the time they will be. Because it means they're thinking "oh, I'm gonna read an essay that's different from all the other essays."
JT: "I cannot wait!" Right?
JT: Right? And I think that the other thing, the other thing about it is that oftentimes I think that-- and I was this way as a student and actually probably even more as a grad student then as an undergrad-- I often thought "well, what is it that my professor wants me to say? What is the argument they want me to have?" And again, I will not speak for all professors. But I will say that many...I may even say most but I think that a lot of professors really want to see you be excited about your work and they wanna see you, right, show them something they didn't know.
[21:53] Right. When you said Britt "convince me." Some of the best student essays I have read you know over the years have been ones where I sit there like you know-- so I write marginalia like I'm writing a football game. I'm kinda like "oh no...oh! Oh, oh so close! Wait-- Oh, hold on. Wait, wait, you got me. You got me. Okay. Yep. OH!" You know, like it's like I'm watching somebody going down the field. Anyway, so I'll start off a paper you know and I'm kinda like "hm...I don't know. Well, what about this? I don't know." And then as I continue reading your paper I'm like "Oh wait a minute. I get it. Oh, I see where you're going." And then by the end they've like literally scored a touchdown and I had no idea at the beginning. And it literally made me think about, I don't know something that I've taught five hundred times. Frankenstein or something. Right? Like-- which is amazing. And if you haven't read it you should read it, because it's Halloween time right now as we're--at least as we're recording this.
[22:50] Right? Like, let me be mindful. I don't know when you're gonna be listening to it. But you know but they actually make me see something about it. They make me discover something through their eyes, right. And that's always just, to the reader that is such a gift.
BT: I mean it's certainly my experience. Like when you're grading fifty plus papers, you are grateful for the one that breaks up the monotony of students just trying to write a) what y'all have discussed in class or b) what they think you wanna write. Neither of those things are super interesting. Right? And so I would say as a practice of writing for you the student, pursue your joy. Like pursue your joy.
[23:33] You're only in college for a fixed amount of time. If you're at a liberal arts institution, you are here to learn how to think not what to think. So pursue your joy and write what you want. Absolutely go to office hours. Absolutely shoot them an email. "This is the direction my thoughts are going. Is that okay?" Find a way to pursue your joy because those are the papers that are gonna be the most compelling ones 100% of the time even if your professor gives you feedback like "I think the argument might have been more successful if you advanced this point." That's valuable, right? Like that doesn't mean that you failed. That just means that you made me interested enough for me to want you to succeed in this argument. Like I'm interested. I'm invested with you, right? And so pursue your joy and be open to the journey that that takes you on. Writing is a journey. You're not gonna be able to escape it, so you might as well take the journey that you wanna take. Cause on the times that you're walking by yourself, you're gonna have to be entertained by the journey and if you're somewhere that you didn't wanna be, ain't no entertainment in that. Right? So...
[24:34] Thank you so much, Jess. This has been the perfect opening to the next trilogy of episodes: “how do you actually write a research paper in…” And so each episode will talk about writing a paper in the three major sectors of disciplines: the humanities, social sciences, and STEM so stay tuned for those. Following us on Twitter and adding us to your playlists of your preferred streaming platform is the best way to keep up with College Writing, Actually and our new episodes. Until then, we out of here. Y’all write on.