Historical Research Workshop

Reading: “From Topics to Questions” from The Craft of Research (2008)

For your first reading response,you’ll be reading an excerpt from The Craft of Research by William Booth, Gregory C. Colomb, and Joseph Williams. Booth, Colomb, and Williams were English Language at Literature at the University of Chicago and the University of Virginia and together developed The Little Red Schoolhouse , a curriculum for introducing undergrads to academic and professional writing.While The Craft of Research is not written specifically for the historical discipline, the book is a useful reference about the research process for undergraduates. The authors stress that they wrote the book with the assumption that “Despite the differences between beginners and experienced researchers…their challenges are pretty much the same.”

Wayne C. Booth, Gregory G. Colomb, Joseph M. Williams. The Craft of Research. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008. Wayne C. Booth, Gregory G. Colomb, Joseph M. Williams. The Craft of Research. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008.

This particular chapter gives you several suggestions for ways to discover topics and turn them into research questions. One useful device is the topic-question-rationale statement.

1. topic: I am studying ______.

2. question: because I want to find out who/what/when/where/whether/why/how _______.

3. rationale: in order to help my reader understand how _______.

Here’s one of the examples the authors give us:

1. I am working on Lincoln’s beliefs about predestination in his early speeches

2. because I want to find out how his belief in destiny and God’s will influenced his understanding of the causes of the Civil War

3. in order to help my reader understand how his religious beliefs may have influenced his military decisions

Don’t get too hung up on crafting the perfect TQR statement right now. Instead of viewing the TQR as a guiding compass for your research, think of it as a tool you could use in your weekly research assignments. Writing these statements down each week is one way of watching how your research evolves over the course of the semester.

The authors remind us that the rationale is the hardest part of the statement to answer.  By working through the academic literature of your field through reading seminars, practicing new lenses of analysis in your courses, and staying in consultation with a professor (someone who is an expert in their field and is tuned in to the most pressing concerns of scholarly discourse at the moment), you’ll discover questions that remain unaddressed by academic literature or are deserving of more nuanced analysis.

I’ll leave you with some advice from the authors:

“Don’t fall in love with your first answer; always hope that you’ll find a better one.”

If you’re interested in consulting the rest of the book, you can access an electronic copy of it through UC Berkeley’s library.

9 comments for “Reading: “From Topics to Questions” from The Craft of Research (2008)

  1. Charlotte Hull
    September 15, 2013 at 4:02 PM

    This excerpt was incredibly helpful as a road map for how to approach the process of selecting and working a particular area of interest. “Why am I doing this?” is the question- one that frequently gets left behind or is only partially fleshed out when faced with an overwhelming amount of data and a deadline.

  2. Nathan Myers
    September 15, 2013 at 8:26 PM

    I too found this excerpt to be helpful, as last semester I experienced many of the problems associated with not following this progression. Without forming a question and, further, asking myself why should I care, or why should my readers care I found that my topic lacked the dynamic and arguable nature that is necessary when researching. Furthermore, the use of nouns that are derived from verbs to make one’s topic more descriptive and arguable, was something I had not thought to use on a consistent manner. Finally, asking what one does not know about a topic in order to direct research and gather an understanding of the larger topic is yet another strategy I have not thought to employ, but plan to.

  3. Hannah Nichols
    September 20, 2013 at 4:05 PM

    I appreciate how the authors broke down the process of discovering a focused research topic from a general area of interest. Some of the resources they suggested beginning researchers use in this process–like indexes and subject-specific encyclopedias–are ones that I hadn’t even considered. After reading the chapter I realized research doesn’t have to be as overwhelming as I’ve made it in the past, because real research should begin AFTER narrowing down a specific question to be answered. I also like how the authors emphasize that researchers should be able to connect their topic to a larger context, so that they don’t get too caught up in the details and thereby lose the ‘big picture’

  4. Alexis Munoz
    September 20, 2013 at 5:11 PM

    I enjoyed the fact that the author’s explained how to take a question and properly examine it to determine how much information one will actually obtain from a particular question. I am guilty of often jumping into a particular topic and later discovering that I do not have enough information for a term paper. I also never thought of combining questions that are equivalent to each other to obtain more information on a particular subject that one is exploring. I was taught to look for specific questions and not be too vague, something that the authors encourage in order to find information for the questions that were thought of.

  5. Chao Yang
    September 20, 2013 at 8:04 PM

    Very helpful read. One thing that stood out to me was how research should not been seen as simply reporting data; it should also allow us to find out what we don’t know about our topic and at the same time help make our topic more specific and focused. Also love the idea of finding and attending lectures or presentations that are in my field of interest to gain more insight on my topic.

  6. Jason Troia
    October 28, 2013 at 4:25 PM

    Probably the most helpful part of this reading is the explanation of how to narrow down one’s research. I’ve noticed in the past that I tend to struggle with this practice, but the methodology offered to do just that will likely come in handy the next time I’m struggling to hone in on something that is more manageable as a topic. At the least, it seems to be a good way of organizing one’s thoughts.

  7. Kamyar Jarahzadeh
    October 29, 2013 at 10:35 PM

    I actually read this for a class last semester, so it was interesting to revisit it with a new topic in mind. I am very much taking into consideration the idea of looking at history in relation to the ways it is already/typically presented. In the case of my topic, I seem to have found a subject (Iranian student movements), but I need to maintain a motivation, which for me will be retelling this story cohesively and for the first time, with a good amount of time in between the time at which the events took place and the time at which the history is being written. So far, however, my because is really just: because I want people to remember what really happened during this era in Iranian-American history. Hopefully the because will develop!

  8. Olivia Marston
    November 2, 2013 at 2:57 PM

    I found this reading particularly helpful in providing a process for narrowing down a topic of research. The breadth of so many topics is rather daunting, but Booth offers a methodical approach that allows one to discover not only realistic avenues of research, but also more specific ones. He also stresses the importance of finding a wider significance to a question: why is the question important, and what will it add to your understanding? In dissecting all the elements of a research question and setting out a step by step guide, he makes what had previously seemed a very challenging task much simpler and clearer.

  9. Clifton
    November 9, 2013 at 11:24 AM

    After deciding on a very broad subject for my research I was intimidated by the thought of how to narrow it down to a manageable project. This chapter made an otherwise intimidating process easier to approach. The hardest part of the exercise is the rationale. Before reading this chapter, every time I thought of a potential topic I was hard pressed to come up with a satisfactory reason for following this path. This chapter helped me to proceed without being too concerned on answering “so what.” It was more important that I just begin the process and let the research take me wherever it will lead.

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