Lesson: Choosing and Evaluating Research Topics

Learning to recognize, consider, and research Different Rhetorical Situations and Audiences
Context activity: recognizing that a conversation is going on

For the first unit, we read six authors with varying stances on a particular theme. Students read a pair of authors for each class period, with opposing viewpoints on a particular issue within the theme.

I. During class discussion, we talk about the type of language each pair uses to talk about the same issue, and what common terms and concepts seem to be shared by all readings.

2. Then, we research those terms, using simple searches on Google and reading Wikipedia entries.

3. Next, we research the context of the discussion-the general issue as it stands, then each authors’ position and background to find bias, stance, intended audience, and evaluate credibility.

4. Lastly, we talk about how audience and context shape rhetorical situations, and how credibility can vary depending on the conversation, the speakers, possible agendas, and the issue.

Entering the Conversation Activity

I. In class discussion, we choose a sample “hot” controversial research topic, such as abortion (easy to demonstrate), and then brainstorm terms to use for searching for sources. Then, we look at common terms that come up during a simple Google search of “abortion.” Motherhood, person, moral, freedom, murder, etc.

2. Then, we brainstorm different stakeholders, their stance, and what their biases may be. We also try to come up with some terms each may use in this particular conversation. Often, I demonstrate how to find these things using Google and Google scholar when the group recognizes that they lack some of this information.

3. Next, we talk about how each faction or camp seems to adapt common terms and rhetoric. I demonstrate this with a less controversial topic, scholarship on masculinity in the early modern period, and we look at trends and patterns in terminology, etc.

4. Lastly, we brainstorm in groups how each student can do this for their own topics, with students occasionally using the computer as needed. At this point, they have done little research, so this is a good opportunity for them to bounce ideas off each other and get feedback and guidance as they set out on their research project. I try to get everyone to a basic place of rhetorical awareness on their chosen conversation before they leave class that day.

Evaluating Credibility

1. As a group, we consider things which make an author an authority in their particular field and the context of their subject, publications, research, employment, etc. We choose an author from readings done in the first unit for simplicity.

2. Has the author’s work been peer reviewed? If so, and it’s an academic source, is it credible? What does peer reviewed mean? If not, what kind of source is it? What makes different sources credible both in their individual conversations and for the research project? Audience, context, type of publication, date of publication, works cited/consulted, etc.

3. How do you think bias impacts a source’s credibility? Should sources acknowledge bias? Do you “hold it against them” if they don’t?

4. For our research project, we purposefully look at different stakeholders, each with their own rhetorical strategies, for a given issue, even though these sources may not be typically juxtaposed in traditional research papers. In groups, brainstorm the benefits and the limitations of gathering such a wide range of voices for our project. How does it impact how you think about your topic?

5. As a large group, we then discuss the smaller group’s findings. After we reflect, I like to move the discussion towards the “real world” and the benefits of being rhetorically aware of the ways in which text and communication is honed to specific situations and audiences, and how best to appropriately choose information and use it ethically to best effect.

GTA Marjorie Coffey’s Key Words Activity

1. In the Databases, Marjorie illustrates some of the concepts discussed in the other activities, and the importance of considering the values, biases, and motivations of different kinds of sources.

2. Then, she uses examples of how to limit searching in the databases by choosing terms that are too broad or too specific. She also shows them how to search for specific databases that are grouped by subject.

3. Lastly, she has students come up with search terms for specific topics, based on the type of information they are trying to find. For example, if you were looking for an article on the ways in which Shakespeare plays with masculinity in the history plays, you would look under “English.” If your library’s database search engine doesn’t group by subject, you could also go to Google Scholar and do a search for “Shakespeare” and “masculinity” and get a sense of which joumals and databases might be fruitful. “Shakespeare plays” would provide many results, but “Shakespeare” and “Masculinity” would give a more focused search. Adding “History” in this case provides even more focused results, but often too focused of a search can be too limiting.



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