traci's lists of ten

Traci's 5th List of Ten:
Ten Unusual Sources for Research Papers

Posted to ACW-L, WCenter, NCTE-Talk, and TEACH on 8/11/98.

Most of the students I see think only of books and articles when we turn our attention to research papers. To get around their over-reliance on these sources and show them the range of sources available, I use some version of the list below. I've simply given writers the list and asked them to use at least two of the categories as they search for information for their papers. But I've also given them a shorter list, highlighting kinds of sources that make sense for the assignment; and I've given them only one of the items, using the questions as a short, and usually informal, writing assignment.

These categories work well with basic research papers and with I-Search papers. I typically use either I-Search papers or papers that ask them to interrogate the sources that they find. In the latter, I ask them to focus on the ways that the conception of the idea or subject that they are researching changes depending upon who doing the reporting and how the reporting is done. Because I urge students to do lots of reflection on the ideas they are researching in these assignments, the kinds of questions that I ask them about their sources in the activities below should lead to material that they can include in their rough drafts. If your students are writing a more traditional research paper, you should probably talk with them about the difference between personal reactions and reflections that belong in their research journals and the kind of writing that belongs in their research papers.

These sources make for good "show & tell" -- each student can have a few minutes to share one unusual source with the rest of the class or with small groups. Often, this can be a loud session: students may want to play parts of their songs or interview or to look at a clip from their movie. There can be a lot of giggling over the absurd articles, too. Be sure to make arrangements to be in a location where exuberant students won't cause trouble for other classes.

Because of the range of sources included, the list also gives me the opportunity to talk about documenting unusual sources. We spend time talking about which of the example citations in the handbook fits the sources that they have found or which of the templates in BiblioCite or BiblioCite Pro would be the best choice.

  1. Find an absolutely absurd article about your subject. It can be blasphemous, unbelievable, obnoxious, ridiculous, or silly. If you're not sure what you're looking for, think about the kind of articles that you see in the tabloid papers at the grocery store checkout. The articles in those newspapers are often about current events or well-known or exceptional people, but they don't talk about things in the same way that you'd find the information covered in the New York Times or Newsweek. Once you've found your article, think about how it compares to the other resources that you've found. What makes it ridiculous? What believable information is included? How can you tell the difference between an absurd article and a reliable one? **One word of caution: while you can choose a pretty silly article, please do not choose anything that would be unacceptable if I were to ask you to read it aloud in class to me, your classmates, the principal, and your family. Silly is OK, but rude and offensive are not.

  2. Find a personal narrative written in first-person. A first-person narrative tells a story using words such as I, me, and my. The author of the story is writing a personal piece about the event. You could find a diary, a letter, or an essay. As you read the narrative that you've found, compare it with the other sources that you've consulted. How does the author's point of view change the details and description that are included? What emotional language is used? What does this source tell you about your subject that you wouldn't have known or realized if you had not read this person's first-hand experiences?

  3. Find a piece of art that relates to your subject -- a print cartoon, painting, drawing, lithograph, or sculpture. The work of art you find might depict the event that you're researching, or it could be referred to in one of your sources. For instance, you might have found a quotation about your event that refers to the Mona Lisa. Your paper may not be about the Italian Renaissance, but the Mona Lisa would be an appropriate source. Once you've found your piece of art, think about how it's related to your subject. If it depicts an event that you're researching, how does the depiction compare to the information that you've read in printed resources. If the work of art is referred to in one of your other sources, think about the reasons that the author mentioned the work. What did the author want you to think? How did the reference affect what you learned about the subject?

  4. Find a movie, film, video, television program, or animated cartoon that relates to your subject. Is the item you've found a documentary or a fictional account? Are there clues in the title or advertising -- do you see a phrase such as "Based on a True Story" anywhere? What is depicted, explained, or shown in the movie or film that you've found? What events or information are not included? What do the director and screenwriter want you to think about the subject after viewing this film? How do they attempt to convince you? What parts of the film are most compelling?

  5. Find a world wide web page that relates to your subject. There seems to be a web page for everything these days. Your job is to find a VALID and RELIABLE web page. Does the page include facts that you've verified in other sources? How does it present the information? Where is the source located -- is it on a reliable server? For help evaluating pages, check the Research Station at (choose the "Web Evaluation" link). Once you've found your page, think about how it differs from other sources that you've found. How is the information well-suited for a web page? Would it work just as well in a book? What makes the page valuable to your project (or why isn't it valuable)?

  6. Interview someone who knows about your subject. If you know someone who is an authority on your subject, you might ask specific questions about your research. You could ask about very particular facts or details. On the other hand, you might interview someone just to find out what another person thinks about the issue. You might ask older family members what they remember about the Woodstock or D-Day. If you interview someone, be sure to ask some questions about how the person has learned what he or she knows -- was the person you're interviewing at the event? Did he or she watch reports about the event on TV or newsreels or read about it in the newspaper? Be sure to take good notes so that you can use quotations from your interview. ** You might ask the person you're interviewing if you can record your interview so that you can play the tape back later as you work on your paper.

  7. Find a song or other piece of music that relates to your subject. Get a copy of the lyrics for your song, and take a good look at the details and information that are included. What can you tell about the subject from the lyrics in the song? Make a list of the facts that are included, and a separate list of the opinions. How many hard details are included? How do the details fit with the personal opinions that the songwriter is expressing? How does the way that the ideas and facts were expressed in the song compare to the ways that they are presented in your other sources? What does a listener gain from this song that can't be gained from reading about your subject in a book or article?

  8. Find a piece of literature -- short story, novel, poem, play -- that relates to your subject. How much creativity has the author used in talking about your subject in the piece of literature that you've found? Which details are fictional, and which details are factual? How can you tell the difference? What experiences does the piece of literature focus on? What do you know about the author and the author's background? What qualifications does the author have to write about your subject?

  9. Find an editorial or a letter to the editor that relates to your subject. Check the editorial section of newspapers, journals, and magazines. Editorials and letters to the editor are usually opinion pieces. The author wants to make a particular point about a current event or issue. Good editorials and letters include facts and details in addition to the author's opinions. Outline the facts and opinions in the source that you find, and consider how they compare to the facts and opinions that you have found in other sources. How emotional is the piece that you've found? Is the author reliable? What do you learn from this piece that you wouldn't have known otherwise?

  10. The OTHER category -- find some non-book, non-article resource that is related to your subject. Be creative. You might find a map, a recipe, some technical instructions, an advertisement, a computer program, or a speech. For the source that you find, you need to do two things. First, explain why the source is relevant to your research. What does it tell you or show you? Second, explain what the source gives you that other sources haven't. If you had stuck to books and articles, what would you have missed?