Today, the commonplace books that rhetoricians once maintained to organize and develop topics for their own use have been replaced by books, libraries, television, radio, and the Internet. A lot of the work done by people in the media, government, business, and academia comes down to taming the flow of information that’s now faster than ever. As an academic reader and writer, you’re joining that effort. One of your goals should be to become a critical thinker and writer who possesses the skills to organize, explore, and develop topics on your own. You can gain those skills with practice. Lots of practice.
To help that practice, you can use some tools you’re already familiar with and some others that may be new to you.
Finding Items for a Topic
Students sometimes believe they really don’t know what to write and argue about. When the Internet was developing a few years ago as a common communication medium, a lot of commentators believed it would make being an informed researcher and citizen easier: after all, having access to the Internet means having access to more information than anyone has ever had access to before in human history. But the problem is that having access to the Internet means having access to more information than anyone has ever had access to before in human history. To start looking for and working with a topic, for instance, your first inclination might be to use Google and simply “search” for a term. If we tried to look for information on voting laws, though, we’d get a return of over 32,000,000 items in less than a second.
There are two problems with this approach (at least).
First, the quality of the items should cause us some doubt. This basic search returns wikipedia articles, news stories, government agency sources, and even a non-profit organization website. While some of these might be helpful, the items have neither given us a detailed “place” to begin our topic nor a clear “place” to stand.
Our second problem concerns the amount of information. We just can’t sift through 32 million items, so we need a tool that does some of the selecting and organizing for us. Google News is one example of just such a tool. This site allows us to better focus on a topic as it unfolds in real time. If we use our “voting laws” search term, Google News and its “Realtime Coverage” option posts the most recent news articles in the subject, provides investigative “in depth” articles, makes available opinion pieces, and even includes a timeline for articles published on the topic. These features give us places for specific types of items, and they help us because they are already loosely organized and defined.
Sites like Google News are great places to begin research on a topic because they provide a range of different types of items and a helpful model for how to organize those items. On the other hand, these sites are bad places to end your research. Google News, for instance, does not capture scholarly resources. These sources are often vital to provide even more in-depth and focused coverage on topics.
For the purposes of beginning your research topic, however, selecting a range of articles from an array of sources will help you explore the various “places” contained in any topic. For instance, a typical news story is usually brief and only has room to offer minimal information. The common topics most likely to occur here are those best used to communicate basic facts: cause-effect, definition, and/or antecedent/consequence. An investigative journalism essay, a longer piece taking much more time to develop and much more space for coverage, will be better suited for more nuanced kinds of common topics such as contradictions, limits, and/or similarity/difference. More particular examples, such as YouTube videos of a politician’s speeches, might offer exposure to those “special topics” found in deliberative, judicial, and ceremonial discourses. Opinion essays or “op-eds” might offer access to commonplaces and a good place to see how they are used.
But whichever source types you use, you should know that any well-researched paper will be supported by a balance of items from many different media, viewpoints, and levels of expertise.