Writing With Substance: You Can Haz it! SRSLY!

Reading Academic Scholarship

Reading well and reading regularly are essential for improving both the style and substance of your writing. In the first two weeks of this course, you'll find that I will either supply your reading by assigning specific essays or guide your reading by directing you to search for material on different subjects online. It should go without saying (though I think it must be said) that you will perform well in your college courses if you read all the material assigned to you, take notes on what you read, and record your thoughts about what you read in written form. In this class, however, I also want you to learn how to find relevant material to read on your own, especially academic material available through our library resources. 
From some perspectives, you, a new student in a college course, are not the audience for academic scholarship. It is written with the specialized vocabulary that experts use when they write for other experts. But the idea that you shouldn't bother with it because you are not its intended audience simply exacerbates the divide between the knowledge produced under the auspices of universities and everyday readers. If you make it a goal of your college education to read as much of this scholarship as you can, you will help close that divide and you will find that with persistence, you really can understand some of this work, learn from it, and use it to great effect in your own written work. Take, for instance, the article "Educational heterogamy: Does it lead to cultural differences in child-rearing?" in the September issue of the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. You might be intimidated by the fact you don't know what "educational heterogamy" is. But doing a simple web search will turn up an online dictionary entry that suggests that the term refers to marriage between people with different educational backgrounds. You can use non-academic sources in conjunction with academic sources to deduce that the authors of the article are interested in learning how those different backgrounds might affect raising a child. With minimal effort, a strange topic is suddenly accessible––and maybe even something about which you want to know more. 
Of course, you will find a number of articles whose content is too difficult for you at the present moment. In some cases, you will have to find other sources that can provide or distill the same knowledge in a different form, or concede that you aren't (yet) in a position to understand (or do not yet need to understand) advanced research on that subject. In all cases, you need to be persistent, flexible, and prepared to ask for help when you're stuck. Sidenote: You will also find that you feel less persistent, flexible, and prepared when you are most busy; try to start projects that require reading and research as soon as you receive an assignment rather than waiting until the deadline is close.  
If you spend some time wandering around our library resources, you will also find that there are journals that publish research on subjects that you might have thought were not appropriate for academic study. In August of 2014, The Journal of Popular Culture featured articles on Battlestar Galactica and an editorial comment on Superman; articles in another issue examined socioeconomic class in The Sopranos and The Middle. In June of 2012, The Journal of Popular Music Studies published an article on Ke$ha. 
Yes, Ke$ha. (Feel free to yell "Timber!")
In our class meetings, we'll discuss what peer-reviewed scholarship looks like in its hard-copy and online forms, as well as how academic research differs from commercial publications (including news sites and other online sources whose revenue comes from advertising). As I've suggested already, one of the most obvious differences is that you'll access scholarship using our university library's databases (and other university and public library sites wherein content is produced by scholars); another and more crucial distinction is that the editorial and publication process ensures that research conforms to academic standards for content and style and is produced primarily for the purpose of contributing knowledge within a specific academic field or fields. Such research may be corporately funded, but is generally not written for profit by its producers.
Some of the work you'll do in completing Assignments 2 and 3 and the assigned reading will help us talk about the impact that profit motives have on information. We can't always (and perhaps should never wholly) dismiss the value of work we read that contains or is supplied alongside advertising, but we can put some stock, at least, in the reliability of work that does not. I'm not saying here that anything that is published in a journal is guaranteed to be excellent work or absolutely correct; Journal editors have, upon occasion, had to issue retractions that renounce the validity of work they've published. But those occasions are limited overall, and when scholars find problems with and critique previously published work, we need to see these responses as a feature of academic scholarship rather than a "bug." We build knowledge by attempting to build on what others produce, and sometimes that means venturing the claim that other scholars were wrong. Debates and conflict may shake your confidence in some of the material you've learned, but that shaking can be useful in helping you remember to weigh information carefully and to acknowledge ambiguity or uncertainty when it's necessary to do so.  
Complicating the distinctions we might try to make between purely academic and public writing and journalism is the fact that scholars regularly write in public venues in addition to the work they produce for scholarly journals. We see it, for instance, in their blogs or on news and political sites, and, as with anything else we find online, we must assess the credibility and utility of what we learn there by attending to the background of the writer, the venue for which he or she writes, and, though it's not always easy, the substance of the work.
Also complicating these distinctions is Wikipedia, one of the best sources of information on the web. You will find (and may have already found) that some teachers and professors discourage its use. I think it's worth acknowledging that there are some valid reasons that these people do not want you to cite it as a source in a college-level writing assignment. Some of them might tell you not to cite it because "anybody can edit it" (and do so anonymously), two facts which, for them, mean that what's there can not be trusted. I respect, though do not agree with, this rationale. To my mind, the primary reason not to cite it in your college papers is that it's an encyclopedia, a source that was, historically, too general to be appropriate for use in an academic setting. 
Wikipedia is better than the old encyclopedias, however, because it's constantly updated. If you want a good sense of how often people update the information there, go to the Listen to Wikipedia site, which gives visual and aural representations of the process of editing, and you'll be treated quite literally to the sights and sounds of the construction and revision of knowledge. The frequency of revisions and new entries can't tell us how accurate the content is, of course, nor can it change the fact that those editing or revising are overwhelmingly male. Nonetheless, the site is generally transparent about its methods and practices, and they are, in fact, more rigorous than those that govern the content of many other sites. I agree with the Guardian's John Naughton, who recently described it as "imperfect" but also the "most viable" way of aggregating and assessing information in the networked world. (For more on Wikipedia's "lessons," take a look at this online book by Harvard's Jonathan L. Zittrain, The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It; you can also read scholarly studies of Wikipedia's accuracy and perceived accuracy such as this one by Thomas Chesney of Nottingham University or another on its utility for medical information; and studies of the limitations in coverage such as this one. Note too that these are relatively old studies and more recent research no doubt exists.) 
I think you should feel free to consult Wikipedia on pretty much everything that interests you. It is a great place to start your research. I am happy to admit that I read and learn from entries there on a daily basis. Yet I also want to impress upon you that it is not a great place to stop. Although academics are among those who write and edit content for it, Wikipedia is not a scholarly source; it is, therefore, not (often) going to be a good source to cite in a college essay. It is also not a site whose content can simply be adapted or reassembled in a paper! Use it to inform the searches you do in academic databases; use it to help you evaluate what you find in other sources (and vice versa), and use it find additional sources and related topics.  

So: are you ready to check out the academic databases we have now?

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