Monday, 23 January 2012

Book review: The Craft of Research by Wayne C. Booth, Gregory G. Colomb, Joseph M. Williams, 3rd edition, 2008

Research, what is it?

When I was still working in R&D dept., people were joking that “researching is doing the job that you don't know what you are doing.” And by that meaning, the definition for researcher is not better either - just as vague as the research is. If you’re watching some entertainments on internet during working time, for instance, you can claim that you are researching the entertainment market, . If you’re copying some source codes and applying them into your software, you can say I’m researching to solve my software issues. To me, if you’re doing something and you don’t know what you’re doing, that means you’re doing nothing, indeed! Well, so why I silenced with the joke the whole time even though I disagreed? That was because giving a correction by myself is out of reach and they were joking anyway, why took it seriously? I’m not officially educated at higher education and research is such a word with no much use in “my dictionary.” [If I have to use the word “research,” I tend to try if “study” fits first.] However, I’m still wondering and questing for the better answer for my own.

Since I seriously have taken some research assignments from my mentor recently, and all the questions came up again in my mind, what am I doing? Am I doing the right thing called RESEARCH? Is my draft qualified at the end? How do the readers feel about my writing? Are readers patient enough to read it? Is my claim convincible? Is my draft just a data dumpster?  Where do I find reliable evidences and how to know they’re reliable? I actually struggled a lot during the time of the assignments; even worse, sometimes I was stuck, lost the motivations or directions. My mentor is a college lecturer and he’s working with students mostly. Though I know the assignments at school usually are not very serious [the reader is your teacher, that’s it!], I still can’t be neglect [I’m not student anymore, that’s why!]. My mentor is mostly working on market and business strategies, I know I’m not a part in those fields. But about technology, I’m trying to be helpful. My last assignment went through pretty okay; at least, that was what my mentor said. That’s so nice of him. However, I can’t stop asking those questions above and one more: how okay is it? Okay is a little ambiguous. It’s like, if I have 2 cookies, I still can claim I have “many” cookies. So generally, 2 and 9 cookies are no difference under description of “many”. I know it’s not simple to jump into the research field and claim whatever I want. It requires a process to practice and work with the community. When I don’t have that opportunity, I’m trying to solve some personal concerns for my tiny research works first.

Once I asked my sister who is working a lot with research assignments at high education, she gave me very useful hints and materials she’s learned from one of her subjects. I was so happy and thankful for the directions she drew out. One of the materials I was suggested was the book called: The Craft of Research by Wayne C. Booth, Gregory G. Colomb, Joseph M. Williams, 3rd edition, 2008.

When I just opened the book, read the intro and first chapter, I know this book would answer my questions and solve my concerns. If you’re struggling with research works and don’t know where to begin, you may want to read this book.

The book was written for everyone, students who are very new and fighting with assignments at school, amateurish researchers, advanced researchers for specific fields and teachers who teach about researching. Sections are clarified clearly who is the most suitable readers. Wording is very simple and catchy.
Opening the book, the first question you see is “what is research?” You’ll be guided through explanations and examples for the research work.

You will also know how to find a topic for research, how to seize it and write down the answers. Giving yourself “So, What?” question repeatedly until you find the good answers to build up a research start.
To give an example, here is a brief guide to build up the topic from scratch, filling the gaps (…) yourself and find your answers:
  • Step 1: Name your topic
    • I’m working on (…)
    • I’m trying to learn about (…)
  • Step 2: Question
    • I’m working on (…) because I want to find out who/what/when/where/whether/why/how (…)
  • Step 3: So what? (what is for your readers?)
    • I’m working on (…) because I want to find out who/what/when/where/whether/why/how (…) in order to help my reader understand (…)
Reader role is very important and critically mentioned in the book. There is an entire chapter to instruct the link to your readers: who are they? What do they expect from your work? How much did they know about your topic already? How will they respond to your claim? After all, without the readers, research work is nothing. That’s easy to understand why the book grades highly for reader role. Mentioning about reader role, I love this hint from the book: You shouldn’t worry about strict readers who keep asking “so, what?” But you should concern about readers who say “I don’t care.” As soon as they’re still asking, there are ways to make your research better. Since I’m an amateurish researcher, I understand the feeling when I have to confront with many questions, especially from higher knowledgeable persons in the field. Now, it’s time to think again.

The next crucial issue the book helps a lot is telling where to find reliable sources. Internet is the huge source but it will be not surprising when the most reliable source isn’t from internet. Internet is important mostly because it helps to connect to some reliable sources faster when those are put online. However, the mankind most reliable sources are from libraries.  Wiki and Google Scholar are good, but can’t replace the physical sources. This concept changes my thought completely. Since I’m working with computer, the first place I would search for answers would be from search engines. Using search engine isn’t bad, just as soon as you can tell how reliable the results it returns. Unfortunately, it’s really hard for beginners, especially for an amateur researcher like me. Anyway, there is still exception. I guess Internet is still the first choice if I have to research on very new trends of technologies or markets. And what the book taught me is that I now know I have to verify the reliability more rigorously than I did.

That is just one point of sources. The book also instructs to evaluate sources relevance and reliability by skimming skills too. No one would have enough time to read fully all materials in one field just to get some evidences for that field, unless that’s a superman. Therefore, skimming and noting skills are very necessary: how to keep notes well and avoid hitting plagiarism. They are well guided from the book.

It’s very hard to approach a new field if we don’t understand some specific words for that field. Acknowledging very well about this, the book does define terms in research field and distinguish them clearly. All those words such as question, answer, problem, solution, argument, claim, reason, evidence, they sound alike but their uses are not the same. Some of them even carry the different meanings from what we know in real life. Problem, for instance, we are all scared of hitting problem in life, researchers on the other hand, they are always expecting for problems. No problem, no research. The book will explain why there is such a paradox like that happening.

Since this is the book for researching from scratch, it can’t miss the instructions to building up the research skeleton. All of these important steps:
- build up research argument,
- making correct claim,
- making strong connections between arguments and claims,
- planning the research,
- drafting and revising the research,
- giving convincible evidences,
- writing introduction and conclusion, etc.
were clearly written down throughout many chapters in the book. Each of them takes part as the main analytic topic for one or two chapters. With these factors, it’s the best to read the book with your needed-to-be-done research in hand. You can practice and apply right away the lessons into your research. If there is a recommendation, I would suggest reading these chapters again and again whenever you are working on a new research to sharpening and mastering the skill set. I’ve planned to read again not only these chapters but the entire book for my next assignments.

Each phase above is important by its way. However, I tend to remember more if I got failure at some basic points the book mentioned. Usually to me, failure is easier to remember than success. Well, it hurts more, doesn’t it? That’s why I want to excerpt here one interesting part I learnt in planning phase.
  • Don’t organize report as narrative of thinking
  • Don’t assemble report as a patchwork of sources
  • Don’t map report directly on to the language of assignment
As soon as reading through the first “don’t,” I know it sounded familiar and who knows if the author was talking about me, . I tended to write down the report as narrative of thinking all the time. I have to remember this checkpoint and keep reminding me again and again whenever I write anything down from now on.

If you’re teachers of researching subject, I bet you’ll find the excellent tips from the last chapter. The chapters really picked detail and honest thinking from two sides, teachers and students. On top of everything, teachers are people who are expected to bring inspiration and nurture research skills for students. If there is a complaint why students are not enthusiastic on research project, one of the checkpoints teachers would consider is if they do help inspire their students yet. It’s worth to read this chapter and gain more inspirations on learning and teaching research work.

Not like other books which I never read the appendix, I do for this book. The appendix guides through the huge reference sources for research work in many different fields. These sources are the good starts on any research topics I need later.

The book really pays back my time of reading. This is not a book to read once and put away. It’s a cookbook for research work whenever you want to start a research, or you’re stuck at some points of the research, or you need to refine your draft. If you’re been once ask yourself “what is research?”, this is the book for you. 

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