A Firm Defense of “Squishy” Research

I recently dropped into a colleague’s class while her students were in the midst of a pretty deep dive of a research project and was impressed by some of the conversations I listened to about source reliability and peer-review.

It made me second guess–for a moment–the project my kids are working on right now wherein they’re exploring the nooks and crannies of film and book criticism and think pieces and hot takes about popular culture.  Is this even real research?, I thought.  Are they gaining any skills or is this assignment just…squishy?

Certainly, exploring the “mainstream” realm of online news, punditry, culture websites, and the like is certainly not in the same branch of the writing tree as scholarly research, but in many ways it represents a set of skills our students rarely get to practice (largely because we presume they already possess them).  In fact, it’s best to think of the practice of navigating “non-scholarly” research sources as a completely separate skill set that kids need to master.

Cocaine, Reaganomics, and Relatable Reads

Let’s start with the “Why?” here.  The project my students are working on asks them to pursue a “Focus Question” that will bring them to a better understanding of something from the realms of culture that we’ve spent the semester studying:  They could focus on a book they’ve read, or a film they’re interested in (we look at both as texts), or they could broaden their lenses and try to understand something about an entire genre.

My students always come up with incredibly interesting subjects to explore for this project.  Current topics include how film critics view film differently from casual viewers, portrayals of drug violence in 80s and 90s films, how books and films like 13 Reasons Why and Cyberbully actually influence their intended teen audiences, and how players were treated in the Negro Leagues of baseball (so as to better understand the central character in Fences).

Consider each of those topics for a moment.  Certainly some of them may have been subject to scholarly study and research, but they are also all topics that an intellectually curious adult would not seek out JSTOR or a research aggregator site in order to better understand.  Rather, they would know where (and how) to seek out more mainstream resources that explore such topics and be able to parse their reading options based on all sorts of criteria.

Kaylyn, my student writing about the rampant drug violence of 80 and 90s films, is a wonderful example of how useful such “squishy” research can be.  But also how tricky and evasive. While she’d discovered an interesting trend in film all on her own (one of her favorite films is Boyz ‘n the Hood) she didn’t really understand the context that had led to it–only that something must be have made it such a popular topic back then.  After she and I had a conference where I gave her some search language to try out (“War on Drugs” was a new phrase to her), she was able to immediately track down all of the horrifying statistics and news items from that time period when cocaine was flooding into Florida and changing the landscape of America.  

Besides learning keyword search skills, Kaylyn immediately learned to follow a trail of hyperlinks from one great resource to another.  On her second day of research she told me in a somewhat perplexed tone that it seemed like she needed to find some sources about something called “Reaganomics”–A sure sign that her squishing around in mainstream news and culture sites had brought her closer to answering her focus question.  

That focus question–about filling a gap in her contextual knowledge of an artistic era in film–ended up broadening her political knowledge of the time period and produced several other avenues where she might pursue her interests.  

negro leagues

A sample of a student summarizing a source–he stumbled onto a piece by an author of the defining book on the subject!

To be clear, there is certainly great scholarly research about the impact of drugs in America (and of course on Reaganomics–titillating stuff, I’m sure), but there is also a wealth of rich and nuanced writing about these topics in the realm of respectable, mainstream websites.  Helping kids understand how to use their discretion about whether they need firm, vetted, peer-reviewed research or can rely on “squishy”, relatable, contextualized, reliable sources is a skill unto itself.

Kaylyn ended up double-checking some of her found statistics against a scholarly site–they were accurate.  Why? Because she found them on a site run by professional journalists with a reputation to uphold. Functional adults learn to differentiate between a reliable site (and I’d say most of us have a trusted few we use as “intellectual home bases”) and a suspect one–another skill students can only learn through guided practice.  The project has actually created several enjoyable moments (for me at least) where a student has said “That can’t be right!” and then needed guidance to figure out how to verify a claim that just doesn’t sound right to them.

Diamonds in the Squish

Of course, the messiness of doing “squishy” research for a project comes from the very watered down nature of mainstream media–the loose, muddy stuff that makes the whole realm so squishy to begin with.  There’s plenty of falsehood out there and heavily biased takes (as we know all too well these days). If you have the time to guide their exploration, though, this becomes another learning opportunity for a skill set that will benefit them the rest of their lives.  

Take the example of Nick, another student of mine, who’s exploring why the Marvel films have been so enormously successful compared to other efforts at comic book films.  He found a really good YouTube video examining the topic at length. I can appreciate the shudders of horror that just ran up the spines of many of my readers. But change those underwear and listen up, friends!  We talked about the enormous unreliability of random videos on the internet and then I asked him how he thought he might check the reliability of it. He immediately went to the user’s profile page, Googled his name, and discovered that he writes for one of the highest profile pop culture sites on the internet!  We went on to have a good chat about the limited reliability of a pop-culture critic–he is, after all, writing from a position of enthusiastic interest rather than detached observation. Nick also ended up discarding a second video he found because the profile of the creator was…well…less impressive.

The presentations my students are currently constructing are most impressive though.  Their exploration of popular culture through open exploration of all sorts of sources has given them lovely new perspectives about favorite works of film and literature.  This, unto itself, is a habit worth developing in our students. It absolutely cannot replaced hard academic research–a separate skill set that matters a lot. But it can help them to become intellectually curious, engaged adult citizens, and those are the best kind for lots of reasons.  I’ll let you squish around on the internet yourself to figure out why…

–Mike

What sorts of research skills do you focus on with your students?  Let us know on Facebook or give me a shoutout on Twitter @ZigThinks 

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