We’re starting to work through our small group collaborative research projects for ICM501. The process has just begun, and for many in the class it looks like one helluva headache. Alex Halavais already warned us earlier in the course that unless we took steps to organize ourselves well with virtual project management techniques, we were in danger of drowning on this assignment. I have to agree.
Whether by design or by coincidence, however, Professor Halavais also gave us the keys to efficient collaborative research management in our formal assignment itself. Remember, our white sheet project will require the following benchmarks from us in our progress:
- Annotated bibliography
- White sheet paper
- Presentation of our white sheets (video’d and shared via web)
The key to effective coordinated research in small teams is right there in #2… the annotated bibliography.
What’s an annotated bibliography?
Simply put, the annotated bibliography is a collection of source data (the bibliography), coupled with a brief set of comments or notes (the annotation part). For a more complete description including samples, check out this page about annotated bibliographies from Cornell.
The way that the annotated bibliography is going to save our skins in class, however, is pretty simple. Since we need to produce an annotated bibliography anyway, that lets us know right off of the bat that every source file we read should immediately be rendered into annotated form.
That means, basically, that whenever you read something that pertains to your project, or whenever you investigate something that looks like it might pertain to your project, you copy down the bibliographic reference information (author, date, publication, page number, etc.) and then you come up with a paragraph describing what the key points of the arguments are. You can also write a note to your teammates describing what the author has to say on your topic, whether you agree with it, or whether you think it’s going to be of much use in the project at all. This becomes the annotated bibliography reference.
Creating a Research Strategy
At this point, you can see that the initial phase of research (googling, technorati surfing, searching journals and libraries, etc.) will quickly generate a substantial body of leads. If you annotate as you go through, you can share your annotated references with the team. This is especially useful at the first stage of the project, where we all “kind of” know what we’d like to do and aren’t sure exactly how to turn it into a viable research proposal. Begin by surfing and skimming, doing the “searches” online and in the library (Remember to ask your reference librarian for research help! They may know of better sources than you’re even aware exist.)
As you skim and search, keep the annotation process going strong. Your emails can contain the biblographical references of everything you’ve looked at, followed by your short paragraph of describing what they said and why they might be important/what specific problems they point to within the greater subject area.
As you find interesting subtopics that might be worth narrowing in on for the final project, you can go back to those initial “finds” of yours to begin to broaden and narrow the research path. You do this by finding the authors who are already talking about the problems that interest you, and then following their bibliographies backwards to read the sources that those authors pulled from.
Coming up with the Proposal
By working in this manner – searching, annotating, sharing, and then searching deeper (re-searching) – you will quickly begin to find out who the ‘experts’ are, and you’ll also see which topics they’ve been focusing on. Remember that your white sheet will not be created in a vacuum, so it is perfectly acceptable to cover something that someone is already talking about… just be sure you don’t reinvent the wheel. Duplicating someone else’s ideas isn’t really acceptable, but looking at their source data and suggesting an alternative solution is academically sound. Or else looking at their solutions and source data and building even deeper along the issue than they did is another great way to go.
Once you’ve got your exploratory research out of the way, don’t throw out those annotations! You won’t use everything in your annotated bibliography, but you will use some of those sources. Once your proposal is done, you then need to go back through and see which of your researched sources contain the relevant and pertinent information. At that time, you can use the preliminary annotations alongside your ‘formal’ proposal, and go back to revisit those sources and revise your annotations to address the issue you proposed more directly or appropriately.
Outline and Beyond
Once you have a properly-framed topic (your Proposal) and you’ve assembled your Annotations, it’s not that long of a step to get to the Outline. At this stage, you should be able to state your topic of inquiry and structure your angle of attack. The Outline is the way to organize not just how the paper is going to come out at the end, but also it’s a way to organize which of your annotated sources are going to be used to address each point. However you choose to map it out, the Outline will give you a chance to see which sources you are relying on heavily, and it gives you a chance to do some final research to try and fill in areas where the documentary evidence is relatively weak.
Once you get to the actual process of writing, that’s when the real work is going to begin. I’m personally wondering how in hell the writing will go, but I’m guessing that it’s going to require several revisions and a developed editorial process.
But that’s all for the future. For right now, I seriously recommend beginning all research right off of the bat, exploratory or otherwise, by generating annotated bibliographic materials. Starting from that convention can save you a hell of a lot of time in the later steps.
Just a suggestion. Hope that helps.