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TitleCollege Writing: A Personal Approach to Academic Writing
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Page 126


Go to places and observe what is there. Investigate local issues and institu-
tions to find out what investigative research is like. Stop and look inside
the church,sit in the pews,and note what you feel.Go stand on the Brook-
lyn Bridge,a hundred feet above the cold,black water of the East River,and
look at the city skyline, the ocean horizon. Visit the neighborhood in
which the most welfare mothers are said to live and cross its streets and sit
in a diner booth and drink a cup of coffee. Stop,pause,get a sense of what
this place is like. Sociological reports won’t generate that kind of thick in-

In the following example, Ken, a student in my first-year college
class, describes his visit to a local dentist to investigate preventive den-

On entering his office I did not find the long wait, the
screaming kids, and the general coldness of so many den-
tists’ offices. Instead I found a small warm waiting room
with carpeted floors, soft chairs, and classical music, with
copies of Atlantic Monthly along with Sports Illustrated on
the coffee table.


Careful description is part of good research. The writer who is able to ob-
serve people, events, and places, and to convey that observation accu-
rately contributes factual information to the research process.Such careful
description of place establishes living,colorful,memorable contexts for all
sorts of other inquiries. Look closely at the obvious and see what else is
there.Go for the size,scale,color, light, texture,angle,order,disorder,smell,
and taste of the place. Use your senses to find out what’s there, and use
your language to convey it to others. Go to the places close at hand, the li-
brary,bookstore,or student union;practice recording what you find there.
Try first to record in neutral language, suppressing as much as possible
your own bias; next add—or delete—your bias and give what you see as
some personal color. Which seems more effective? Why?

When you interview people—on the street, in a coffee shop, in their
home or office—look for clues that tell you something about the individu-
als. In what office, what company, what neighborhood does each one
work? Researchers train themselves to look closely and take good notes so
they have a context for their information. Looking and recording are the
essence of research.

In the following example, Susan describes her visit to the student
newspaper office:

Places 119

Page 127

My eyes wander around the room as we talk. . . . One
thing arouses my curiosity: on the pegboards between the
large desks hang rolls of tape. All kinds, shapes and sizes
of tape: big rolls, small rolls, thick rolls, thin rolls, full
rolls, nearly empty rolls. Rows of electrical tape, duct tape,
masking tape, and Scotch tape.

What does the tape say about a newspaper office? That a lot of patching
goes on? Does the tape symbolize the endless need to connect and put to-
gether that is the essence of newspaper production? Making the note en-
ables her later to use it or not, depending on the slant of her story. If she
didn’t have the note, neither would she have the option of using it. Take
copious notes.


Wherever you go as an observer, you are also a listener: keep your ears
open when drinking that cup of coffee; listen to the small talk in the air-
port lobby; record what you hear whenever you can. A writer sometimes
finds the lead vignette for a story in some overheard snatch of conversa-
tion. Remember that research papers are essentially stories.

One of my students started her report on Evangel Baptist Church by
visiting the church, which was located across the street from the univer-
sity. The following is her lead paragraph:

The people around me were wearing everything from three
piece suits to flannel shirts, jeans, and tennis shoes. I was
surprised how loud everyone was talking, laughing, and jok-
ing before the sermon. “What happened last night?” “Noth-
ing I can tell you here.”


Design situations that will help you discover new information.Some of my
students have conducted simple experiments that provide them with
original data and firsthand knowledge. For example, in an early draft, one
of my students stated that all biology majors are really “pre-med students”
because her two roommates happened to be biology majors with such a
focus. I challenged her on this point,so she conducted a formal survey of a
large introductory biology class—and found out that many students were
premed, but thirty-nine percent were not! She then had information to
back up whatever point she wanted to make in her paper.

In a similar vein, instead of saying that automobiles never stop at the
stop sign at the foot of Beacon Street, sit there for a morning and record

120 Researching People and Places

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