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Researching a New Topic

Author: Bruce Najor

With the criminal justice reform topic coming to an end, debaters and coaches may find themselves eager to get a jump start on the new topic.  For many; however, that excitement can quickly fade when faced with the daunting task of researching an unfamiliar and broad topic.  In this blog post I want to take the intimidation out of researching a new topic.  Below are some tips and tricks on how to manage new topic research.

Getting Started. Before you put cursor to search engine, there’s a few things you should have done:

1) Set a schedule.  The most important step for any researcher is to schedule research times.  You will accomplish more with a scheduled commitment to research a few hours a day than with a vague commitment to “research all weekend.”  If you want to be a prolific and a steady evidence producer, establishing a routine is the first step.

2) Pick a research topic.  Deciding what part of a new topic you want to research on any particular day is important to getting started.  Personally, I like to research “topicality” before I do anything else.  It gives me a sense of the resolution, case law, core aff areas that I can branch out from once I move on.  That said, not everyone starts with topicality, and that’s fine!  Some see a new topic and want to do aff research, or start cutting core disad links.  There is no right or wrong thing to start reading about, but rather it’s important to combine your schedule with a particular topic for the day’s research.

Bulk Research. When starting a new topic, it’s important to do “bulk research,” which I define as reading, sorting and saving as many articles during your research block as you can, even if it’s not immediately clear how you are going to use those articles in a final argument construction.  Spending some early pre-season time reading will pay dividends in future precision research and article skimming (more on that below).  Here are a few tips I have for researching in bulk:

1) Research the core cases.  Even if the idea of running the biggest aff on the topic doesn’t appeal to you, starting your reading with the heart of the topic can give you plenty rabbit holes to follow.  For the water topic, researching the pros and cons to strengthening the Clean Water Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, and the Water Resources Development Act will provide you with a rich reading list.

2) Get imaginative with your search terms.  Think of all the possible ways to express your topic. Brainstorm until you’ve exhausted all possibilities. Articles about global warming may not have the phrase “global warming” anywhere in it. Instead, you may find that the article uses the phrase “surface temperature records.”  Rotating search terms, deviating from “terms of art” in the resolution, and using “OR” as a Boolean operator can turn up articles you may miss if you start your research with too precise of search terms

3) Be a detective.  As you start to find information, be on the lookout for names in your research area, like people and organizations. Notice experts who are quoted in stories, scholars and the universities who are doing research on the topic, activists working on a political or social issue, etc. Then, search for books and articles written by them. Check the bibliographies and footnotes in the books and articles you come across.

4) Read the topic paper.  For the 2021-2022 topic, it can be found here.  It often contains ideas for core aff and neg arguments.

5) Diversify your search engines.  Google is great, but other resources exist too!  If your school has access to databases that specialize in research journals, make sure you exhaust as much as you can.  You can search specific think tanks for materials.  Some of the think tanks I’ve been using to prepare the SDI packet are:

Begin Processing. Once you’ve collected, saved and read a healthy number of articles, you should begin processing them for debate purposes.  If you were researching the Clean Water Act (CWA) and Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), for example, you may have collected a few dozen law reviews during the bulk researching phase, and now you want to turn those articles into cards.  Personally, I like to start with a single word doc, dividing aff/neg by pocket headers, and more specific areas with hat and block headers.  You are likely to find potential solvency mechanisms, harm areas, states CP advocates, disad and kritik links in the articles you’ve collected, and as you process, you’ll want to move the cards to where they fit in an efficient process.

Switch Off Between Bulk Research and Processing. Some days you won’t be able to wait to turn what you’ve found into evidence, but on some days you will simply lack the motivation to process articles.  A scheduled balance between research and processing helps maintain productivity and reduce frustration when creating arguments for a new topic.

Transitioning From “Bulk” to Precision Research. Once you’ve produced enough evidence, a picture of a complete argument will come together into focus, and where there are holes in that argument.  This is the time to transition to what I call “precision research.”  In this phase of argument production, you know exactly what argument you’re looking for, and can therefore achieve greater success out of more selective search terms.  Once you find an article that looks promising, you can skim it for the particular part that you think will make the argument, and immediately process it into a card.  This is the type of evidence production you may exclusively be doing in the late fall and winter months, once you have an affirmative case and the core neg is known.  This process of research in the pre-season, however, is rarely as productive, and can become disappointing when the evidence isn’t jumping off the screen.

Concluding Thoughts. Researching a new topic is fun, but can easily turn frustrating.  In my experience, the biggest mistakes I see students make are failing to set a schedule, and attempting precision research too early.  Starting with a broad area, following leads, and trading off between research time and processing time before you jump into specific argument research will vastly improve your early season topic knowledge, reduce research “burnout,” and make you a more productive and prolific researcher.  Good luck on an early start to next season’s research!

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