Sources Workshop

I Can’t Find any Sources!

Maybe you’ve heard this one before. My student X texted me about her White Paper.

I’ve been working on my White Paper since spring break. Finding 10 solid sources that don’t all say the same thing is becoming hard. I have 5 strong sources. Is that enough?

With X’s permission, I offered to find some sources and share the results as an in-class demonstration of research techniques for today’s class.

Like the Westboro Baptist Church

You’ll remember the example of the Westboro Baptist Church from earlier in the semester. My student Z wanted to argue the thesis that when the WBC show up at military funerals with their “God Hates Fags” posters, they achieve the exact opposite of their intentions, alienating all decent observers from their cause and creating sympathy for the homosexual community.

Only news sources
Z’s early research efforts turned up nothing but the same news reports from popular sources and blog posts from advocacy groups. Not surprisingly, academic sources didn’t respond to searches for “Westboro Baptist Church” or “God Hates Fags.”

Youtube: Academic vs Popular Sources

Finding the academic terminology
We solved that problem in ten minutes by having a conversation about celebrity endorsement, the possibility that such endorsements could turn sour (like Tiger Woods’s ten years ago), and discovering the psychology-of-marketing term “negative information transference.” The phenomenon Z was theorizing was well known in the marketing industry. Once he found academic support for his theory, the rest of his research was easy.

Kneeling during the Anthem in the NFL

My student X is having a similar problem researching the current phenomenon of NFL players making political statements by kneeling during the playing of the national anthem before televised games of the National Football League.

Too contemporary for scholarship
The issue is so contemporary that it hasn’t been the subject of academic study. Searches for “NFL Protest” or “Kneeling for the Anthem” or “Disrespecting the Flag” yield the same sources again and again, all of them from the popular press or blogs with a decidedly partisan point of view.

Popular sources
X’s five strong sources were the New York Times, “Trump Criticizes the NFL”; the patriotic blog Odyssey, “Disrespecting Our Flag”; US News and World Report, “It’s Not about Kneeling”; USA Today, “NFL Commits ‘Suicide by Trump'”; and, “Open Letter to Roger Goodell.”

Reflex reactions
Popular opinion breaks down along familiar lines. Protesters are either “disrespectful and anti-patriotic” or they’re “exercising their First Amendment rights.” They’re either, “grandstanding to promote a grievance” or they’re “calling attention to a pervasive injustice.” If these are the only sources to address the issue, there will be little for X to do besides “picking a side” and “consolidating the attitudes of partisan advocates”: the opposite of academic research and argument.

First, examine the sources

The five sources X has gathered are blog posts, opinion pieces from news sources, and a fact-check exercise to determine the validity of an open letter to Roger Goodell. Unlike academic sources, these texts make no effort to cite their own references beyond linking to other stories from their own publications. What would ordinarily be a good tactic to “jump checkers” from one source to the next fails before it starts.

Signal Phrases
However, the texts do contain language that hints at fields of research that are worth pursuing. More than one mentions “flag burning” as a category of disrespect for the flag and anthem. That lead is worth following.

Google Flag Burning

As we type the signal phrase into Google Scholar, we get advice from Google in the form of another of the signal phrases we’ve already identified: First Amendment. Isn’t that lucky? We accept the advice to see where it leads:

Google Flag Burning 1st Amendment

Student X sought academic sources for the specific and particular story of Colin Kaepernick’s symbolic protest of the Star-Spangled Banner, and in a few moments possesses academic sources for the more general but completely relevant social/legal/constitutional question of how our society reacts to symbolic acts of political protest.

One addresses the constitutionality of flag desecration:

Flag desecration and the constitution

Another addresses the bizarre, failed attempts to write a new Amendment to the US Constitution specifically overriding the First Amendment to make flag desecration illegal.

Flag desecration amendment

Another parses the distinction between symbolic political gestures (like kneeling, fist-raising, burning of military draft cards, or flag desecration) as “speech.”

Flag symbolic speech

Still another places political protest gestures into beautiful historical context. Particularly relevant to Student X’s paper-in-progress are the anecdotes about reactions from presidential candidates and the White House, both of which provide ideal analogies to Donald Trump’s tweets urging the NFL to crack down on free exercises of speech.

Flag enemies of the state

The full text of that last intriguing source was not available for free through Google Scholar. It’s a book by Michael Welch, so we proceeded to Rowan’s Campbell Library database to see if we could find the volume on campus.

Prof Search Criminalization of Protest

Sure enough, we got a hit. Our tuition dollars saved us the cost of another book.

Prof Search Results

And finally, we’ll get to check the author’s bibliography to see Michael Welch’s sources, perhaps the most powerful checker-jumping exercise of all.