So You Have a Topic… Now What?: How to Turn a Preliminary Research Question into a Well-Researched Paper

Every semester, I assign students a research project. I think that conducting research on a topic of your choice is one of the best ways to engage with a topic– when I look at my own experiences as an undergrad, research projects were almost always where I discovered what about a subject I was really passionate about.

Last semester, one of my students in particular asked a very insightful question that few students actually realize they need to ask. And it is one that I often forget students need answered. So I want to talk to you all about it now. This post is going to be a long one, but trust me, it’s worth it.

She knew she wanted to write about something related to women’s issues. After some back and forth, she landed on how Instagram can be (and often is) leveraged by women entrepreneurs. It wasn’t necessarily as narrowed down as I’d like to see it in the end, but it was a very good start. 

Her response, the question that really got me thinking, basically boiled down to “So I have a topic… now what?”

And it occurred to me that a lot of students don’t really understand the best method for writing a research paper. It’s not actually a natural thing, though that is easy for many professors to forget, after years of research and writing. I think that a lot of students think the process looks like this:

  1. Pick a topic
  2. Find the number of articles you need on the topic
  3. Read the articles
  4. Write the paper

This is a way to write a paper. But it’s definitely not the best way. By a long shot. What I’m going to describe below is the way tend to write my research papers. I’m not sure if it’s “best practices,” but it’s the best way I’ve found.

When you’re at that point, and you have a topic selected, the next step is to just start looking for articles, knowing that you’re not going to use every article you find. Go to reputable news outlets, scholarly databases, etc. and play with search terms. I’d probably start with different combinations of search terms– figure out what gets you more articles that look interesting. Maybe it’s “female entrepreneurs” and “Instagram” maybe you’ll find more stuff with “social media” and “women in business,” but are they closer to what you want or further from it? What’s bringing up stuff that seems recent and pertinent?

(I would strongly encourage you to try to use boolean search operators at this stage of the game as well. They can really help you find what you want and to separate the wheat from the chaffe.)

Find SEVERAL articles that interest you. Find some specific thing that REALLY interests you in a couple of them, and go back to searching for sources, using new search terms inspired by what’s catching your interest. The hope is that in this way, by iterating through it a few times, you’ll have several articles that will sort of come together to make a thesis or argument. Once you have that, you can start writing, weaving material from your sources together (PROPERLY SOURCED) in order to lay that argument out.

In other words, as opposed to the system above that many students assume will get them to a good research paper, I would recommend the below:

  1. Pick a topic
  2. Find several articles on that topic
  3. Read those articles on the topic
  4. Identify a subtopic that really speaks to you in some way
  5. Search for articles more directly related to the subtopic, using boolean search operators
  6. Read those articles
  7. Look for commonalities or contrasts– how can these papers be woven together to make an argument?
  8. Write that argument out. Take bits of the different articles and use them to give authority to your argument 

I know this seems like a lot more, but I guarantee you that if you do it right, the paper should really feel like it’s writing itself. I’m not even exaggerating. It takes writing from being something difficult and painful to something that’s easy and kind of fun.

I believe, from my experience as an instructor, that students who don’t do the extra iteration of research really struggle finding something to say in their paper. If you do more work in the research and planning phases, the actual writing stage is just figuring out what order to put things in. 

Everyone’s different, and your milage may vary. But in twenty years of research and writing, this is the best method I’ve come up with. I hope you all find it helpful.

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Things that look better actually work better: A guide for students

The below is a slightly edited version of an announcement I just posted for my COM 110 students at CUNY. Credit where credit’s due: this is all me channeling my advisor, Dr. Paula Petrik, who taught me the value of an easy, clean text.


As you are working on your first major assignment, I would like to share with you something that will almost definitely improve at least some of your grades, not just on this assignment, or in this class, but throughout your entire college career, and beyond. It sounds silly, but I guarantee you it works.

I know this announcement is going to be a bit long, and I want to apologize. But I guarantee you, the information I’m giving you here is worth it. 

It’s a seemingly simple little thing, but I cannot overstate how important this is: Things that look better actually work better. Or at least people are more likely to perceive them as working better.

Let me explain:

In the mid-90s, two researchers from Japan, Masaaki Kurosu from the University of Japan and Kaori Kashimura from Hitachi, were doing research on user experience. They had subjects use 26 different user interfaces to get money from an ATM. These ATM interfaces were purposely designed to go along a spectrum, from technically efficient but ugly to visually pleasing but inefficient. They then had the subjects rate how the machines looked and how they worked. 

You might think that the people in the test would prefer the bare-bones, ugly, but efficient machines. But in fact, they preferred the better looking machines, despite their being (very deliberately) poorly designed in terms of utility. The study found that people think that good-looking things work better, even if it’s very much not the case. 

By now, many of you are likely asking, “why is my Digital Literacy professor talking about ATM designs?” Here’s the thing: this applies to your homework and your papers, too. The easier you make your work to read, the better the grades you will find you get with it. 

And I’m not just saying that because I’m a weird prof with a burr in my saddle about design. You will find that this is true of all of your professors, and at work as well. People have an unconscious bias toward aesthetically pleasing things. This includes all of your professors, who at the end of the day just want to quickly and easily get through your paper and give you as many points as they possibly can. It applies to your boss and your coworkers, too.

We all like to talk about valuing substance over style, but at the end of the day, that’s just something we like to tell ourselves, because it feels like our priorities are in the right place. We’re supposed to care about substance, right? We’re not supposed to judge a book by it’s cover. But we all do.


On a practical level, what does this mean in terms of your current assignment, and your future assignments? The below list is by no means comprehensive, but it’s a good start.

  1. Paragraph breaks are very useful. Use them thoughtfully and frequently. They break up your ideas, and give visual clues to what you are saying. 
  2. Likewise, keep most of your sentences short and concise. Long, run-on sentences confuse the reader. Don’t make your grader, or your reader generally, go hunting for your point!
  3. While it is good to be somewhat more formal, especially in papers and bigger projects, stick to language with which you are comfortable. Don’t use idioms that you aren’t 100% certain of, and try to keep it straightforward. Avoid purple or flowery language. The Federal plain language guidelines are worth looking at for advice on how to keep your prose straightforward and easily readable.
  4. Include a thesis statement in your paper. Tell the reader what you are arguing, clearly, in a sentence or two. That sentence should preferably be at the end of the first paragraph. Because that’s where people will be looking for it. 
  5. To that end, formula is your friendThe five-paragraph theme can be formulaic and boring, yes, but it is also a good starting point. Any teacher will instantly recognize it, or a variation on it. Similarly, there are formulas for different types of letters and emails, different types of memos, documents, resumés… You don’t have to follow them religiously, but be aware of them, and know if you are sticking to what is expected or subverting it.
  6. Leave breadcrumbs for your reader. An essay for a class shouldn’t be full of surprise twists. Let your reader have an idea of where they are going at the beginning of the essay and then give clues about where things are going throughout the essay. By priming the reader’s pump, as it were, you prepare them for what comes next. You help them read the essay, and they will in turn find it easier to read.
  7. Formatting matters! Once you have completed an assignment, make sure that it is formatted correctly. Blackboard has a bad habit of inheriting formatting information when you copy-paste from somewhere else. My personal solution to this is to copy and paste everything into a plain text file  in TextEdit (Mac) or Notepad (Win) before copy-pasting into Blackboard. It’s a pain, but it fixes the problem. In this way, you can avoid weird text, off background colors, and that thing that forces readers to scroll right forever before your line breaks.
  8. Do as I say, don’t do as I do. I’ve got a ton of bad writing habits, and you can catch me breaking all of these rules at times here. Just believe me that it really will help…

This is something that nobody ever explained to me until I was in a PhD program, and it had a profound impact on my writing. So much that I turned in as an undergrad could have been so much better received if I had kept these principles in mind. 

And with that in mind, I pass them along to you. Do with them what you will.

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#MuseumWalkabout Summer 2017 (Post 4)

After far too long a wait, I’ve arrived at the final post of my #MuseumWalkabout Summer 2017 series. If you haven’t read the previous posts, I suggest you start here for context.

 

After the Children’s Museum, I went back out into the rain– regretting not having carried an umbrella– and walked the several blocks to the Institute of Contemporary Art.

It took me longer than I’d like to admit to realize that all the art was on the top floor, but eventually I made it up. Looking at the different exhibits, I was especially taken with the exhibition of pieces by Nari Ward, which I found deeply resonant and aesthetically pleasing all at once.

Three sisters…

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I noted the stark difference in the appearance of this museum from the one I attended the day before. Great white walls and people quietly shuffling about. Quite different from the wonderful tumult of the Children’s Museum… Even around pieces that were very playful.

I recently started working at the Edward M Kennedy Institute for the US Senate, a place where we’re trying to educate visitors about democracy– something that tends to be very noisy and even bumptious at times, which is something that we would like to convey to our visitors.

The decor of the main area is a bit monochromatic, however:

The space has potential to convey that vibrancy that is a cornerstone of democracy. I’m wondering how little pops of color could make a difference in the mood and tone of the space. I jokingly talk with my coworkers about erecting a “giant pink statue of Ted Kennedy” in the lobby area, perhaps a commission from Katharina Fritsch?

More realistically, I just wonder about what effects we could create with some movable casing or something along those lines in bright colors: maybe something in a Nickelodeon orange? The serious grey-and-blue tones of the institute would still permeate, but maybe something that, while the topic we are covering is very serious, we are encouraging our visitors to engage in serious play to learn a little more deeply about the topic.

Finally, as a capstone to my day of nonstop museums, I went to a #Museumhive event, where the (virtual) guest of honor was the awesome museum educator Emily Graslie.

I was, by that point, basically tweeted out, but I did share one comment that Emily made, because I thought it was awesome and hilarious and actually insightful, and was actually retweeted by Emily, which was a nerdy little fanboy moment.


#MuseumWalkabout First Post

#MuseumWalkabout Second Post

#MuseumWalkabout Third Post

#MuseumWalkabout Fourth Post

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#MuseumWalkabout Summer 2017 (Post 3)

Third post recounting my adventures during #MuseumWalkabout Summer 2017, during which I attempted to hit as many museums as I could in a single day, and to fill all interstitial time with museum-related stuff. Post 1 can be found here, and Post 2 can be found here. I’d recommend starting from the beginning.

Having noted the ads for the Tea Party Museum and Ships, I thought for a moment about checking it out. It had been on my original “maybe” list for the day.

 

But because part of the museum experience is outdoors, and the rain hadn’t let up, I decided not to. I did snap the above pic, and noted an awesome piece of programming that I’d love to check out some time:

 

 

Every museum is desperately chasing the Millennials. This might be a bit much for some millennials– my millennial wife said she wouldn’t go if I paid her– but to me, it combines so many great attractors. Food and booze– things people are already going out and paying for anyway. Dancing and singing. A little history lesson. And millennials keep telling museums– both with their attendance and with how they respond to visitor surveys– that activities that you can do with a couple friends are very important to them as an age cohort.

With the right (slightly nerdy, adventurous about food, enjoy a drink) friends, this would be amazing.

Now it's time for a freakin' Boston Landmark!

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So, I went on to the Boston Children’s Museum.

I’d seen the Hood Milk bottle before, and heard a lot of positive things about the museum from people, but I’d never been before, not having children, and preferring to go to parks and restaurants when visiting my friends who do.

That said, it was an amazing experience. Bright, colorful, lots of different types of activities and exhibits… I saw a girl do a back handspring in one exhibit, seemingly just because she had the space. The Children’s Museum engaged kids at all sorts of levels, inviting the most un-museum-like anarchy… and everyone seemed to be having a blast, kids and parents alike.

And it was loud. Woo boy, was it loud.

There’s a certain developmental period during which many children, when really enjoying themselves, just run around screaming. This developmental stage was well-represented.

I was really struck by how much fun the adults who let themselves engage with the exhibits and interactives were having. While the learning outcomes are designed for young people, the actions that help us learn that mastery of the world (whether splashing water, building with blocks, or learning about basic science), never fully lose their FUN.

I sat on the floor in a room full of blocks, building a tower myself, and watched the parents who were aiding their children, or even just working beside them– their faces looked engaged. They were having a grand old time. Then I watched the parents sitting on the benches along the wall– they weren’t engaged. They weren’t having fun. This was something their kids enjoyed, and they… they sort of sat, and watched, and looked tired.

After some participant-observer time, I eventually got sucked completely into participant mode. The tower I built was wicked tall, yo.

My masterpiece of block engineering isn’t in the picture, but these are the blocks in question:

#Keva #blocks are amazing.

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Because I was livetweeting my observations throughout the day, I would occasionally get feedback from people that shaped my thinking over the course of my walkabout. Around this point, my old friend and former roommate Brendan, who now works for the Association of Children’s Museums, made a very apt observation:

There was something that the Boston Children’s Museum did very well that you seldom see at adult- or even family-centric museums, that I really enjoyed and appreciated: they not only designed exhibits with specific learning outcomes in mind– many if not all museums do that– but they actually center those learning outcomes, literally rendering them visible on the wall:

This was my biggest takeaway from the Children’s Museum. They were very deliberate about the learning outcomes of each exhibit. Which makes sense– people take their kids to children’s museums because they offer a fun opportunity for learning. It always has to be more overt than, say, a playground or park. Because those are free and hyperlocal. To get parents to come with children across town, and plunk down money… they need to be doing more than just playing.

But the thing is, children are never “just playing.” Ludic learning is always inherently a part of play for kids. (And for adults, too, if you can just get them to get over themselves and play.)  The service that the Children’s Museum offers is twofold: a safe, fun place for children to play, explore, and learn, but even more importantly, a place for parents to learn about their kid, to have the process of their child’s learning highlighted and explicated for them. The second part is the real value.

But in doing that, they’re doing something really interesting: they’re putting visitor experience itself on display. Imagine other museums doing that. An exhibit that reflects your experience as a museum-goer back to you, in a way… Points you toward thinking about how you interact with an exhibit and what that can tell you about you.

Museum-going, even for us grown-ups, is never only about learning about the outside world. It seems to me that highlighting that– giving visitors a guide for how to learn about themselves and their friends from an exhibit… That’s a good model for proving the value of your museum to the visitor.

After all, the Children’s Museum is, for the children who visit it, basically a giant, amazing playground. The parents pay to have their child’s play framed for them.

Next up: Final post in the series. The ICA and MuseumHive!!!


#MuseumWalkabout First Post

#MuseumWalkabout Second Post

#MuseumWalkabout Third Post

#MuseumWalkabout Fourth Post

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#MuseumWalkabout Summer 2017 (Post 3)

Third post recounting my adventures during #MuseumWalkabout Summer 2017, during which I attempted to hit as many museums as I could in a single day, and to fill all interstitial time with museum-related stuff. Post 1 can be found here, and Post 2 can be found here. I’d recommend starting from the beginning.

Having noted the ads for the Tea Party Museum and Ships, I thought for a moment about checking it out. It had been on my original “maybe” list for the day.

 

But because part of the museum experience is outdoors, and the rain hadn’t let up, I decided not to. I did snap the above pic, and noted an awesome piece of programming that I’d love to check out some time:

 

 

Every museum is desperately chasing the Millennials. This might be a bit much for some millennials– my millennial wife said she wouldn’t go if I paid her– but to me, it combines so many great attractors. Food and booze– things people are already going out and paying for anyway. Dancing and singing. A little history lesson. And millennials keep telling museums– both with their attendance and with how they respond to visitor surveys– that activities that you can do with a couple friends are very important to them as an age cohort.

With the right (slightly nerdy, adventurous about food, enjoy a drink) friends, this would be amazing.

Now it's time for a freakin' Boston Landmark!

A post shared by Tad (@retius) on

 

So, I went on to the Boston Children’s Museum.

I’d seen the Hood Milk bottle before, and heard a lot of positive things about the museum from people, but I’d never been before, not having children, and preferring to go to parks and restaurants when visiting my friends who do.

That said, it was an amazing experience. Bright, colorful, lots of different types of activities and exhibits… I saw a girl do a back handspring in one exhibit, seemingly just because she had the space. The Children’s Museum engaged kids at all sorts of levels, inviting the most un-museum-like anarchy… and everyone seemed to be having a blast, kids and parents alike.

And it was loud. Woo boy, was it loud.

There’s a certain developmental period during which many children, when really enjoying themselves, just run around screaming. This developmental stage was well-represented.

I was really struck by how much fun the adults who let themselves engage with the exhibits and interactives were having. While the learning outcomes are designed for young people, the actions that help us learn that mastery of the world (whether splashing water, building with blocks, or learning about basic science), never fully lose their FUN.

I sat on the floor in a room full of blocks, building a tower myself, and watched the parents who were aiding their children, or even just working beside them– their faces looked engaged. They were having a grand old time. Then I watched the parents sitting on the benches along the wall– they weren’t engaged. They weren’t having fun. This was something their kids enjoyed, and they… they sort of sat, and watched, and looked tired.

After some participant-observer time, I eventually got sucked completely into participant mode. The tower I built was wicked tall, yo.

My masterpiece of block engineering isn’t in the picture, but these are the blocks in question:

#Keva #blocks are amazing.

A post shared by Tad (@retius) on

Because I was livetweeting my observations throughout the day, I would occasionally get feedback from people that shaped my thinking over the course of my walkabout. Around this point, my old friend and former roommate Brendan, who now works for the Association of Children’s Museums, made a very apt observation:

There was something that the Boston Children’s Museum did very well that you seldom see at adult- or even family-centric museums, that I really enjoyed and appreciated: they not only designed exhibits with specific learning outcomes in mind– many if not all museums do that– but they actually center those learning outcomes, literally rendering them visible on the wall:

This was my biggest takeaway from the Children’s Museum. They were very deliberate about the learning outcomes of each exhibit. Which makes sense– people take their kids to children’s museums because they offer a fun opportunity for learning. It always has to be more overt than, say, a playground or park. Because those are free and hyperlocal. To get parents to come with children across town, and plunk down money… they need to be doing more than just playing.

But the thing is, children are never “just playing.” Ludic learning is always inherently a part of play for kids. (And for adults, too, if you can just get them to get over themselves and play.)  The service that the Children’s Museum offers is twofold: a safe, fun place for children to play, explore, and learn, but even more importantly, a place for parents to learn about their kid, to have the process of their child’s learning highlighted and explicated for them. The second part is the real value.

But in doing that, they’re doing something really interesting: they’re putting visitor experience itself on display. Imagine other museums doing that. An exhibit that reflects your experience as a museum-goer back to you, in a way… Points you toward thinking about how you interact with an exhibit and what that can tell you about you.

Museum-going, even for us grown-ups, is never only about learning about the outside world. It seems to me that highlighting that– giving visitors a guide for how to learn about themselves and their friends from an exhibit… That’s a good model for proving the value of your museum to the visitor.

After all, the Children’s Museum is, for the children who visit it, basically a giant, amazing playground. The parents pay to have their child’s play framed for them.

Next up: Final post in the series. The ICA and MuseumHive!!!


#MuseumWalkabout First Post

#MuseumWalkabout Second Post

#MuseumWalkabout Third Post

#MuseumWalkabout Fourth Post

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#MuseumWalkabout Summer 2017 (Post 2)

This is my second post about what I’m calling, informally, #MuseumWalkabout Summer 2017. Read here for the first part.

 

Design Museum Boston may have been the biggest disappointment of my #MuseumWalkabout. Which is a shame– it’s a neat concept. A “nomadic museum” that does design-based installations throughout the city. The museum as a truly integrated element of the urban landscape. So much to love there. Unfortunately…

 

I don’t know if there was once a gift shop at that location, or even a temporary one, or if they have offices in that building that weren’t marked or accessible, or what. But Google, my dear, dear Google, misled me. I am disappoint.

(True story– I was fiercely loyal to Mapquest even after Google Maps came out, until Mapquest gave me bad directions driving to a friend’s funeral in Cincinnati, and I have never used it since. Mapping services are so integral to our lives, so important, that one bad user experience can put us off them forever. This isn’t nearly in the neighborhood of that experience, but it does make me wonder– how do you report to Google that a location they’re reporting doesn’t exist?)

There was nothing but a (fairly nice and interesting) window display. I realized I was very near the Rose Kennedy Greenway, and decided to watch some people interact with some public art. The first piece I went to was “The Meeting House” by Mark Reigelman. The piece has some folding chairs next to it that seemed like good attractors. A punk mother sat and rocked her infant’s stroller. Two finance bros had a chat. Some kids were running around, and of course there were several teens and tourists with cell phones out, taking pictures and selfies. (No judgement, obviously…)

And then the rain picked up.

And then the rain was almost pouring, all within minutes.

I ducked into the Boston Intercontinental, which I’d been in once before when I needed a quiet place near South Station to take a call from a journalist. I also remembered from that time that the hotel had a large number of outlets, which was good, because my phone was already low on juice.

 

I’d already been thinking about how advertising and publicity prime visitors for what sort of experience they could expect at your museum, and these banner ads– strangely encased, for some reason– let you know that the Boston Tea Party Museum And Ships were a local historical point of interest (no mention of the fact that they’re not in the correct location at all, because of landfill), and right around the corner from the Intercontinental.

I had a delicious A.B.C.D.E.L.T sandwich at RumBa, one of the hotel’s several bars and restaurants, and charged my phone while reading about– of course– museums.

Link for the curious. We’ve been debating the pros and cons of dialog-focused exhibits where I work, and it was passed on to me via a coworker.

My phone was still relatively low, so I moved on to a second article:

Another link for the curious. Readers Digest version: it can be done, somewhat imperfectly, but better than you might think, but within limitations. You’ll probably have to create a finding aid elsewhere, whether in Archivists’ Toolkit or a Word doc.

And if anyone reading this really was legitimately curious, get in touch with me and I can arrange to cook you dinner, because you’re the kind of person my wife and I don’t meet enough of.

Next up: The Boston Children’s Museum!!!

 


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#MuseumWalkabout Summer 2017 (Post 1)

NB: Upon beginning to write this post, I realized it was much longer than I could reasonably expect someone else to read. For this reason, I will be writing posts about yesterday for the next few days.

A lot of my department was out yesterday, and I’m trying to do a lot of thinking about museums and exhibits, what works and why, so I decided to visit several museums in quick succession– a sort of “Museum Walkabout.” I also decided to broadcast my activities over the course of the day over social media.  I’m using this space to bring those posts together.

I wanted to visit as many museums as I could take in. I focused on Boston’s busy and developing waterfront district.

I awoke at 6:30, and by 7:30 I was plugging away on email and other tasks I’d perform later in the day if I’d been going into the office.

After a couple hours of that, I walked to the train station. I was struck, even while walking in my town, by how much Americana-themed stuff is around Boston. Working at the Edward M. Kennedy Institute, a lot of designers tend to advocate for more Americana in our design.

But the greater Boston area is so overwhelmed with Americana. Even in, like, mens’ rooms and stuff. It’s almost as bad as it is in Philadelphia, here. And to me, that’s not creating a visual identity. It’s just more of the same.

 

Thinking about that as I walked to the train station, I plopped into my seat on the train and began to read an article by John Falk that a friend had recently given me.

#MuseumWalkabout #NowReading

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It got me thinking about a class I took with Brenda Dervin at Ohio State years ago:

Falk talks about visitors to museums having “identity related needs” that motivate their visits to museums. The museum is somewhere we come to reflect the world to us, but we expect it to do so in ways that address how we see ourselves and why we visit.

Something  about this reminds me of what Dr. Dervin talked about– about sensemaking being how people bridge gaps in understanding… that it’s always, when multiple people are involved, a dialogical process…

Brenda Dervin’s illustration of her sensemaking methodology.

As I continued to read, Falk gave a typology of different sorts of visitors: Explorers, Facilitators, Spiritual Pilgrims, etc.

This got me thinking about how we prime the pump, and let people know what kind of museum experience they’re looking for:

A museum that doesn’t have strong branding, a strong identity– and especially any museum that isn’t of a standard type (“Art Museum,” “Natural History Museum,” etc.)– the visitor won’t know how to expect to behave when they get there. They won’t know what kind of experience to expect. They might even not come, because they don’t understand what kind of visitor experience they will have, and figure they’re not missing anything.

I’m someone who works in the nonprofit sector. Almost always have been. Even when I worked as a temp, I requested only temp work at nonprofits. I instinctively bristle when people start talking about “branding” and “messaging” and “identity” as a corporate concept. But at the end of the day, museums need these things.

I got off the train at North Station, and headed through the streets of the North End until I arrived at my first destination:

First stop on #MuseumWalkabout. I don't know if I have ever been….

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I have to admit, my initial impression of the Paul Revere House wasn’t especially positive. Well, it was cheap at five dollars, so that impression was very good. But my first impression upon entering the house was that it very much was reflective of typical Historic House Museum problems: No photos! No Touching! There was one small pot that an (of course costumed) interpreter told us belonged to Paul Revere, and a child’s chair that belonged to his son.

Rather than this transporting me back in time to the days of the Revere clan, it just made me look around, practice unenjoyable habits of discernment: how much is real or original? How much is period? How much is 20th century repro? We as visitors were held back behind a line, unable to engage with the house. And so we shuffled along to the next room.

Which was even worse– plastic food on the table only further distanced me from the “historic” experience of the house. We went up a narrow stairwell– don’t open that door! You can’t go on the third floor!– and when we had arrived on the second floor, we’d traveled in time at least a generation or two. I think it was Early Republic era, but I wouldn’t swear to it. I’d checked out.

Despite the fact that we were on the second floor, a very modern door took us out to a catwalk, which connected to a second building, where there were modern restrooms and some small exhibits. There, I found the first thing I got really excited about:

The diorama of Revere’s workshop let me do what the historic house seemed bound and determined not to let me do: to imagine the living past, to think about the people and the lifeways that made this location relevant. I took photos of it, pressing my cell phone to the glass. It was the first thing I’d gotten really excited about.

And this was a theme that reoccurred to me several times during the course of the day, in different forms: the idea that in some ways, simulation can be more powerful than recreation. Our inner critic always tries to pick at supposed verisimilitude. It’s vexing, like an itchy scab.

Just as with robots and computer animation, it seems like it’s better to stay clearly on the right side of the uncanny valley when trying to give people an experience that’s evocative of the past.

Or, to put it another way:

Then I went outside, where I found the most exciting thing on the grounds– and the biggest missed opportunity:

 

…I realize that they were basically excavating an area that had been an alley used for drainage, but here was real archeological work being done on site, looking for real items, lost to history! I couldn’t believe they weren’t highlighting it more. They should be running programs around it, and setting up some seating so that people could sit and observe the work.

That said, the volunteer I talked to was very friendly and helpful, and was pleased as punch to talk about the project.

Next: Stop 2: The Boston Design Museum.


#MuseumWalkabout First Post

#MuseumWalkabout Second Post

#MuseumWalkabout Third Post

#MuseumWalkabout Fourth Post

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CFP– Desegregation of Public Schools. Possible Stipend!

For immediate distribution. Please share with anyone you think may be interested.

The Center for Local History at Arlington Public Library is seeking guest bloggers to help promote and support Project DAPS—an ongoing digital history project to disseminate records, images, oral histories and other materials related to the desegregation of Arlington, Virginia’s public schools.

Project DAPS is a unique online exhibition and searchable database of archival materials related to the legal and moral battles that culminated with four courageous African American students taking their seats on Feb. 2, 1959 at Arlington’s Stratford Junior High School. The project explores the full historic narrative, starting with Arlington’s rapid growth of the 1940s through the 1970s.

Project DAPS is culled from the holdings of the Arlington Public Library’s Community Archives in the Center for Local History and includes thousands of photos, documents and recordings. Many items were only recently digitized. There are currently thousands of pages of documents online, and more are being added all the time.

We are looking for proposals from grad students, librarians, archivists, professors, and local historians for blog posts that model for users how Project DAPS can be used to conduct or supplement research about a variety of topics that intersect with the desegregation of public schools in Virginia and the DC area.

We have secured a limited number of $200 stipends for people who write blog posts to support this project. Stipends will be awarded on a rolling basis.

Interested parties should identify several documents that interest them, write up a brief paragraph about the topic they would like to discuss, and provide a few sentences of biography on their academic or research background, and send them to Judith Knudsen at jknuds (at) arlingtonva.us

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Unknown Knowns?

Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.Donald Rumsfeld, 12 February 2002. Emphasis added.

I’ve loved the above quote from Donald Rumsfeld for a long time. It hits you hard like a zen koan: upon first hearing it, you think it’s nonsensical, possibly even word salad. But after further reflection, it strikes you as actually quite profound, and even eloquent.

At least that was my response to it. If you responded differently, you might just want to stop reading now, because the rest of this post might not be for you.

Anyway, it’s a quote that I find myself returning to again and again, even 15 years (yikes!) after Rumsfeld first said it. And I thought of it today, when I watched a recent episode of Tom Scott’s Youtube series “Things You Might Not Know.”

Click on this image to go to Things You Might Not Know’s video “You Can Hear The Difference Between Hot and Cold Water”

This video struck me because it made really explicit, to me, the existence of the one category of “unknown” Rumsfeld doesn’t address: there are unknown knowns. To break it down in simple terms, like Donnie did, there are things that we know that we might not even be aware of knowing.

This isn’t exactly earth-shattering news. What I’m talking about is very similar—though subtly different—from the idea of “tacit knowledge” that Michael Polanyi first brought up in his books Personal Knowledge and The Tacit Dimension, first published in the 50s and 60s. Tacit knowledge refers to the idea that there are some things we know that we don’t often explicitly explain or codify,  and for that reason may not know how to adequately explain. Tacit knowledge is often linked to a sense of “know-how,” an operational understanding, a series of techniques and approaches.

Back to the video: the title makes a statement that I initially thought was absurd. You can tell the difference between hot and cold water by listening? How? Why? Huh? I watched the video expecting to gain explicit knowledge, a little “trick,” a “life hack.”

And then the presenter pours water. From two identical pitchers, into two identical mugs. They don’t show it happening, so as not to give you any visual clues. Until the moment the pouring began, I was waiting to hear the trick. I didn’t expect to have any idea which was which. But when I heard the water being poured, I just instinctively knew. One just sounded “cold.” The other sounded “warm.”

I realized that I had encountered something even deeper than “tacit knowledge.” I had discovered, within myself, a piece of tacit knowledge that I wasn’t even aware I possessed. When I read the title, it had actually struck me as absurd. You can’t tell the temperature of water from how it sounds! But there it was. I could. I knew that already, tacitly, without even knowing that I knew it.

There are unknown knowns.

 

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Romneycare: A Counterfactual

Editorial cartoon: Barak Obama and Mitt Romney hold hands with identical children, one labeled “Obamacare” and one labeled “Romneycare in MA” Romney says to Obama, “Your kid is ugly.”

I know historians are supposed to reject counterfactuals, but let’s play counterfactual history. (Hey, some of us don’t play fantasy football!)

Let’s say that Romney won the nomination in 2008 and beat Obama. At the time, a lot of people on both sides of the aisle realized that the healthcare system was broken (how soon the Republicans have forgotten). Romney would have probably pushed something very similar to Obamacare.

Remember, Obamacare was based on Romneycare in Massachusetts, and proposals based on the Heritage Foundation’s proposals. So it would have looked very similar. Obama chose to back that proposal not because he thought it was ideal, but because he’s the kind of person who defines politics as the art of the possible.

The line that both progressives who favored single payer and conservatives who hated Obamacare were told was that it was an incremental step towards socialized medicine. But nobody would have said that if it had come from Whitebread McMoneybags. Nobody is mistaking Mittens for Che Guevara.

At this point, the same problems that have come about from Obamacare would be presenting themselves about Romneycare National Edition. Only the Republicans would be scrambling to keep the gains they made, not the Democrats.

And after eight years of Mitt Romney, which would have been kind of dark for a lot of people but nothing like the Looming Garbage Fire On the Horizon we have now, we’d have a Democrat in the White House. Almost any Democrat. Trump wouldn’t have ascended without Obama to raise hell against. The Democrats would likely hold the Senate, and the Tea Party takeover of the narrowly-controlled House would not have happened. When Scalia passed away, Mitt would have been in a similar boat to the one Obama was in, and he would have been replaced by a Republican Merrick Garland, a middle of the road conservative that would, if anything, push the SCOTUS more to the center. Liberal judges retiring in the next eight years could breathe easy.

President Literally Any Democrat would have a strong mandate, and would currently be working with the Senate Majority Leader and the House Minority Whip to get the votes necessary to implement a single payer plan. Because the mandate was there and if s/he shapes it right, the votes would be there. Because there *would be* some issues with Romneycare National Edition, just like there *are* some issues with Obamacare. We’d just be, as a nation, much better posed to address them in the appropriate and sensible manner–ie, by getting rid of the inherent waste of the for-profit, insurance based model.

Instead of fighting tooth and nail to defend the Republicans’ scraps from the pivoted, irrational right Republican Party, we’d be in a good place to have a reasoned debate about the merits of a single payer system.

This counterfactual has been bothering me all day. Not because I wish Romney had won… I’ve never voted for the man, and a lot of progress that has been made under Obama wouldn’t have been made under Romney. But because it makes me feel like so much of politics comes down to the messenger. We would be poised, on this one very important issue, an issue important to all Americans–but especially to the most vulnerable among us– for a very different discussion right now… And one that is much better for those most vulnerable, if Obamacare had been brought to us simply by a different messenger. A messenger with different political and racial baggage.

I want to think that politics is bigger than the identity of the messenger. I really do. But I’m not sure.

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