Students can spend their entire academic career not really understanding the distinction between scholarly articles and articles intended for other purposes. Knowing the difference is central to good research.
This year I am taking time to address it directly by employing a compare and contrast exercise. The idea is to take two pieces that expound upon the same topic; one scholarly, the other for general readership. The assignment asks the students to read two articles and answer a series of questions about each piece. Students are expected to return to the next class with notes and written answers.
This year I am starting with two pieces by Seth Jones.
Although the author does not need to be the same person for each article, it really does drive home the point that there are distinct goals that drive the structure of each kind of article. It also chips away at the notion that scholars are not connected to the real world.
The first piece is an article from Foreign Policy. (warning you may need to create a login for this site, but access is free) Beating Back the Taliban: The Afghan Surge Has Been A Success (March 14, 2011). The second article, also by Jones is from International Security: The Rise of Afghanistan’s Insurgency: State Failure and Jihad (International Security, Volume 32, Number 4, Spring 2008, pp. 7-40)
Assignment Timing: Near end of class period provide the following instructions via handout.
Compare and contrast these two articles. As you read the articles outline the argument in your notes. Be certain to have answers to the following questions for EACH article separately
1. What appears to be the author’s central argument?
2. What data does the author present to support his argument?
3. What is the author trying to do in the article? Who is he talking to?
4. What is important about this article?
5. What was interesting to you about this article?
Now compare the two articles. How are they different? How are they the same?
Bring your notes and answers to the next class. Be prepared to discuss your answers.
Assignment Timing: Next Class Period–Discussion of the student findings
One way to start that discussion (completely stolen from my mentor J. Scott Johnson at Saint John’s University) is to ask students to review their notes and answers for a few minutes in silence at the beginning of the class. Then, tell them write their thoughts on the board in free format.
For sorting purposes and to add structure, I like to break it down into columns:
What is important here? (why do you think I assigned this)
What was hard to understand? (what don’t you understand even after you’ve read it)
What do you want to talk about? (what did you find compelling)
The point is NOT to have the students read both pieces completely and comment on what they think about the Taliban insurgency.
The purpose of the exercise is to begin to show them how to read scholarly journal articles, and reveal the difference between general informational arguments and arguments intended to further scholarship. It is also a very good idea to have students read about how to read political science. As a resource, I really like this one by Leanne Powner “Reading and Understanding Political Science”
Pairing the board work with the articles allows students who aren’t especially vocal to start with their voice in chalk. Sometimes this helps students who self-censor an opportunity to build an idea out loud. It also allows other students to see the thoughts of their colleagues all at once without clamoring voices.
The immediate benefit of the exercise is formative. Students discuss and question the characteristics associated with scholarly inquiry and how it is different from newspapers and periodicals intended for general readership.
The exercise also lays the groundwork for how these students approach their reading for the remainder of the semester. These questions are precisely the questions they should ask themselves as they read scholarly texts throughout the semester.