Careful description is part of good research. The writer who is able to observe people, events, and places, and to convey that observation accurately 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 library, 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 individuals. 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:

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 together that is the essence of newspaper production? Making the note enables 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 airport lobby; record what you hear whenever you can. A writer sometimes finds the lead vignette for a story in some overheard snatch of conversation. 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 university. 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 joking before the sermon. "What happened last night?" "Nothing 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 full stops, rolling stops, and no stops for a period of two hours; then you can say something based on direct knowledge.

Even simple experiments can yield useful data when you determine that such data might make you more of an authority once you understand how to collect it. There is a vast literature on designing surveys and questionnaires, but a professor in the social or educational sciences might be able to show you some shortcuts or information aimed at lay researchers.


Don't spend too long visiting, interviewing, describing, and collecting without writing. Your collected information will make little sense until you force it to do so, and writing does that. Try not to spend forever making still more notes on 3 X 5 cards, shuffling and reshuffling to find the best order. All that stuff is useful, but remember that one of the best ways to see how your material is or isn't fitting together is to start writing about it. All your book notes, recordings, site descriptions, statistics, quotations, and theories only begin to make sense when you can see them in some kind of relationship with one another and watch the pattern they take.

Finally, whatever the subject of your investigation, the actual report you write can take many possible shapes, depending on how you formulate your questions about it. Consider, for example, the following lead paragraphs of three different writers who jointly investigated the minimum security Chittenden Community Correctional Center in Burlington, Vermont. Although they shared information throughout the project and visited the jail together, each wrote a distinctly different report.

Walking up to the door of the Chittenden Community Correctional Center made me feel a bit on edge. The inmates were staring at us; I just wanted to leave. As Debbie put it, "Six girls in a Correctional Center at 8:00 p.m., I must be nuts."

Do you ever wonder what goes on behind the doors of a correctional center? What does it offer its inmates to improve their lives? Have you wondered what types of programs the centers provide?


The Chittenden Community Correctional Center is found on Farrell Street, just off Swift Street, not five minutes from the University of Vermont campus. Within its boundaries criminals are serving time for drunk driving, petty theft, and assault and battery.

Each student investigated the same institution and each had a different idea for a lead and, ultimately, a different story to tell. At the same time, each lead proves interesting and invites further reading.

This chapter has examined the possibilities of college-level research to include places and issues in the local community. The next chapter investigates the research possibilities of the central institution of all colleges and universities, the library, as well as sources available on the Internet.


1. Make a list of ten local places that it would be interesting to visit. Which one is most interesting to you? Why?

2. Make a list of ten social issues that have (or could have) local consequences. Which one is most consequential to you? Why?

3. Make a list of local people to whom you could talk about the issues listed in number two.


1. INDIVIDUAL: Select a site listed in your journal and visit it. Describe it, interview somebody there, and find out if there is an issue to pursue further. If there is, pursue it, keeping a research log to document your way. (Possible places to investigate: public transportation centers, local businesses, government facilities, campus institutions, social agencies, parks, concert halls, malls, museums, schools, and prisons.)

2. COLLABORATIVE: Select a community of people (e.g., sports team, business associates, academic department, agency workers and clients) and develop a collective profile.

3. OPEN: Do one of the projects above and invent an interesting form in which to report your results: a TV script, a feature newspaper story, an exchange of letters, a short book with chapters, a drama, a technical report, a magazine article, or a multimedia event.

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