Teaching students to write presents a range of obstacles. Clearly defining or modeling long form student essay research and writing continues to be a seemingly insurmountable hurdle. National History Day recently posted a simple piece of advice on Twitter advising students to begin their research with secondary sources, identify holes and an interesting angle, then move to primary sources. The advice is incredibly simple, yet difficult to explain to students how it plays out in professional journalism and historical writing.
John Jeremiah Sullivan’s recent article “That Chop on the Upbeat” in Issue 83 of Oxford American provides a fascinating roadmap into his research and writing process. Sullivan peppers his writing with references and hints at how his research, thesis, and writing developed. Early on in the piece he references several secondary sources that provide background and insight into the importance of Franklin Delano Alexander Braithwaite, better known as Junior Braithwaithe or Bratty, as an original member of the Wailers and a founder of the Jamaican sound. In particular Sullivan directs his readers to an interview included in Bob Marley’s posthumous release Talkin’ Blues, a Roger Steffens interview with Bratty from 1985, multiple movies, and video footage of various peace concerts. This type of research likely provided much of the background information Sullivan provides the reader on the myths, legends, and facts surrounding Bratty’s contributions to the Wailers.
From this context, Sullivan does what great writers do – follows up on the holes in the existing material. Sullivan follows this trail to Jamaica for his primary sources, particularly a fascinating interview with Bunny Wailer. Only here do we learn where Sullivan’s research ultimately took him – what was the “first” ska song. Students often struggle with this aspect of the research process – realizing that their original research questions are not likely going to be the only ones they end up answering. The ability to adjust your research questions as you go is one of the most important skills a student can develop. Obviously, I would recommend against an 8th grader burying their thesis several hundred words into their paper, but Sullivan’s transparency captures what great research based writing does – it seeks answers to the questions that arise during the research process.
Sullivan then walks the reader through a range of sources, both primary and secondary, including articles and advertisements from Jamaican newspapers in the 1960s and, most interestingly, the cornucopia of footage uploaded to Youtube by record collectors.
YouTube has made little musicological quests like this one dangerously easy. Both in the sense that you can easily make mistakes, on the basis of sloppy recording-date info, and in the sense that you can easily lose weeks of your life exploring blind caves. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but every socially isolated lifelong record collector on the planet has uploaded or is in the process of uploading his or her record collection to the Web. They’re just putting the records on the turntable one at a time and filming them as they play, so the audio isn’t ideal, though it’s often pretty good (it’s vinyl). You sit there at home and watch them spin, like a Norwegian television channel. You get to read the labels. You can’t have the objects—it’s perfect for the collectors; you still get the special feeling of exclusivity and possession; you get to sit there and make the whole world listen to your records—but the benefit for the scholar or passionate listener can’t be overstated, because of course, everything is out there, all of the basements and attics are being streamed, and it’s possible now, when you’re chasing some footnote across the filaments, to find yourself on a routine basis outdoing even the most reliable discographies, the same way you can sit there on the Web and predate OED first usages, if you want to, not through any ability of yours, much less any wisdom, but because the robots have gathered such vast harvests, made them accessible, searchable, unavoidable. What has been gathered at a nonhuman speed we are digesting at a human one.
I am guessing National History Day would treat these videos as “secondary sources”, but Sullivan’s insight into their role in his research highlights the value provided by unique sources during the research process. Sullivan’s transparency also provides his readers with insight into the rewards his persistence and curiosity provide as he writes and explores the range of sources available:
Remember when you had to feel sort of sheepish, when saying you’d done some piece of research “on the Internet,” as it represented an index marker for hackdom? The feeling lingers nowadays as an atavistic social tic. These days, not to have done your research on the Internet is to condemn yourself to pitiable ignorance. Not that you don’t still have to do the old-fashioned stuff, the touchstone texts, the comparative method, the rigor. You have to do all that and try to master newly discovered oceans of documentary sources. It can be fun, though. Once, writing about Bunny, I spent the better part of a week getting completely out of my mind and surfing through songs, trying to pinpoint the emergence, from the chrysalis, of the ska sound. I wanted to be able to hold the evolution of it in my head, just for a minute, to say how it happened, session by session. You can’t really do it. Even when you know everything, I mean. There were too many active participants, too many shared influences, you’re inside an echo chamber with two hundred people shouting. Also there’s a weird fuzzy period between the rhythmic shot over the bow of “Easy Snappin’” (1957? 1958?—we’re not even sure) and 1960–61, when a little cluster of very ska-like songs gets recorded, in not entirely certain order.
Sullivan continues to write some of the most interesting journalism available. This article in particular generated a ton of ideas around sending students off on their own as they develop their own research questions and look for answers; and likely find more questions. Now I just need to translate this into LPs and measurable student goals.