English 101 | Unit 4

Secondary Sources in Research

Unit 4 | Secondary Sources in Research

Unit 4 | Overview: Finding and Sharing Secondary Sources

Welcome to Unit 4

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Overview of Concepts

In Unit 4, we’re looking at a form of research you're likely very familiar with from past classes, and this is a form research that many of you likely use on a daily basis with social media: finding and sharing secondary sources.

The most important takeaway from this unit is that secondary sources are sources that are produced from outside your topic — they're written or shared second-hand, often by journalists or bloggers or anyone speaking about your topic from the outside.  This gives key strengths and important shortcomings for secondary sources, making them some of the most important — and sometimes the most hazardous — sources you may use.

Unit Objectives

In this unit, you will again find three sources to share an describe with your classmates, and then you'll write a 400-word article giving an overview of your topic.  Note that the article is slightly longer, and that the shift in focus will provide your audiences with key information to help them better understand how your earlier articles fit within your larger topic.


Unit 4 | Lecture: Secondary Sources

This week, we're looking at secondary sources.  Last week's video resources differentiated secondary from primary sources, and this week we want to carry this a step further.  We want to determine how find and identify good secondary sources.

Now, with this, I'm also going to cover Wikipedia and the appropriate to use it in your research process, but I never want to see Wikipedia cited in your papers (unless Wikipedia is the topic you're studying — that's a different conversation.)  This conversation is important because Wikipedia is technically a secondary source because it's second-hand information about a topic.  More accurately, however, it's an encyclopedic source.  Like the dictionary, it simply doesn't provide the direct information and evidence that you need for a research paper.

So, to start, here's a quick video where I talk about secondary sources in relation to my experiences in the army.  I served for five years, from 2002-2007, and it's one of those topics that I love coming back to in my own writing.  However, to understand my own experiences, it sometimes helps to see how others describe the military from the outside:

Where to Find These Fantastic Beasts?  I Mean Sources?

First, Heartland Library!

Yes, I'll be asking you to find secondary sources through Heartland Library.  This will be particularly important for your scholarly sources in the next unit, so get accustomed to the website now.  I've put together a guided tour for using the Heartland Library website.  In addition to step-by-step instructions, it also includes two videos to illustrate keywords and refining your search results:

Next, Use Google!  And Google Scholar!

Okay, these seem like a no-brainer, don't they?  The one catch, however, is that Google doesn't always give you the results you're looking for, especially not on the first page.  So you need to refine your keywords, often for multiple searches.  This is normal — if you aren't doing this, then you likely won't find the best sources you need.  So if you google something and the search doesn't give you want you need, then try new sets of keywords.

How do I know if my sources are any good?

This is a tough question.  There are some sources that tend to be very, very high quality.  These often come from journalists — they'll travel to interview people, they dig through other primary and secondary sources, and they evaluate multiple perspectives before drawing conclusions.  Often, the best secondary sources won't give you conclusions — instead, they provide information and bring up questions and show us what we don't know about the world around us.

When evaluating sources, I myself like to focus on three key elements:

The CRAAP Test

However, there is another system that also works extremely well — it’s actually a more detailed method that incorporated the three areas above.  And yes, it rhymes with crap.  Because crappy sources will make your paper crap.  Duquesne University provides descriptions of the CRAAP terms — here’s an overview of the five components:



Sarah Blakesley is the librarian who created the CRAAP Test, and she specifically used this acronym so it’s easy to remember, and I highly recommend it.  I myself primarily focus on relevance, relatedness, and credibility because those are the three aspects of sources that I find the most consistent for all topics, especially when we start looking at topics across multiple time periods.  However, note that the credibility I focus on incorporates the aspects of Authority, Accuracy, and Purpose from the CRAAP test, so you may find the CRAAP test more helpful.

Relevance: Are Your Sources Related to Your Topic?

Ideally, you want relevant secondary sources that directly cover your topic.  For some topics, finding relevant sources is relatively easy.  For example, right now our country is facing a massive public health crisis.  Over 100,000 Americans have died from coronavirus, so this is major news for everyone right now.  Anyone who wants to research this will find hundreds if not thousands of sources that talk about every every aspect of the pandemic.  For a moment, let's consider just a single aspect of the pandemic: vaccines.  Here are some Google searches about various aspects of vaccines — if you click these links, you'll see lots of sources:

However, the coronavirus is big news — we naturally want to know everything about it.  Other topics that have massive amounts of information will include anything that's either popular or valued.  Make-up videos, fantasy movies, cars, football, World War II, Queen Elizabeth — this random-ish list represents topics that people talk and write about a lot.

Relatedness: Can You Tie Sources to Your Topic?

Unfortunately, you won't always have a "big" and "well-known" topic.  In fact, I encourage you to seek out topics that are far more narrow — the kinds of topics that might not have as many sources available before fewer people have written about it.

For example, I love the movie Monsters. It's one of my favorites.  It's possible you've never heard of it.  Here's the trailer:

It was filmed on an incredibly low budget.  Two actors, the director, and some film crew members literally took a trip to Central America, filmed on location as they journeyed around , and then later filled in a bunch of special effects.  The film is so low-budget, in fact, that they used the bodyguards provided by a local tourism bureau as extras.  Or as Steve Rose of The Guardian writes:

Most of the film was shot with a crew of just four: Edwards behind the camera, a sound man, a line producer and his Spanish-speaking equivalent. And they basically made it up as they went along, driving through Central America in a van with the actors. They'd ask around for any out-of-the-ordinary, post-apocalyptic-looking stuff nearby, then jump out, shoot a scene (improvised, of course) and move on, editing on a laptop in hotels at night.

So it's not a huge movie.  Most people I know have never heard of it.  Many people who've watched it don't like it — it's much slower than most science fiction movies featuring an "alien invasion."  So if I wanted to write a paper about it, it would much harder to find sources just about this movie.  However, sources on the following could certainly be applied:

For many topics, you first track down your relevant sources tied directly to the topic, and then you factor in these additional sources that are only related to your topic.  Part of your job as a writer and a researcher is to describe what makes them useful for understanding your research.

Credibility: Can You Trust Your Sources?

Now, one of the issues with relevance and relatedness is that not all relevant sources are also credible sources.  Sometimes, you'll find secondary sources that are deeply flawed — maybe the author didn't do enough research, or they didn't interview the right people, or they have clear biases in how they report their findings.  For a quick example, just think of Rita Skeeter from Harry Potter.  From the moment she drags him into the broom closet and starts to interview him, it’s clear she has an agenda: she cares more about entertaining her readers than representing the truth about Harry:

Video of Rita Skeeter Interview with Harry

Almost every topic you can think of will have unreliable sources.  As researchers, our job is not to simply ignore these sources.  Instead, we need to address them.  Often, the reasons for their unreliability indicate important information about the topic.  Why is Rita Skeeter so determined to make Harry Potter seem like a tragic figure?  Because people have preconceptions about “the boy who lived,” and those preconceptions indicate the differences between fame, perception, and a person’s true self.

This is where credibility comes in.  As you examine your sources, you need to determine just how trustworthy they are.  This is one reason why scholarly sources written for academic journals tend to be so highly favored for research papers.  To get published in an academic journal, someone must do research that is then reviewed by other researchers — and it’s only accepted for publication after it’s accuracy has been verified.  The best secondary sources will do this through the editorial process — newspapers, magazines, and publishers usually have fact checkers review materials before sharing them.

However, what about blog posts?  As Ken Franzen writes, blogs can provide very useful information from people who are directly involved in your area of interest.  On the other hand, you need to still evaluate their expertise and motives.

Now that we’ve covered this, let’s look at how we actually apply this to sources in the real world.


Unit 4 | Discussion: Secondary Sources and "I Have a Dream" 

Application discussions require at least one post of 100 words per person, but you can always write as much as you like.  In your post, please use concepts from the lecture and direct response to points made by at least two of your classmates.  If you are the first two people to post, you’re lucky — you can focus on the lectures!

“I Have a Dream” is a touchstone in American history.  In a way, we could say it’s even more important today because of what’s been happening in Minneapolis and in cities around the country.

But the speech is no “more” important now — it’s just that burning cities remind us of the reasons why Dr. King’s speech matters.  If we look more deeply into the underlying causes of the protests and the riots, we’ll find that there are issues of racism, poverty, and police brutality that continue every day — they have been reality for many Americans not simply for years or decades, but centuries.

Clarence Jones and Shaping “I Have a Dream”

When we consider “I Have a Dream,” the first thing we need are sources that help us understand the people behind the speech.  Unfortunately, as student researchers, you will have limited access to some of the sources that would best fit your research papers.  It’s hard going out and conducting interviews or visiting document repositories when you don’t have a travel budget — and with coronavirus right now, it’s hard getting out just to talk with a librarian to ask for assistance.

This is where secondary sources become extremely helpful.  The following two sources offer highlight interviews with Clarence B. Jones, a lawyer and close friend of Dr. King.  Here, he talks about how the speech was written — essentially, how it came to take shape.  If we apply our source tests, we find that these sources are directly tied to the speech and that they can point us to related areas of interest (such as historical events referenced by Jones and the authors).  Credibility here becomes complicated because Jones was a close friend of Dr. King’s — obviously, he wouldn’t want to say something negative about his friend who is no longer with us.  However, he’s a respected lawyer and a leader in his right, and he values the pursuit of Civil Rights — thus, he likely places a very high value upon truth and understanding.

But then, these two sources are not primary sources from Jones — they’re interviews.  In Brinkley’s Vanity Fair article, we see a lot of descriptions by Brinkley — information and interpretations that Jones himself might not have chosen to talk about.  Thus, we also need to consider why the articles were written.  Both are solid, credible sources about “I Have a Dream,” but what limits do they have?  Are there any pieces of information here that are being left out?

Vanity Fair – Douglas Brinkley, “The Man Who Kept King’s Secrets

Reuters – Sharon Berstein: “Famed King speech almost didn't include 'I have a dream'

History.com and “Broad” Sources

Next, I’d like you to read to a more general source about “I Have a Dream.”  It’s from History.com, one of my least favorite sources.  Why do I dislike it?  Because like Wikipedia, it gives very useful and very general information that students tend to mistake for thorough information:

History.com — “‘I Have a Dream’ Speech

In your discussion post, please talk about these three articles in relation to the CRAAP test.  You don’t need to do a full CRAAP analysis or anything — instead, use those considerations as your starting point.  Evaluate the types of information these sources give.  What information does Clarence B. Jones give us that History.com does not?  What information do we get from History.com that isn’t covered by Jones?

Again, application discussions require at least one post of 100 words per person, but you can always write as much as you like.  In your post, please use concepts from the lecture and direct response to points made by at least two of your classmates.  If you are the first two people to post, you’re lucky — you can focus on the lectures!

Unit 4 | Discussion: Bird's-Eye View of Project 1

General Directions

This is a Project Discussion.  In Project Discussions, each person needs at least One Initial Post of 100 words, and 3 Response Posts of 50 words each.  You can use your Initial Post as a “rough draft” or “notes” for the project assignment due at the end of the unit.  I recommend writing your initial post first, then writing responses to your classmates, and then coming back to finish your Project Assignment after you’ve received some feedback.  Just note: if you post your initial post late, then your classmates might not have time to post responses.

Please feel free to post a recording or video if you’re having trouble reaching the minimum word count.  I’ve posted a reminder at the end regarding the word counts and different options for sharing all the information you need to share.

Also, I want to emphasize: it is very difficult to get the maximum points for your discussion posts if you only write the minimum word count.  Brevity in writing is good, but make sure you provide all the information I’m looking for.

The Discussion: A Bird’s-Eye View

Thus far, we’ve looked at how to choose topics, how to find primary sources, and how a secondary source works.  For this discussion, I want you to talk with each other about the “bird’s-eye view” of your topics.  You’ll be finding secondary sources that give more general information about your topics, and these secondary sources should also include credible sources.  For example, the articles on Clarence B. Jones provided his insights along with additional context to help us better understand Jones’s relationship with Dr. King.  The History.com article, on the other, only provided the overview — it didn’t provide enough detail to give helpful quotes.

Initial Post: Three Secondary Sources (min. 100 words)

In this post, give us three secondary sources related to your topic.  For these sources, you’re going to write a general “birds-eye view” of what they can tell us.  As you do this, be sure you address the following:

If you like, feel free to do a full breakdown of those three terms for each of your sources.  As I said, it’s hard to max your points if you only write the minimum word counts.  If you’d really like max your points, do some CRAAP testing on your sources.  It’s not required, but everything you write here can help as you write your project.  In fact, you could end up writing half your project assignment.


Response Posts: Questions and Suggestions for Your Classmates (min. 50 words each)

In discussion responses, ask your classmates about their projects.  Ask for clarification on the secondary sources.  Or if you have either personal experiences of your know of other helpful sources (primary or secondary), this is a great place to share those.  When I teach, I never grade on a curve — the more you help each other, the better grades that everyone will receive.

Reminder: Video and Handwriting Options

Quick Note on Word Counts, Typing, and Video Submissions: One of the hardest parts about online courses is the need to type and type and type.  Unfortunately, not everyone types very fast.  Also, not everyone likes to write.  (Just don’t tell my boss I said that . . . I mean, us English teachers are supposed to make everyone love every minute of word vomit we make you share . . . )

Because of this, I’ve left the word count minimums very low.  It’s actually very, very hard to get full credit for your posts if you only write these minimums.  However, if you’re more comfortable recording yourself and using that to explain your ideas, please feel free — you can upload a sound file or a video for your initial posts and your responses.  If your handwriting is legible, you could also handwrite your posts and then upload photos of them.  I’ve also had students in the past who write their responses on their smartphones — if that’s better for you, Canvas has an app for you.

About hand injuries . . . in case you ever injure your hand, you’ll have to adapt.  I’ve actually had two surgeries on my right wrist (and yes, I’m right handed . . .)  I know from experience that left-handed typing for me is painfully slow, and writing with my left hand looks worse than what I wrote in kindergarten.  So in case of hand or finger injuries or any other disability requiring accommodation, please let me know.  The most important thing is your participation in the course.