Entering the Home Stretch

Good morning, ThoughtVectorites!

We’re now entering the final stretch of the semester and so I wanted to take the opportunity to remind you of some helpful resources as you work on your inquiry projects.

Most of your inquiry projects can be broken down into three components: research, writing, and multimodal/digital aspects. There are resources and people who can help you with each component, so if you find yourself struggling or simply needing a boost, don’t suffer alone–contact the following people/departments for assistance:

  1. Research

At this point, most of you have already done a large chunk of your research for your projects. However, as you put together your projects you might find that you need to fill in some research gaps. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: research is not a linear process. Oftentimes, you may be searching for sources and incorporating them into your paper/project until right up to the due date. There’s nothing wrong with that! In fact, it makes total sense–it’s easier to see where the research gaps are when you’ve already put most of your project together.

If you need help with research/finding sources, the library is your friend. More specifically, the librarians who are working with your Clubhouse sections for this class are really, really your friends!

Rachel McCaskill (email: ramccaskill@vcu.edu, Twitter: @RAMLibrarian) is working with Bonnie Boaz and Jon Becker’s sections (respectively, As We Create and Wonderpeople)

Donna Coghill (email: decoghil@vcu.edu; Twitter: @DECoghill) is working with Ryan Cales’ class (Team Pterotype)

Jenny Stout (that’s me!) (email: jastout@vcu.edu; Twitter: @JastoutVCU) is working with Gardner Campbell, Jason Coats, and–starting next week–Enoch Hale’s* classes (their websites: Spirit of ’76, Curiouser and Curiouser, Inquiry 2 Action)

*The lovely Deanna Rasch, who worked with Enoch’s classes this semester, will be starting a new position at Colorado Mesa University in a few weeks. We will miss her!

Please contact your librarian with any questions about finding and evaluating resources! We are happy to help over email or in person!



2. Writing

Part of your Inquiry project for this class involves the basic skill of putting pen to paper (or, more accurately, putting fingers to keyboard). Writing can be one of the most difficult–yet most important–skills you’ll learn during your time at VCU. Luckily, we have an entire department devoted to helping you!

VCU’s Writing Center is ready and waiting for those of you who would like assistance and insight into writing for not only this class, but any and all classes you’ll take at VCU. They encourage students to come in sooner rather than later (asking for help 2 hours before the paper is due is not recommended!), but they can assist you at all stages of the writing process.

You can schedule and in-person consultation or an online consultation–whichever is most convenient for you.

Additionally, the Writing Center has its own blog, which gives tips on writing during college. And they’re on Twitter too! (@VCUWritingCtr)

business cat


3. Multimodal/Digital creativity

One of the unique aspects of the ThoughtVector sections of UNIV 200 is the focus on multimodality, digital literacy, and technology. Whether your section is in person, fully online, or a hybrid, you all are engaging deeply with blogging, Twitter, and other digital platforms. And your final inquiry project will live online.

Many of you might want to include multi-modal components to your final project. Multimodal compositions are defined as “texts that exceed the alphabetic and may include still and moving images, animations, color, words, music and sound” (Selfe and Takayoshi, 2007). So, if you add pictures, GIFs, videos, audio, infographics, etc to your inquiry project, it is officially multimodal.

Many of you may be interested in adding multimodal components to your project but have no idea where to start. The library has an entire department, called Innovative Media, to help you! Currently, Innovative Media resides on the 3rd floor of Cabell Library, but it will be moving to a brand-spanking new space on the Lower Level in the not-too-distant future.

Innovative Media has workstations with video and audio-editing software, 3D printers, and tons of equipment (such as GoPro camera and a portable green screen) for checkout (and it’s all free!).  Here is a comprehensive list of what IM offers. Most importantly, Innovative Media has friendly and knowledgeable staff who can help you with your projects, no matter your skill level.


Good luck on your inquiry projects, everyone!



Freely Available Information and Avoiding the Paywall

Happy Friday, ThoughtVector friends!

I would like to write a little today about finding resources on the open Internet. I know that those of you taking the ThoughtVector sections of UNIV 200 are ultimately working toward a research project that will be online and available for all the read. It makes sense then that you will want to avoid posting links that may guide your reader straight into a paywall that looks something like this:

$41.95 for a 12 page article? Seems reasonable.
$41.95 for a 12 page article? Seems reasonable.


VCU students are granted full and free access to online, scholarly articles through VCU Libraries. But what if your reader isn’t a VCU student? They may not have the same access you do. What can you do to make sure that you have good, quality articles linked from your online inquiry project that don’t lead to a paywall like the one above or a VCU Login request? Well, there are a couple options:

  1. Google Scholar

If you haven’t heard of Google Scholar before, prepared to have your mind blown. Google Scholar is just what it sounds like: a more scholarly version of the Google search engine. When you do a search of Google Scholar, you’ll find a high percentage of books and scholarly (i.e. peer-reviewed) articles. If you are searching Google Scholar while on VCU’s campus, your results might look like this:


You’ll notice that there are “Get it @ VCU” links on the right side of some of the articles. This link will take you back to the VCU Libraries page where you will be able to access the article.

However, you may also notice that in addition to “Get it @ VCU”, some of the articles have PDF links. Like the ones here:


These PDF links are often viewable by anyone who stumbles across them, VCU student or not.

To make a long story short, you can embed these PDF links from Google Scholar into your inquiry project and your reader is less likely to run into the paywall issue. The embedded link may not stay “live” forever, since these PDF links are occasionally taken down, but they are one option for making it a bit easier on your reader to see where you got your research.

2. Substantive Sources

The term “substantive sources” refers to resources in that gray area between peer-reviewed research (aka “scholarly” articles and books) and purely popular and/or “crappy” resources.

Substantive sources are long enough to make a coherent argument and to explore an issue in depth (none of those “Five Things You Never Realized About Back to the Future [Number 3 Will Blow Your Mind!!]”-type articles, please). They are written for a general audience. They are easier to read than a scholarly article. Finally, though they may not have original research, they might mention, digest, and cite original research from other sources. 

One big befit of substantive sources is that they are often available freely on the Internet. In other words–no paywall!

So how does one go about finding these substantive sources. It can be a bit tricky, since you need to use sound judgement in deciding whether an article is quality or not, but a good place to start is this Guide to Substantive Sources created by VCU Libraries’ own Donna Coghill. The landing page gives an overview of the characteristics of substantive sources (and a handy-dandy chart!) and the tabs on the left side of the page suggest well-known publications, such as The AtlanticThe Washington Post, and Scientific American. We have archives of many of these publications available through VCU Libraries’ databases, but if you want to make sure your reader avoids paywalls, go directly to the websites of these publications to find articles that everyone can access.

3. Open Access Journals

There is a growing movement toward freely accessible academic information. Some scholars want to publish their research in journals that anyone–whether affiliated with a university or not–can access, as long as they have an Internet connection.  One place to find these journals is the Directory of Open Access Journals.  You can use this directory to find free, scholarly, peer-reviewed articles.

Additionally, you can find lists of open access journals via companies that generally provide closed-access journals (i.e. stuff you have to pay for). For example, here is a list of open access journals provided by Science Direct.

Use links from these journals to make sure your reader will be able to access the articles you used for your project.

4. The Open Web

The open Web is sort of like the Wild West: you could make your fortune out there…or you could get shot during a card game in a saloon.

Esther will be your guide to the Internet today.
Pearl will be your guide to the Internet today.

When I say “open Web”, I basically mean the normal, everyday Internet that you are likely to access through Google or Bing (does anyone really use Bing though?). As you do your research for your inquiry project, you will likely want to (and be encouraged to) use the open Web at some point to find information about your topic. This is perfectly fine, but please consider a couple things when you look for info in the Wild West of the Web:

  • Who is writing/presenting the information? Are they an expert on the topic and/or are they referencing other experts? “Expert” doesn’t have to mean Professor or Doctor in all cases. Michelle Phan is an expert in make-up tutorials. Lady Gaga is an expert in musical performance. However, Lady Gaga is NOT an expert in foreign policy, so you might not want to fully trust what she has to say on that topic.
  • What is the tone of the website/article/video? Is is inflammatory? (hint: if the author uses racial slurs or a ton of swear words…it might not be the best resource to use). Is it heavily biased toward one side of an argument? Does is pander to a specific group? Generally speaking, the more neutral and even the tone of the resource, the better.
  • Is the information presented in the resource verifiable? Can you fact-check the information against another resource?

Your goal is to find quality, trustworthy information–whether you’re using Google or an academic database. If you’re unsure about the quality or trustworthiness of a resource, please talk to your professor. Or email me at jastout@vcu.edu


Hopefully these tips will help you find information that is freely available to all. When you are putting together your inquiry project, keep your audience in mind: not all of them have access to the resources provided by VCU Libraries. Now, this doesn’t mean you should *avoid* using VCU Libraries resources–if there’s an article we have through the library’s website and you can’t find it on the open Web, but darn it, it’s perfect for your research–by all means, use it! But keep in mind that there are many places to find great resources that are not behind paywalls.

If you have any questions, email me at jastout@vcu.edu or tweet me @JastoutVCU



Tips for Adjusting Your Research Question

Hello Inquiring Ones,

During the past few weeks, I’ve had the opportunity to talk to many UNIV 200 students about their research questions, as they move toward more in-depth research. I find that so many students struggle with picking a topic that is the “right size” for their major assignment in this class.

Generally, UNIV 200 includes a research project with a written component of 3500 words. That’s about 10-12 pages. Seems like a lot of space, yeah? You’d be very surprised at how quickly 12 pages gets filled up, especially once you’ve taken a deep-dive into your research. So, with that in mind, I have a few tips for those of you who need help adjusting your research question.

#1: Define your terms

Hoo boy, I can’t stress the importance of defining your terms enough! When I was a college student, I studied anthropology. Anthropologists throw around the words “culture” and “society” like freakin’ confetti on New Years. The only problem is that anthropologists are interested in ALL cultures and ALL societies, not just the cultures and societies we are personally enmeshed in. So we were told over and over to “define our terms”. Did we mean “American culture”? “Southern-American Culture”? “Football culture at Ole Miss?” Or did we mean the culture of indigenous peoples of Australia circa the early 1930s? You can see how not explicitly defining what exactly you are research can discombobulate your audience.

Another term I see used lackadaisically is “technology”. For example: “How is new technology being used in elementary school classrooms?” Good start for a research question there, but we need to define what we mean by “technology”. Asking “How is the Internet being utilized by elementary school teachers in the classroom?” is a lot different than asking “How do elementary school students use smartphone apps to keep on top of assignments?”

Brother Edmundus puzzles over his latest technological gadget: the 'book'.
 Brother Edmundus puzzles over his latest    technological gadget: the ‘book’.

One way to force yourself to define your terms is to have a classmate or friend “interview” you about your research question. Let your friend ask probing questions about your RQ, such as, “what do you mean by [insert whatever word here]?” “What interests you about [topic]?” “What questions about [topic] do you hope to answer?” You’ll be surprised at how quickly another person can get to the heart of your question, even if you’re still confused about.

By seeing your question/topic through the eyes of another, you’re encouraged to consider your audience. And in a class like these, with your final projects to be posted online, audience understanding is essential.

#2: When in doubt, go narrower

I regularly get students who choose extremely broad research topics: “Food and culture”; “Violence in the media”; “The rise and fall of the Roman Empire”. When I tell them flat out that they need to focus on one specific aspect of that larger theme, they tend to chafe, saying “I have 10 pages! I’ll be able to say plenty about [topic]!”

Enter “The Wikipedia Effect”. The Wikipedia Effect is when a person attempts to say everything about a topic and ends up doing nothing except relaying facts. Think about the purpose of a Wikipedia article: it is to present facts in an unbiased manner. It is not to make an argument about a topic. In UNIV 200, y’all are asked to make an argument about your research question, which is why you are starting from the standpoint of a “question” to begin with. You are meant to read up on your topic and consider various and differing viewpoints and then synthesizing all that information into a coherent viewpoint of your own. Selecting a topic like “food and culture” makes it impossible to do anything except scratch the surface. But you don’t want to scratch, you want to dive.

Wikipedia is only the tip of the knowledge iceberg.
             Wikipedia is only the tip of the knowledge iceberg.

This is why I encourage students to narrow down, focus in, and be specific. Instead of asking “How do different cultures use food to bond?”, ask “Do American families who regularly eat dinner together have less conflict than ones who do not?”.

Instead of asking “Why is there so much violence in the media?”, ask “Do news channels sensationalize violent stories and downplay positive stories?”

Instead of asking, “How does technology affect relationships?”, ask “How do apps like Skype and Snapchat affect the longevity of long-distance romantic relationships?”

See what I’m getting at? The broad versions of these questions are overwhelming–but the narrower versions, well, they’re interesting. They make us want to learn the answer.

#3: But it IS possible to be too obscure

The flip side of the too-broad problem is the too-narrow problem. It happens more rarely than the too-broad problem, but occasionally I have students who want to research something extremely, extremely specific. Think, instead of researching “violence in the media”, they want to research the impact of one violent French film they love. Instead of researching technology in the classroom, they want to look at one app that was created a month ago and its impact on 2nd graders.

If you get too narrow, you risk not finding any resources at all. For students who head in this direction, I try to reel them back in toward a middle ground. For example, I had a student once who wanted to research pinball machines. That’s pretty specific! I suggested he look into arcade culture more generally. That way, he could satisfy his desire for pinball-related research while still having enough to talk about for the length of his paper.

#4: Make sure your thing is a thing

I owe the phrasing of this suggestion to one of my library colleagues. She encourages students to be pretty positive that what they want to research actually exists. The classic example, from a student taking UNIV 200 many moons ago, is “Native American belief in UFOs.” While I’m sure it’s possible that some modern day Native Americans believe in UFOs and/or that Native Americans in history had spiritual beliefs that may have seemed vaguely similar to modern beliefs in UFOs, the student was presuming that this was actually a “thing” and it really begs the question…is it? Do Native Americans as a whole believe in UFOs? This student couldn’t find much research on this topic because he/she was looking for something that didn’t (or barely) exist.

For my research, I want to answer the question of: what the heck is this thing!!??
For my research, I want to answer the question: what the heck is this thing!!??

Another one I’ve heard before is “College students and online dating.” When you look into the research about online dating, it mostly focuses on people who are already out of college. Why? Because dating in college is (relatively) easier compared to dating once out of school. While certainly some college students use online dating sites (especially with the rise of apps like Tindr), the research doesn’t focus heavily on this group since they’re not the majority of online daters. The research would get even more thin if you looked at high schoolers and online dating. So while college students and online dating exists, it’s not enough of a “thing” for their to be a lot of research out there on it.


All of the above probably seems more difficult than it actually is. The vast majority of students I work with pick great topics/research questions and adjust them appropriately based on preliminary research. But sometimes it can be difficult! This is when you ask for help. You could ask a friend or classmate to give you feedback on your research question, you could ask your professor for guidance, and of course, you can always talk to me. I’m available by email jastout@vcu.edu or by Tweet @JastoutVCU


Meet Your Wizards of Knowledge!

Hello again, Inquiring Ones,

Last week I wrote a post explaining how librarians at VCU can help you with your research. This week, I want to actually introduce you to the librarians who will be available to help you throughout the semester. Each one will focus on one or two sections of UNIV 200, so you can consider them your personal librarian for the course. They will be peeping your blogs, Tweeting with you, and may even offer suggestions about your research or tools to use to find more resources. Of course, you should feel free to contact them as well!

Rachel McCaskill


Rachel is new to VCU Libraries. She started working here just over a month ago as the Learning Technologies Librarian. Because of her special knowledge of library learning in online environments, she’ll be the point of contact for Jon Becker (aka Team WonderPeople) and Bonnie Boaz’s (her blog) fully online sections of UNIV 200.

If y’all reading this are in Jon or Bonnie’s classes and have questions regarding your research topics, finding resources, etc, feel free to contact Rachel at rasmith@vcu.edu and her Twitter handle is @RAMLibrarian

Deanna Rasch

Cool glasses, cool librarian
Cool glasses, cool librarian

Deanna’s been with VCU Libraries since last October. She’s a real hip lady who is constantly coming up with new ideas for teaching information fluency.  She’s also calm and collected–so if you’re freaking out about your classes (we’ve all been there, myself included), she’s a wonderful person to reach out to.

Deanna will be working with Enoch Hale’s section of UNIV 200 (his blog is titled “Archer’s Paradox”, which is cool as heck). If you’re in Enoch’s class and need research assistance, Deanna is your go-to. Her email is drasch@vcu.edu, and her Twitter handle is @librarian_speak

Donna Coghill

Knowledge bada$$, Donna Coghill
Knowledge bada$$, Donna Coghill

Donna Coghill went to VCU as an undergraduate and basically never left because she loved it so much! Not only has she been working at VCU Libraries for more than a decade, making her extremely knowledgeable about all things VCU and Richmond-related.

Donna’s working with Ryan Cales’ class this semester (his blog here), so if you’re in Ryan’s class and are looking for a librarian to help you, Donna’s your gal! Her email is decoghil@vcu.edu and her Twitter handle is @DECoghill

Jenny Stout

Preaching the good word of information literacy!
Preaching the good word of information literacy!

And of course, there’s little ol’ me. As the title of my blog states, I am your Exorcist of Ignorance! This semester, I’m working with Jason Coats’ UNIV 200 class (his blog over yonder) and Gardner Campbell’s UNIV 200 class (his blog ahoy!). If y’all are in Jason or Gardner’s sections, consider me your personal librarian.

HOWEVER. I am also to main liaison to thoughtvectors this semester, so if you have any:

  1. Questions
  2. Concerns
  3. Ideas
  4. Complaints
  5. Compliments
  6. Cookie recipes

You should feel free to contact me at jastout@vcu.edu or Tweet me @JastoutVCU

The ThoughtVectors library team is looking forward to working with you all this semester. We’re here to help make your life a tiny bit easier (college is a lot of fun…and a lot of work), so please take advantage of our services and contact us!

I’m Back!

Hello fellow travelers!

My name is Jenny Stout and I am a librarian at VCU. I work primarily with students taking UNIV 112 and UNIV 200, so I know all about the kinds of things you all will be learning during your journey in these special sections of UNIV 200. I also served as the course librarian for the inaugural MOOC for UNIV 200: Living the Dreams in summer 2014. I encourage you to read earlier entries of this blog for research tips and inspiration!

This is me!
                                            This is me!

I’m honored to serve again as a point of contact for all of you taking this course. In fact, we’ll have a couple additional librarians stepping up to the plate to help you with your research over the course of the semester (more about them in a future blog entry)! We’ll be reading your blogs and peeping your tweets–giving research advice where we can.

You might be asking yourself: how, exactly, can librarians help me with my research? You’d be surprised at how many misconceptions about librarians there are out there! So let me give you a rundown of just a few of the things librarians can do to make your research process all the more smooth:

  • Librarians can help you brainstorm research topics

The cornerstone of excellent research is an excellent research topic, and yet so many students in so many classes just pick the first topic that comes to mind and/or the topic they feel will be the “easiest”. And I don’t blame them! I was once a college student struggling to balance the demands of multiple classes, a job, a social life, and, I don’t know, a couple hours of sleep here and there. I get the struggle.

But trust me, it’s worth it to take the time to really think deeply about the question(s) you want to explore–in this class and others. Yes, most research assignments have parameters. But the opportunities for learning within those parameters are so abundant! Let’s say you’re a budding political science major who also loves social media. You could look at how politicians present themselves on Facebook. You could examine the tensions between freedom of expression and abusive or hateful speech on Twitter. You could explore the language  and rhetoric of campaign ads. The point is: you can find so many ways to combine your personal interests with your academic goals–in a way that is both relevant and interesting.


      Whoa! Sick burn against Teddy Roosevelt!

Research doesn’t have to be a slog–but you have to go out of your way to make sure it isn’t a slog by choosing a topic you are actually invested in. Librarians can help with that. We work with hundreds of students each year and in doing so see so many ideas for research, are aware of trends of what people are interested in, and know the search terms and tools that will guarantee you find the resources you need to thoroughly explore a topic of your choosing.

  • Librarians can help you develop a language for searching

Speaking of search terms, there’s a paradox inherent in researching a topic, particularly if you are just starting to learn about that topic: how can you research if you don’t know the right words to search for?

There’s an exercise I like to do when I’m teaching folks about research skills. I’ll put a list on the white board that looks like this:

Mad Max: Fury Road, Guardians of the Galaxy, Sleepless in Seattle, Forrest Gump

And I’ll ask the class: “What are all of these things?”

After the class stares at me like I’m a complete dum-dum for a minute, they’ll hesitantly say, “…movies…?”

And I’ll say, “Yup! They’re movies!” But then I’ll ask if anyone thought of the term “films” (a few hands will go up). “Cinema”? (fewer hands) “Motion picture”? (zero hands) “Feature film”? (still zero).

Your knowledge of search terms is...mediocre!! Image courtesy of nerdreactor.com
            Your knowledge of search terms is…mediocre!!
                     Image courtesy of nerdreactor.com

You get the point of the exercise right? We have words and language that we use everyday. But we need to consider that there are words and language beyond what immediately pops into our minds–especially when we’re doing academic research. Because the terms scholars and experts in a field of study use are often wildly different than the terms we use. And librarians can help you discover those terms.

Delving deep into a topic doesn’t just mean learning facts: it means learning a whole knew language.

  • Librarians can help you sort the “good” sources from the “bad”

I put the words good and bad in quotation marks here because in actuality there are no good and bad resources–only ones that are good and bad for your personal research. You might think that a YouTube video featuring Laverne Cox talking about equal rights for transgender people doesn’t sound “scholarly”, or “good enough”, or “serious enough” for a research paper. But if your paper is about famous trans individuals and their effect on American attitudes towards trans rights, it sure as heck is an appropriate resource!

On the flip side, you might have a giant stack of peer-reviewed articles written by the top experts in their field and published in the finest scholarly journals in the country…but if they’re not relevant or helpful to your research, all their credentials mean nothing.

Doing research is all about balance. You want a variety of viewpoints. You want articles and books and videos written by people who know what they’re talking about–and those people could be Laverne Cox and Dr. Einstein Q. Rembrandt, PhD, Esq. But learning how to walk that tightrope and be able to sort through the flood of information in our world, especially when *everyone* claims to be an expert in something–well, it helps to have a guide. Librarians can be that guide.

  • Librarians can help you find stuff that even they can’t find

Say what now? How can librarians find stuff that they can’t find? Well, the truth is that librarians all have different stores of knowledge and if we can’t find something (an ancient text about fart jokes! …I’m sure it exists somewhere…), we likely know of someone else who can. Did you know that at VCU there are librarians who are subject specialists? Meaning, there’s a librarian for the visual arts, a librarian for life sciences, a librarian for nursing, and so on. If a student came to me needing to find a very particular pharmaceutical study about a new drug for curing restless leg syndrome (this is a real thing, people), I could spend hours trying to help her find it…or I could put her in touch with the librarian(s) who specialize in pharmacy, medical chemistry, etc, who could find it in a jiffy!

Librarians don’t horde our knowledge. We share it. We are not gatekeepers of information, but…doormen…like, we open the doors to knowledge. That works as a metaphor, right?

Liam Neesons tho.
                                       Liam Neesons tho.

Anyway, the point is, we librarians are here to help you. And you should take advantage of having us in your corner as you progress through your classes at VCU. We don’t judge. We don’t shush (me especially, since I’m really loud). And we don’t give you grades. We only help. With that said, if YOU are in need of research help, don’t hesitate to email me at jastout@vcu.edu OR tweet me @JastoutVCU


It’s the Final Countdown

Hello UNIV 200 citizens! We are now officially two weeks out from the last day of class, and I assume (hope) you are all neck deep in explorations/research for your inquiry projects. I’m here to offer some advice for these last feverish weeks of Living the Dreams…

fleur de lisYou may have noticed by now that you are likely going to read more stuff than you actually end up using and citing in your project–I want to stress that this is normal and actually beneficial to your project. Many students get highly annoyed at the thought of “wasting time” reading articles or perusing websites they end up not using in their research. But the fact of the matter is, research is more than a fact-finding mission. This perhaps sounds obvious, but research is about becoming knowledgeable on a topic, and you don’t become knowledgeable by reading the bare minimum. You become knowledgeable by reading widely and deeply on a topic. So if you are frustrated by the amount of time you are putting into this project (which I understand…we’re all busy people), just remember that your final product only stands to improve by all the research and exploration you are doing.

fleur de lisThose of you who are having the opposite problem–you wish you could research your topic forever–I like you guys. I was an easily fixated nerd in college as well. I was an anthropology major and I was really into feminism, gender studies, and sexuality. I made it my unofficial goal to tie almost all the papers I wrote, regardless of the class, back to feminism and sexuality. In doing so, I got to read and research about women’s history, women’s lives in various cultures, LGBTQ rights, sexual violence, sexual awesomeness, the Salem Witch Trials, and many other topics I was fascinated by. I ended up with a pretty extensive body of work for an undergraduate and an “expert” in my own right. If you find yourself hopelessly in love with your topic, don’t plan to break up with it on July 30th. Let your intellectual passions be your guide in college. Consider the ways in which you can expand and continue your research in other classes, or even as a hobby outside of class (BTW, I’m not saying use the same exact paper or project multiple times in different classes. That’s cheating. But certainly, you can look at different angles and facets of your research topic for future papers/projects). You’ll soon be on your way to expertise in the subject of your choice!

This was my research jam in college. I was a weird kid.
This was my research jam in college. I was a weird kid.


fleur de lisNow, a bit about actually putting your project together. I want to recommend two helpful places you can turn for additional assistance. First, the Writing Center, which is located on the 4th floor of the Academic Learning Commons, is AMAZING. These folks help students through every step of the writing process–from creating an outline to editing a written product. Don’t think that you have to be finished with your project before you step into the Writing Center–even if you haven’t put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) yet, the Writing Center can help you organize your thoughts and give you a second perspective on your writing. Please check out their website for more information.

fleur de lisBut this isn’t a typical research and writing course, and what you’re working on isn’t a typical research paper. You’re working on a project that is meant to live on the Web (or “the Net” as they called it in 1995). So you may be thinking about adding creative/visual/interactive elements to your project. Guess what? The library has an entire department dedicated to media creation. The Innovative Media department (currently located on the 3rd floor of Cabell Library, right off the elevators) can help you with audio and video creation/editing, scanning, graphics, and a whole mess of other things you might want to consider for your project. The talented individuals who work there are more than happy to consult with you and walk you through the process of media creation. For more info, check out their webpage. 

fleur de lisFinally, you may still be in need of some research assistance, which is typically my bag. However, I will be out of the office (and in an undisclosed location, learning ’bout library stuff) next week. Which is why I want to plug my fellow librarian, Laura Gariepy, as the go-to gal you should contact if you need some help finding resources. Laura’s got her own blog–the aptly titled Information Sorceress–and you can also email her at lwgariepy@vcu.edu. Between the Writing Center, Innovative Media, and the Information Sorceress, you should be good to go. But remember: the biggest advocate for your research, your passion, and your drive is looking at you in the mirror.

It’s been a pleasure dreaming with all of you this summer. I may be back for a final post once I return, but I am always available via email (jastout@vcu.edu) and by appointment to talk with you one-on-one about following your intellectual bliss.

"A Place of Her Own" by James Christensen
“A Place of Her Own” by James Christensen

Research Problems–Solved!

Shameless self-promotion! 


I will be part of UNIV 200’s regular Google Hangout on Wednesday, July 9th at 1pm. Please tune in to hear my advice on doing research!                                                                                            


We’re down to the last 3 weeks of UNIV 200: Living the Dreams, and while it may not be time to press the panic button just quite yet, I would like to offer some pre-panic advice on research for your inquiry project.


When I help students with papers or projects, there are two distinct reasons they tend to panic. The first is that they can’t find enough information. The second is that they are overwhelmed by the enormous amount of information they find.

If you find yourself falling into the first category–you can’t find “anything” on your topic–the first thing you might want to consider is “How obscure/narrow is my topic, really?” I’ve worked with a number of students who were passionately interested in topics that may be considered esoteric, to put it politely. You may be absolutely convinced that Bigfoot is actually an alien sent to spy on us from the ape-men of a distant planet…but I can guarantee ya, there ain’t no (legit) research out there on that topic.

Another issue students run into is deciding to write about something really, really new. Maybe you just discovered a new social media website you love and think will change the world that was launched…two weeks ago. Such a topic, while fascinating, may be so fresh that there is no research (or even news articles) out there on it.

If you find yourself nodding in familiarity right now, don’t despair! Generally speaking, students with specific topics don’t necessarily have to pick a completely new topic, but simply need to tweak or expand their current topic. So, if you’re gaga about Bigfoot, you still may be able to do research about Bigfoot sightings and Bigfoot theories, even if you can’t find much research about your personal theory that Bigfoot is an alien. And if you’re into some super new technology and can’t find anything on it, consider writing about the broader implications of the technology. Maybe you just heard about “Google Buttons”–like Google Glass, only in button format you wear on your shirt (just to be clear, I am making this up)! It’s so new, nothing has been written on it, but you can still discuss the issues surrounding the technology–privacy,  immediate access to the Internet, tech-as-fashion, etc.

Another thing to consider if you are having difficulties finding resources are the keywords you are using to search. A classic example is the term “motion picture”. No one actually says the phrase “motion picture” out loud unless they’re pretending to be one of those old-timey radio guys. When we talk about seeing a movie, we use the word “movie”. Or maybe “film” if you’re a film snob like me. However, “motion picture” is one of the preferred subject terms that comes up when you search for resources on film/film studies in the VCU Libraries Search. I use this example to point out how widely our language and the language of scholars (or writers, or bloggers, or journalists) can differ. If you think this might be your issue, you could:

  • Try thesaurus.com to find synonyms of your keywords
  • Ask a friend, professor, or librarian to brainstorm keywords with you
  • Do some background reading on your topic to get a sense of how scholars, researchers, and experts talk about your topic
Gonna take your best gal to the moving picture show? Swell!
Gonna take your best gal to the moving picture show? Swell!

Now, if you fall into the other category I mentioned above, where you are overwhelmed heaps of resources and acutely aware that you’ll never be able to read all of them, you need to create some boundaries for yourself. First, consider this: “How broad/general is my topic, really?” If I asked you what your inquiry project is about and you say “The Civil War”, or “terrorism”, or “gender inequality”, or “food”…we might have a problem.  Consider that the goal of your inquiry project isn’t to cover the entire breadth of a huge topic, but to explore one aspect or angle of it in depth. You want to be able to say something interesting–or make an argument–about a topic within a limited amount of space (see you professor for details on how much space you have!)

So, instead of “gender inequality”, you might do research on women’s representation in the modern art world (look up The Guerrilla Girls). Instead of food, you might ask, “Do families that sit down to dinner together have less conflict?”.

Once you’ve made sure your scope is the right size, look for quality over quantity, in resources. When you find an article, book, or website that looks like it might be helpful, spend a minute reviewing it–either read the abstract (a little summary of a scholarly article, usually located at the very beginning of the article), read the first paragraph/page, skim the contents, or briefly review the website. Then decide whether or not it’s worth your time to look more closely at it. Research often involves reading more resources than you end up using/citing in your final product, and that’s perfectly fine and even expected. But don’t put pressure on yourself to read every article that is vaguely connected to your topic.

Caveat time! 

I give all this advice with a caveat: please talk to your instructor/professor if you are having trouble with your research. They are the ones who know the assignment best and who will be grading you! As a librarian, I am qualified to help you find the best resources for your research, but when it comes down to brass tacks, I’m not the one giving you a grade. Plus, your professor probably knows you as a person better than I do and may have insight about your research and study styles that I don’t have (i.e. they might know that you’re a stickler for details, or that you tend to procrastinate, and can advise you with that in mind).

If you need any help beyond the advice I’ve provided here, feel free to email me at jastout@vcu.edu or tweet at me @JastoutVCU! Happy researching!

He's really lonely, you guys.
He’s really lonely, you guys.

Inquiry Ignition

It’s ’bout that time everyone. I’ve been stalking some blogs on the thoughtvectors site and I’m seeing some ideas for inquiry projects slowly come to fruition. This part of the research process can be simultaneously exhilarating and frustrating: exhilarating because, if you’re doing research correctly, you should be excited and fascinated by your topic; frustrating because you are also walking a tightrope between what you want your project to look like and the realities of time constraints, faculty expectations, and the information out there that’s available to you. Also, let’s face it, sometimes the prospect of searching for and then thoroughly reading and taking notes on 8-10 sources on your topic pales in comparison to the temptation of a bag of flamin’ hot Cheetos and 5 hours of Call of Duty: Ghosts with your suitemates.

Just 5 more minutes and then I'll start studying... Images courtesy of templeofcats.com
Just 5 more minutes and then I’ll start studying…
Images courtesy of templeofcats.com


Well, I can’t slap those Cheetos out of your hand and unplug your TV, but I can offer some research help. Here at the library we have a TON of resources to help you find, evaluate, and use what you need for your project*.

If you’re completely stumped as to where and how to begin doing research, might I suggest checking out this guide to starting your research. This guide will walk you through defining your research need, doing background research, developing a search strategy, and using the VCU Libraries website to find articles, books, etc.


I’m about to tell you something that might shock you. Are you sitting down? Good. I want to say that in some (many?) cases…Google can be a good place to find information.


Indeed, a librarian just told you (well, suggested to you) that Google isn’t quite the Hellscape of Ignorance you may have been told/assumed it was. The trick is knowing how to use Google and also being able to tell the difference between quality resources and, um, not so quality resources. There’s a guide for that! Also, check out this video for information on how to evaluate websites (which you can use for evaluating resources generally).

Now, I can’t cover all possibilities of types of resources you could use for your project or where to find them. But I can give you one piece of golden information that you can use if you get in a tight spot: my email address.

Please, shoot me an email at jastout@vcu.edu if you need assistance finding information for your project. I will be able to work with you via email, phone, or in person depending on your needs and preference. And if I can’t help you, I promise I’ll find someone who can!

Happy inquiring, everyone! And keep in mind what Socrates said about being the wisest man: “I know one thing: That I know nothing.”


He's judging you.
He’s judging you.


*I want to add the caveat that some of you who are taking this course may not be affiliated with VCU and thus have limited access to academic information. Please email me (jastout@vcu.edu) to discuss options for finding resources if this is the case.

An introduction to my brain

Let me tell you a story about my third-grade self. When I was in Mrs. Crab’s (yes, that was her name) third grade class, we were in the process of learning to write multiple paragraph papers. To practice, she asked that we do a report on any topic we were interested in–literally ANY topic. I picked…and I’m not entirely sure why…three-toed sloths as my topic. I was into “the Rainforest” generally and cute animals from the rainforest specifically. So, sloths made sense. I quickly became obsessed with them.

How could you not love this face?  Photo courtesy Carol Schaffer
How could you not love this face?
Photo courtesy Carol Schaffer

My obsession went beyond the short paper I wrote. I ended up making my own stuffed animal sloth with newspaper and crayons–I’m positive I attempted to cuddle that crinkly thing in my bed until my parents bought me an actual stuffed animal sloth to cuddle (I named it “Slothy” because I am nothing if not creative with names). I also read everything my 8-year-old brain could absorb about sloths. Now, when I see cute GIFs of sloths on the internet, I think “I was into them before it was cool”. I’m the hipster of sloths, y’all.

Why do I tell this story? As a way to discuss the pleasures of intellectual obsession. Even those among us who prefer socializing to studying know that feeling of becoming fascinated with a topic, be it a particular obscure comic book series, the latest information about the Large Hadron Collider, or artisanal pencil sharpening.

I’m a librarian, so it’s not going to be a surprise to anyone that I believe in lifelong learning. Being interested in the world around us gives us a sense of vitality and wonder. We live in such a fascinating universe that it’s almost a crime NOT to be fascinated by it! But I also don’t believe people need to torture themselves by forcing information they “should” know down their own throats. For example, I know that I “should” have read/be reading certain examples of classic literature. Would you be surprised to know that I’ve never read anything by Ernest Hemingway or Maya Angelou? Let alone a beast like Anna Karenina or Infinite Jest.  Well, I’m a role model for intellectual pursuit–why don’t I buckle down and read these classics? Because I never want to make reading, which is a lifelong pleasure of mine, a chore. I never want to feel like reading is something I have to do rather than want to do.

Intellectual obsession only thrives when it’s organic and not forced. If I could give a message to students reading this, it would be that although there may be classes you are required to take in college that aren’t your favorite, don’t lose your ability to take pleasure in learning. I read so much in college that I almost ruined it for myself as an adult, but by allowing myself to pick and choose what to read and get obsessed with outside of school (I’m obsessed with romance novel review blogs. True story), my love of reading, learning, and immersing myself in another world continues.

This class is designed to get your brain juices flowing, rather than tamping them down. Take advantage of it! Use your blog to practice writing in free-form. Use the inquiry project to study something that genuinely interests you. College isn’t just about jumping through a series of hoops to get a degree–it’s about figuring out who you are as a person and a student of the world.

And remember, if you find yourself struggling, you need not struggle alone! Shoot me an email at jastout@vcu.edu or tweet me @JastoutVCU! I can help you find what you need because…I know things…

I'm especially knowledgeable about bare-chested vikings. Image courtesy of smartbitchestrashybooks.com
I’m especially knowledgeable about bare-chested vikings.
Image courtesy of smartbitchestrashybooks.com



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