Lesson #401 (sort of): Serbia’s Ultras Problem

I turned in my term paper for my Ethnic and Cultural Conflict class today (three days early!). I’m really pleased with how it turned out on its fourth iteration. It began as an examination of football clubs’ interactions as reflections of Bosnian, Croatian, and Serbian relations with one another. Then it was how Croatian and Serbian football clubs’ interactions with each other and with European fans is reflective of the overall regional politics. Then it was how football violence in Croatia and Serbia is reflective of each country’s position in Europe. And finally it was what it is…

an explanation of contemporary Serbian politics using four football matches: Croatia/Serbia in March of last year (how Serbia is coping with its lingering resentments and learning to work with its traditional rival); Partizan/Tottenham in September (how the rise of the right is spurring anti-Semitism and homophobia in Serbia); Serbia/Albania in mid-October (how the Kosovo question is affecting Serbia’s relationship with the EU and why its transition has been so slow); and Partizan/Red Star at Halloween (how Serbia is allowing its ultras to destroy it from within).

Short version: all of Serbia’s current political troubles stem from using football ultras groups as paramilitary units during the Homeland and Bosnian Wars.*

It’s 15 pages of awesome. That I had to work for.

But…

…good research will get you everywhere. If I hadn’t done the leg work, paring down enough to get a *good* paper into 15 pages would have been impossible.

*You’re either going to have to trust me on that or do the research yourself. I’ve done the work.

Down the Rabbit Hole: How to Do Research

I’ve been down the research rabbit hole this week; it’s been nice being back in an environment where I’m doing grown-up research. To that end, I’m currently working on earning the seething contempt of my third Interlibrary Loan office; Monday, I sent them 45 article requests. To their credit they didn’t come back to me with an email that just said, “Are you fucking kidding me with this right now?”*

Here’s the thing about research: it’s a skill. And it’s a learned skill. Some of it you can learn from someone else — we all had that research unit in grade 7 English, right? — and some of it you pick up as you go. I know how to learn what I want to know because I’ve spent years learning by trial and error how to find the information in the first place.

Here’s what I’ve learned that no one taught me (and would have been useful information to have):

 

Overall:

1. You have to be flexible – sometimes the information you want doesn’t exist or can’t be obtained (I’m running into this problem with a particular special journal issue on football in the post-Yugoslavia/war Balkans…which would be a huge asset because one of my term papers is on how inter-club football politics in the Balkans are reflective of the broader ethnic and political tensions of the region). Sometimes that means you’ll have to change topics; sometimes — like in the case of my football paper — it just means that you’ll be shy a few potentially valuable sources. Rigid research is your enemy. Rigid research will kill your paper because you’ll either be under-researched or off-topic. Be flexible, and you’ll be okay.

2. Preliminary research will make or break your paper – an hour of time spent in preliminary research will save you three scrambling hours down the road. You can’t fake sources (well, you can, I guess, but that’s generally frowned upon); if your scope was too narrow in the preliminary phase, your research will be lacking. It is much easier to grab too much in the preliminary stage and sort through it than it is to scramble to find more in the writing stage.

3. Embrace your sources – Use every database you have available to you (within reason…there’s no need to search the education databases if you’re writing on Russia/Ukraine politics), get acquainted with Google Scholar**, make friends with the Interlibrary Loan librarians. The ILL librarians are the best allies you’ve got; they’re the ones getting you the sources you can’t readily access so be good to them.

 

Preliminary research:

4. The right keywords are everything – if you’re searching the wrong keywords, you’re finished before you start. Consider any and all alternate wordings — for the above paper, I didn’t just search football together with Balkan or Yugoslavia, I also searched with Bosnia, Croatia, Serbia, Slovenia, and, independently, clubs specific to Sarajevo, Zagreb and Split, Belgrade, and Ljubljana. Consider eliminating unnecessary words that could expand your search results — transnational crime will return more results than transnational organized crime.

5. You have to start big – you can have an idea of what your paper is on, but — and this is especially in grad school where you’re given a lot of leeway to study what interests you — until you know what information is available to you, you don’t really know what you’re writing about. It might seem like the best thing to do is start with the topic and work your way out, but if you’re looking at the bigger picture, it’s much easier to see connections you might otherwise have missed. One of the papers I’ve been doing research for this week started as a paper on transnational organized crime in conflict zones, but my prelim research showed me that I’d do well to do a comparative study of TOC in Turkey and Nigeria.

6. You have to be picky straight away – because you’re starting big, you also have to be picky or you’ll be overwhelmed by how much information there is. Limit by date. Limit by region. Limit by economy. Limit by something, but limit. I started with the idea of TOC in conflict zones, which is a huge topic. But I’m also looking at post- 9/11 governance, so my research doesn’t need to include anything before about 2004 because global governance prior to that is outdated. There, in the click of a mouse, I’ve significantly reduced the number of sources I need to review.

7. You have to see the patterns – if you’ve done your research properly, your topic is somewhere in your results, but you’re going to have to sift through to find it. The fastest way to do this is to review titles. Look for the similarities, look for what can be tied to current or historical events, look for patterns and trends within the scholarship. Toss the results that don’t fit your topic or are so tangentially related that you won’t be touching on the subject matter. Save things that you’re on the fence about; most of them will be superfluous information, but some will be useful. Usually, for me this category is broader material that gets used mostly as background information.

 

Topic research:

8. You have to develop the ability to judge a source quickly – unless you’re doing your thesis or dissertation research, you don’t have time to read every article that’s tangentially related to your topic, so you have to develop your skill at deciding at a glance whether a source will be useful and, if so, how useful it will be. Sometimes, the title tells you what you need to know. “International Drug Trafficking and the National Security of Turkey” can’t really be much clearer on its topic. Often, the abstract is your best friend. If your source has an abstract, read it; it will tell you what the article is about. Eventually, you’ll get to a point where you don’t even have to read the abstract, you just scan it for keywords.

9. You don’t have to (and shouldn’t) read every word – sources that are most related to your work you’ll read (mostly) word for word; sources that are less related you’ll learn to skim to find the information relevant to what you’re writing about. Figuring out which sources fall into which category is a skill you’ll have to pick up with time.

10. Pay attention to the sources your sources cite – sometimes, you’ll come across multiple sources that all cite Source X. Get Source X if you don’t already have it; there’s a reason it’s being cited repeatedly. Sometimes, depending on your discipline, the list of sources your source provides might be very useful in locating governmental documents you didn’t know existed — especially if you’re dealing in foreign governments like I usually am.

I can’t stress enough the importance of scanning the works cited/bibliography page of an article or book. No matter how good your prelim research is, you’re always going to miss something, and there is no better way to collect valuable sources you’ve overlooked than the works cited/bibliography.

11. Sort as you go – sorting your research as you go means that you can more easily see the patterns and connections that will make up the bulk of your argument. Not only will this better direct your focus as you’re working through your sources (which will lead to a better argued paper), if you’re doing it right, your research will write your paper for you. My thesis for my first MA was 170 pages. I wrote it in roughly 72 total hours over about 12 days. Yes, it had to be edited some, but because of the way I’d done my research***, the entire thing all but wrote itself.

 

In the end, the reason I’m better at research than most people is because I’m more efficient at research than most people. I’ve taught myself how to streamline the process. I also don’t find research especially difficult; it’s time consuming and requires hard work, but it isn’t difficult. And it certainly doesn’t have to be a tedious slog.

 

*And to the credit of the ILL librarians at the schools where I did my first MA and my PhD work, they never did either and I sent them on much more difficult searches. “There’s one copy of this book in the world…it’s in Denmark…go!”

**You. Guys. Google Scholar is the. best.

***Full disclosure: I still use notecards for book research. I also use highlighters, flags, margin notes, notes on scraps of paper, random stars, and a handful of other things to sort and organize my research so that when it comes time for the writing, I can whip out a nearly-fully formed graduate thesis in less than two weeks.

How to do lazy research, or, how to plagiarize most efficiently.

In general, I like Lifehacker’s website. It can be very useful sometimes.

But sometimes, it posts articles like this one that suggest running your paper through a plagiarism checker to find yourself more sources and/or catch a citation you may have missed. First off, if you’ve done your research properly, you shouldn’t need to find more sources. Secondly, how are you missing a citation at all?*

WHO TAUGHT THESE PEOPLE HOW TO WRITE A RESEARCH PAPER?!?

Notecard

Either no one’s teaching proper research skills anymore or I’ve been doing it wrong for two decades.** (Hint: it’s the former.) When I write, I cite as I go. Because all the information is already right in front of me. This note is taken word for word from page 6 of the 43rd source. It’s word for word for two reasons: 1. so that if I need to, I can quote it directly without having to go back and look it up and, more importantly, 2. so I won’t inadvertently plagiarize the author when writing about this note. And of course, the source card with the number 43 on it has all the title/author/publisher information (in this case, the source is Chalmers Johnson’s Revolutionary Change). It’s not rocket science.

But I’m also a girl who writes very quickly, so it doesn’t bother me to cite as I go. Really, once the research is done and organized, how long can the writing possibly take? By that point, you’ve done so much research, you know your subject and, presumably, how you’re going to present  your argument. I wrote my entire master’s thesis (all 130 pages of it) in about 12 days. But I also spent the better part of five months doing research, so by the time I got around to writing, it practically wrote itself.

Ignoring the plagiarism aspect for a moment, on the flip side of all of this, I think there’s an element to it that I can’t see. Because research is something from which I take great enjoyment and at which I’m very, very good. I don’t find research difficult. Challenging, yes, — sometimes more so than others — but never difficult. So, no, I don’t get why this sort of a life hack would be necessary because I don’t see why anything should be poorly researched.

But I also think there’s a huge line to be drawn between poor research — against which I have railed on more than one occasion in this space — and flat out plagiarism. And I feel like this post willfully supports an unacceptable gaming of the system that pulls just back from the brink of plagiarism. But it also words it in such a way as to seem helpful: “you might miss a few if you’re not careful.”*** But I’d argue that if you’ve cited, say, 40 things in a 20-page paper and your professor finds something you didn’t cite, he’s not going to fail you on the paper, but rather suggest, “You missed a citation here. Be more careful next time.” If you’ve made that many other citations, obviously the missed one was an oversight, not an attempt to cheat.

For the record, good luck to the idiots who are going to use this to find other sources. I ran the first page of one of my dissertation papers through a couple of these. One of them told me that a not-insignificant portion of my paper was very similar to…the website for Seattle’s transportation system? Yes…my paper on a 36-hour event in Belfast in 1970 was lifted in large part from Seattle’s transportation website. That seems about right. Another told me that an entire sentence of directly quoted material was original. I don’t even know what to do with that.

Moral of the story, as always: do your research. Also, stop making more work for yourself, cite as you go.

*Reading down into the comments, I was baffled by the number of people who are apparently writing their entire paper and then going back and finding where they were supposed to cite things. Why?

**Then again, I’m the girl who still writes her research out on notecards because it’s a system that works for me and allows me to move things around when I’m organizing what information belongs in what chapter.

***This, again, comes down to the question of why aren’t you citing as you go, which, again, probably comes down to the fact that no one’s teaching proper research skills.

For the record…

…I kick ass at research. I mean, I’m really, really good at it. Now, I realize this sounds a bit boastful, but I’m quite proud of myself at the minute. Last week, I spent a few days at a lake just east of the Adirondacks.* One of the nights, my cousins and I were sitting around reading. My aunt had put on this local radio station that is…eclectic, I think is the best word. Anyway, without cell service, and without knowing that our Soundhound apps have a function that allows us to save a search for when we do have connectivity, a song came on that we all wanted to know the title of. We were hoping that the super smooth-voiced DJ (I’m talking some Barry White type smooth) would tell us, but alas, we were out of luck. I remembered exactly one thing about the song: there’s a mention of the Manhattan Bridge. This is, as you’d imagine, not exactly the most useful thing ever when you’re doing a search.

So I tried the next best thing…to remember the name of the radio station. I didn’t. I did, however, remember the frequency. From there, it didn’t take too long to sort out which station I wanted and found its website. Then, it got a bit tricky. Like a lot of radio stations, this one posts its playlists. This one does it for a week. Unfortunately, that left me SOL because this was last Thursday, and I hadn’t remembered that I told the girls I’d look it up until this morning. So I pooled all my best resources — okay, the radio station’s website, Spotify, and Google — together and buckled down for a couple hours of listening to clips of every single song on the playlists (minus the ones that were done by women, and songs I’m already familiar with or artists that are clearly not in the right genre — in this case Jimmy Cliff, Steve Earle, Trombone Shorty, The Lumineers, etc.) in an attempt to find it. And I did. Because I rule at research. It took me less time than I’d expected, but no small amount of time.

The song: ‘Dreaming From the Heart of New York’ by Clarence Bucaro.

Along the way, I learned some pretty stellar band names. Among my favourites: Hot Club of Cowtown, Boy With a Fish, The Lone Bellow, Donna the Buffalo, The Dirty Gov’nahs, Trampled by Turtles,  Jukebox the Ghost, The Shouting Matches, Family of the Year, Crankshaft and the Gear Grinders, and Mungo Jerry (which I can only assume is a play on T.S. Eliot).

Best of all, as someone who lives in the land of, National Bohemian (which always throws me when I see it on a beer list because it’s almost always just called Boh, or at its most formal, Natty Boh).

*Also included, my first ever visit to Fort Ticonderoga. It was all very interesting, but at some point, forts just sort of stop being impressive because, in the end, they all did the same thing. They kept others out. Until they didn’t. And then they changed hands and kept others out. Until they didn’t. This, perhaps, explains my preference for urban fighting. The most interesting thing I learned was about how the French army adapted their uniforms and fighting for life in the cold/mountains/forests. Their uniforms were adapted from the garb of the Iroquois tribes who lived in the area and were designed to allow freedom of movement whilst navigating mountain and forest terrain. 

Misinformation

The interwebs are riddled with misinformation. In part because people are lazy and can’t be bothered to spend more than 30 seconds fact-checking. And because many, many myths have been perpetuated across such a vast part of cyberspace by a bunch of people who are too lazy to do their homework, finding the truth requires a bit of work.

In looking for new information to write a lesson on, I read earlier today that the lance takes its name from Lancelot. Which, let’s be honest, is completely. effing. absurd. Not just because I have more than a basic grasp of language and history, but also because I have a functioning brain in my head.

Admittedly, the English word “lance” comes from the 12th century French word*, and Lancelot’s first appearance in literature comes from a 12th century French poem (Chrétien de Troyes’ Le Chevalier de la Charrette), but let’s be reasonable and use our brains just for the few seconds it takes to process this information logically, yeah? As much as I hate the phrase “correlation does not imply causation” because it tends to oversimplify complex ideas (and be used by smug internet trolls who think they’re smarter and better than everyone else), in this case, it fits. Just because these two things both happened in the 12th century — which is not an insignificant amount of time — does not make one the cause of the other.

So…this is my plea to question everything you read that isn’t cited (which is why everything you’ll ever read on this blog is cited** with reliable sources that aren’t (usually) Wikipedia) and/or everything your friends, however smart, tell you at random, especially when it sounds impossibly convenient. People are morons who regurgitate information because they like to seem smart, but can’t be bothered to open a book or do five minutes of research. And they do it without repercussions online, and that makes everyone a bit dumber. Don’t be lazy; do your research. Or at least find a reliable source to do your research for you.

My guiding principle both as regards this site and my life in general is: sources or GTFO.

*which, incidentally, means “to throw,” and that makes perfect sense if you devote even a quarter of a second of thought to it.

**with the exception of revolutionary theory, which is my area of expertise…I won’t give you specific references, but I will give you the sources you need to look it up for yourself.