Identifying Research Topics
It has been a good conference when one comes away remembering at least one key point. During the Writing for the Journal of Industrial Teacher Education session at the 1996 AVA conference, Ken Gray, JITE Associate Editor, made one of these striking observations when he described the procedure that he uses when issues of various journals come across his desk. The process is relatively simple. He reviews the table of contents and places a mental check beside each of the articles that appear to be a "must read." He went on to say that the goal of every editor and editorial board should be to encourage readers to place a "must read" indicator by as many articles as possible in each issue. Engaging titles are one obvious factor. More substantively, what are the characteristics of articles that readers are likely to find compelling and worthwhile? Stated more broadly, how does one identify and develop topics for research?
As I reflect on the criteria that I have used over the years for placing "must read" indicators by JITE manuscripts, I have been drawn to work where issues related to industrial and technical teacher education have been examined from some broader academic perspective or theoretical context. The value and quality of scholarly inquiry are enriched as voices from other disciplines are drawn into our conversations and are engaged in critical analysis of important issues facing the field. The most obvious benefit of this type of expanded conversation is that engagement with others provides different perspectives and divergent frames of reference for thought. In the absence of this broader theoretical connection, scholarship in any profession lapses into repetition, stagnation, and lack of imagination.
Several examples will illustrate the point. Examining the role of technology in culture can be conducted from the perspective of its impact on educational and training needs. The discussion changes dramatically when the focus shifts to quality of life issues involving such things as medical care, personal privacy, and the environment. The discussion of each of these topics is extended further still as one becomes aware of the different philosophical perspectives that can be assumed (i.e., technological determinism or social constructivism). The same point could be made for nearly every topic addressed in JITE. An expanded frame of reference enriches research. Different perspectives help us see more clearly what we may have thought we already understood.
So, how does one identify a research thrust? This is a critically important question for researchers at all levels, from graduate school on. Some practical suggestions include:
- Read material related to your interests from beyond your field of expertise.
- Engage professional colleagues from other academic disciplines in conversation about your field and research interests. Examine theirs as well. Explore common interests and invite them to suggest research ideas for your field from their unique perspective. The tendency is to spend too much time talking and thinking among ourselves.
- Pursue the issues and strands of research that you feel most strongly about. It is one thing to publish in order to meet the external reward demands of colleges, universities, or other research environments. It is quite another thing to conduct research because you are convinced that a topic is vitally important. The most significant and sustained contributions tend to be made when research is conducted in areas of genuine interest and personal and professional investment and conviction.
- As you read the literature, be alert to conceptual frameworks and theoretical perspectives that could be used to structure an examination of topics important to your field.
- Review materials designed specifically to identify new and emerging research directions. Materials of this type have periodically appeared in the pages of JITE over the years. Another example of this type of material includes reviews and syntheses of the literature that are published occasionally in most fields of inquiry. Another rich source of ideas is in the suggestions for additional research in research articles and dissertations.
- Contact a journal editor and inquire about the potential of a research idea. Most editors will be pleased to offer formative guidance, suggestions, and encouragement.
- Read as much and as widely as possible. The thoughts and ideas of other scholars are vital to extending and refining one's own research ideas and agenda.
In This IssueReference Citation: Custer, R. L. (1997). Identifying research topics. Journal of Industrial Teacher Education, 34(3), 3-5.
This issue contains three feature articles. In the first article, Charles W. Gagel employs a dialectical inquiry methodology to examine the complex nature of technological literacy. In the second article, Jeffrey A. Cantor explores the characteristics of registered pre-apprenticeship programs around the United States and then proposes a model for developing these programs. In the third article, Michael Knoll traces the origins of the project method through its European and American origins.
The At Issue section contains an essay by Mike A. Boyle and Richard Crosby exploring the applicability of an industrial program evaluation model for academic settings. The Comments section includes an essay by Ahmad Zargari examining the role of vocational education in addressing issues triggered by welfare reform. In the Under Review section, John M. Kenny and Wendy L. Gilpin provide a review of Lester C. Thurow's The Future of Capitalism. The Bits and Pieces section begins with a description of the 18th Annual Outstanding Manuscript Awards by Kenneth Gray and then presents information about submitting manuscripts to JITE, how to become a member of NAITTE, and ordering various NAITTE publications.