Contemporary Social Issues

First library workshop

November 1, 2004


For the next two days you will be working in groups of four learning how to take initial steps in developing expertise on a contemporary social issue you care about and hope to affect.


This will be an exercise, a trial run: we don’t expect that either the topic or the group you work with today and tomorrow will last and carry forward into the winter quarter project.  You’re going to learn something, probably a good deal, about a temporary topic (and your colleagues), which is great, but focus on technique, on what works, on skills you can apply to other topics with another group.


Expect to spend eight hours on this exercise before Friday, after you have chosen your topic. Your report is due on Friday, Nov. 5, at the beginning of seminar.


Your group and topic:


Your first step will be to settle on a topic four of you will work on together.  This will require negotiation.  Make this decision by consensus – everyone has to agree.  Majority rule won’t work.  In working out a topic, pay attention most to what the others are interested in, rather than  asserting your own interests first.  (This will take a while.)


On Friday, give your seminar leader one copy of your search results. 

We expect each of you to be a co-author of this report.  Everyone should participate in the write up.  If you can’t work this out, then share notes and write up your own report.  Your name should appear on a report only if you helped write it, and helped substantially.


Your report: (please adhere to this outline)


  1. Identify the topic and the scholarly discipline or disciplines that you will apply to this topic.  If, for example, you choose “gay marriage,” then you must also identify which disciplines you will work with in getting at what you want to know.  Some that might apply to “gay marriage,” for example, are Sociology, Anthropology, History, Psychology, Philosophy, Literature, Art History, Law…  You won’t know at the outset which of these to choose, or which sub-disciplines you will be led into.  Working this out will be part of your research.


  1. List a number of important scholarly contributions to the topic, which you will find by exploring library catalogs, browsing the shelves, reading encyclopedia articles…
  2. List “literature reviews” pertinent to your topic and important resources identified in these reviews.  Annotate what’s in these resources, based on what you learn from the reviews.


  1. Identify the “main players,” scholars, advocates or advocacy groups, politicians, world leaders, “think tanks,” institutes… These will be individuals and groups with whom anyone who can claim expertise on your topic would be familiar.


  1. List the main issues of agreement and disagreement that divide these players or unite them into alignments and groups.  Show what you’ve learned about who agrees or disagrees with whom and what about.


  1. List several debatable statements or questions that bear importantly on public policy.  There must be more than one plausible position on these statements or questions.


  1. List web-sites that offer important resources on your topic and questions.  Be clear about the nature of these sites, whether they are scholarly sites or advocacy sites, and what they can be used for.  Annotate these findings.


Keep in mind that this is an exercise, not the first step in your actual Legislative Hearings project.  Having done this, you’ll know how to do better than guess at a topic for your project.


Just one final note on your “real” topic.  The door is open wide on what the topic can be.  The main requirement is that four of you are willing to pass through the door together.  You must work in groups of four, having reached a consensus on what your topic will be.