Making Sense of Information: Using Sources in Planning School

With the semester starting, students are beginning to focus on assignments and other project work. Today there is a great deal of information available for planners, but that can lead students to be overwhelmed (and use only a few available sources) or uncertain about how to use those sources that are available. Fortunately universities are coming up with resources to help students untangle these issues. My own institution just launched the very helpful http://digitalliteracy.cornell.edu/. The following tips are adapted from my guide for students doing final projects and theses (link at the end of this entry).

4 minute read

August 31, 2009, 1:30 PM PDT

By Ann Forsyth


With
the semester starting, students are beginning to focus on assignments and other
project work. Today there is a great deal of information available for planners,
but that can lead students to be overwhelmed (and use only a few available
sources) or uncertain about how to use those sources that are available.
Fortunately universities are coming up with resources to help students untangle
these issues. My own institution just launched the very helpful http://digitalliteracy.cornell.edu/. The
following tips are adapted from my guide for students doing final projects and
theses (link at the end of this entry).

As
I say in that document, it is very important for students to use sources of
information well in a ways that is true to the content of the sources and also
demonstrate respect for the need of the reader to make her own independent
judgments about the strength of the evidence provided by sources.

  • A
    work that only contains sources available on the internet is likely to
    give the reader the impression that a writer was not very energetic in his
    or her investigations.
    Planning work often involves looking at
    physical sites, talking with people, examining historical evidence, using
    databases, and even understanding technical issues that are documented in
    reports that don't make their way onto the public internet. Students
    typically have free access to a large number of such technical documents
    such as journal articles, historical sources such as historical maps, and
    expensive databases such as business listings-they should use them.
  • Writers
    need sources for everything that is not common knowledge
    to readers or
    that is obviously the writer's own opinion. It is not enough to say you
    found something in multiple places. You need to specifically cite those
    places.
  • Sources
    are needed for both the conceptual framework of the piece
    (e.g. levels
    of public space in squatter settlements, types of planning responses to
    disasters) and for the facts and figures you use to support your
    argument.
    Sources are also typically needed for the methods you use to
    show that you are building on earlier work, even if modifying it in some
    way.
  • Use
    sources critically
    in a way that respects the reader's needs to be
    able to judge evidence for herself or himself. Weave material about the
    source into the text: "According to the XYZ housing advocacy
    organization...", "based on 150 interviews with clients of CDCs ",
    "reflecting 10 years of experience working with Russian immigrants".
    Saying "Harvard professor X claims that ." is not a strong source of
    evidence. Harvard professors have personal opinions. Readers typically
    deserve to be told about the evidence.
  • Not all sources are equal.
    Better sources are published by reputable presses (e.g. University
    Presses), are refereed (blind reviewed articles), or are by reputable
    organizations. They cite sources and are clear about methods so readers
    can check their facts (see Booth et al. 2008, The Craft of Research,
    77-79, for a terrific explanation of this point). Better sources use
    better methods overall. Of course a writer's own analysis can be a source
    and they should say that is the case and show, even if briefly, how they
    did the analysis and why their methods are strong.
  • Wikipedia, ask.com and other similar web sites
    are typically not appropriate final sources
    . It is possible to start at
    Wikipedia but scroll straight to the bottom and look at its sources--they are often very useful. For
    many questions it is better still to use a professional or scholarly
    dictionary such as dictionaries of geography or of planning terms. The
    2001 International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences (N. Smelser and P. Bates eds.) has substantial
    sections on planning and urban studies and many university libraries
    provide free access.
  • One source is frequently
    not enough
    , particularly for controversial or complicated issues.
    Better writers use multiple sources to allow the reader to see the balance
    of evidence.

For
more on this and related topics go to http://www.annforsyth.net/forstudents.html
and scroll to the "Essential Information" document at the bottom. The other
very important section is the one on making an argument-just because X and Y
both exist in the world does not mean X causes Y as much as a writer might
like it to ..

Thanks to Ruth Kroeger for comments on this entry.


Ann Forsyth

Trained in planning and architecture, Ann Forsyth is a professor of urban planning at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. From 2007-2012 she was a professor of city and regional planning at Cornell. She taught previously at at the University of Minnesota, directing the Metropolitan Design Center (2002-2007), Harvard (1999-2002), and the University of Massachusetts (1993-1999) where she was co-director of a small community design center, the Urban Places Project. She has held short-term positions at Columbia, Macquarie, and Sydney Universities.

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