The Humble Argument, Part II: The Research Process

Since you’re just diving into research for your current events project, now’s a good time to think about formulating a good research question (Chapter 3) and what the process of gathering and assessing evidence is like (Chapters 4-5).


“Boring is as boring does.” – Humble

First, remember that your research question is not your thesis; it’s a tool to guide your investigation. Humble gives you three possible methods for getting started and for eventually narrowing your question.

  • Freewriting
  • Reporters’ Questions (who, what, when, where, why, and how)
  • Browsing


“With sources of evidence, you look for two main qualities – credibility and objectivity” (emphasis mine; Humble 74).

When doing research, here’s a good mantra for you: just because it’s been published doesn’t mean it’s good, or true. This is especially true in the age of internet research. Just as spell check doesn’t always know what’s best for you when it comes to editing your papers, search engines and databases are not cognizant and aren’t evaluating your sources for you – that’s your job as the researcher.

It’s up to you as the researcher, then, to ask yourself some questions about the evidence you gather, starting with knowing what kindof source you have. Different types of sources are useful at different stages of the research process.


A. General source: introduce you (meaning: a general audience) to a topic and its terminology (e.g., dictionaries, wikis and encyclopedias, online databases); usually present shallow information, or the topic in summary, rather than in-depth detail.

  • Don’t stop here! Use general sources to help you find or narrow a question, not as sources of quotations to help you back up your argument.

B. Popular source: written by professional writers for broad audiences (e.g., newspapers, trade magazines, general web sites); tend to target popular issues thoughtfully, but probably not academically, though they may quote scholars, local authorities, or other “experts” on feature topics.

  • Be aware of bias. Groups or organizations may have a bias, even if it’s “a laudable one,” as Humble says. Corroborate this evidence with other sources!
  • Use popular sources to read for the conversation (i.e., to find out what the debates are surrounding your topic).
  • May be a good source of quotes and facts to support your arguments in a paper.

C. Scholarly source: written, edited, and scrutinized by scholars in the field (e.g., some books and scholarly journals), those who possess deep knowledge of a field and have been trained in a disciplinary research methodology (i.e., folks who are deeply invested); usually found in libraries or through the library’s database search engines (e.g., JSTOR, LexisNexis, Proquest, etc.); often contain a lot of jargon or other unfamiliar vocabulary, which is why you need your general sources on hand.

  • Primary texts: the texts about which scholars write, for example, novels, poems, plays, speeches, films, etc. This is where important textual evidence comes from to support your rhetorical analysis.
  • Secondary texts: published criticism or analysis that talks about a primary text(s).
  • Great for quotes, facts, and studies to back up your argument and to corroborate evidence in your popular sources!


“Some writers have broader agendas that might encourage them to interpret or edit to fit those agendas [and] the bias might be more subtle…” (88).

The word agenda has taken on a negative connotation in our culture. We tend to associate it with shady dealings and other underhanded tactics. When we say someone has an agenda, we often mean he or she has a plot; it seems synonymous with saying “so-and-so is untrustworthy.” But having an agenda isn’t always bad – e.g., as students, each of you has an agenda when it comes to your education – but they’re a good thing to be aware of, even if an agenda seems laudable.

  • Agenda (n.): a list, plan, outline, etc. of things to be done, or matters to be acted or voted upon.

In short, understanding someone’s agenda is understanding what a speaker values and how such a list of priorities might influence how they interpret or spin any data their presenting to their reader/audience.

Agendas can be connected to warrants, those unexamined assumptions behind our arguments.


Let’s practice listening for an analyzing some of the warrants behind some recent news clips. For each of the news clips below, jot down the major argument(s) the primary speaker is making; then see if you can discern the unexamined assumptions (about why an argument is convincing) behind each argument.

Example 1) Newt Gingrich on union workers, work ethic and the children of the poor.


Example 2) Superintendent Huppenthal’s on banning ethnic studies in Tuscon, AZ (and some associated texts). [Visit

Hint: listen carefully to the superintendent’s language and jot down any words that seem telling or to which he returns more than once.

Fun Fact: at one point in his talk, the superintendent uses the word “racemization.”

  • Racemization (n.): from chemistry: refers to the converting of an enantiomerically pure mixture (one where only one enantiomer is present) into a mixture where more than one of the enantiomers are present.

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