Martin Luther, The Man Who Would Be King

January 15, 2010

In 1922, a young Zelda Fitzgerald (b. 1900) said that a young woman “had the right to experiment with herself as a transient, poignant figure who will be dead tomorrow.” Fitzgerald was past the teen years but just entering the age of flappers and jazz. In 1923, Colleen Moore starred in the movie Flaming Youth, leading F. Scott Fitzgerald to claim, “I was the spark that lit up Flaming Youth, Colleen Moore was the torch. What little things we are to have caused all that trouble.” The tagline for the movie? “How Far Can A Girl Go?”

Why do I tell you this, you may be wondering, and what can this possibly have to do with student success? I tell you this to remind you of two things related to researching just about anything:

First, just about everything has a history and you ignore the historical context of an issue at your peril when you are doing research. My brother once wrote a paper that started with the words, “Rock and roll began with the Beatles.” No it didn’t. There’s more to it than that. There’s Cleveland disc jockey Alan Freed who first used the term in 1951, taking it from a song, “My Baby Rocks Me with a Steady Roll.” Maybe. This is a story I’ve heard, but if I were writing a paper or a presentation on this topic I’d be making sure and referencing rock’s roots in country, gospel, the blues, and more.

But back to flaming youth and my second point. I’m collecting materials for an upcoming exhibit called Flaming Youth and I bought a new-to-me book a couple of weeks ago, Stephen Tropiano’s (2006), Rebels & Chicks: A History of the Hollywood Teen Movie. There’s lots of good information in the book, but here’s the first sentence of the introduction:

The history of the Hollywood teen movie begins in the 1950s, the same decade in which American teenagers came into their own, complete with their own way of talking, dressing, dancing, and having a good time. (p. 9)

Flappers, jazz, bobbed hair, the collegiate look, raccoon coats, the Charleston, and oh so much more from the nineteen twenties provide evidence that youth culture predates the fifties by decades. And at least some of this culture was spread at the movie theatre (I recommend Joan Crawford in 1928’s Our Dancing Daughters for a related romp). While Tropiano goes on to explain what he considers the differences among films of the fifties and those of earlier decades, he’s made a dangerous statement in his introduction, especially if it’s read by someone inexperienced with research.

When something is published in a book, it must be true, right? Of course you know this isn’t necessarily so. You’ll need to find multiple sources and cross reference facts and make sure that you understand your topic before you begin writing. It’s very tempting to grab onto something like Tropiano’s initial statement and run with it without reading further, skewing your whole thesis.

There are many memorable skewed presentations I’ve witnessed. One student, during a study of the Elizabethan era (think Shakespeare), told the class as she stood up to talk that Princess Diana was so much more interesting than Queen Elizabeth that she had focused her research on the princess instead of the queen. Another student, having been assigned a report on Martin Luther King Jr., instead told the class about Martin Luther, telling us that Luther was a man who later became a king.

How far can a girl go? Far enough into her subject to find out what she’s talking or writing about. So should everyone.

What’s the first thing you do when you need to research something?

There is nothing like looking, if you want to find something. You certainly usually find something if you look, but it is not always quite the something you were after.
• J.R.R. Tolkien


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