I want to go back and reply to all the comments on my lit review and research proposal roughs -- that's in the queue, and thank you for everyone who took the time to comment (Seb, Paul, Stephen, Heidi, Steve, Caryn, Greg, Ben, Ruth, and more); I've been turning your comments around in my head and they've been incredibly helpful. It's mostly that my brain needs a little bit of time to do something else before it can get back to those particular items with renewed vigor.
On the "something else" subject, I've been reading this winter break, and have been rediscovering an affinity for... I'm not sure what to call them. "Readable Research" books, perhaps -- titles like Good To Great by Jim Collins, Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Freakonomics by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner, Spark by Sir Ken Robinson, Five Minds for the Future by Howard Gardner, Why We Do What We Do by Edward Deci, The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell... these cover a wide range of fields, but the common thread is that they are...
- Written (or co-authored) by researchers with a deep history in the field's subject matter. These folks aren't rehashing summaries from interviews with other experts; they are the experts, and the subtle effect this has on the thoughtfulness and depth of synthesis of the ideas is (at least to me) detectable. (I could, perhaps, try this with a double-blind study on myself; it could be the placebo effect.)
- Written engagingly and well. It's not something you plod through because the content is excellent (Piaget, I love you, but your writing drives me batshit insane); it's something you relish because the writing is excellent. And the content is excellent.
- Written for laypeople - a curious high school student could get through it with a little help from Wikipedia.
- Grounded in a wealth of solid research - dense with pointers to empirical evidence, with conjectures clearly stated and few in number. With citations everywhere, so you can track the original papers down. I love looking through the bibliographies of Readable Research books; they're like treasure troves, veins of gold. I'm starting to try using these to get a sense of where and how good researchers track and follow information in their field.
Now, I don't imagine that any of the books give you "deep knowledge" in a field. But they do allow you to step into the mental footsteps of those who do . When the writing is good and the reading is done correctly, there are moments of holy cow this is what it's like to think that way. To have all these facts and ideas at your fingertips so that an insight catalyzes flashes of connections, swiftly weaves out into a beautiful glowing web of understanding... you won't be able to reproduce it, but you'll see a glimpse of the mastery you're aiming for.
It's almost as if you were a pianist and could have your hands possessed by the ghost of Artur Rubenstein for a single run-through of a single song, or a martial artist who found themselves transported as a watcher in the body of Bruce Lee as he executed a perfect flying kick -- feeling what they feel, thinking what they think, but with the master remaining in control.
When I can write one of these, I will consider myself to have become a mature scholar.