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Can You Put that in the Form of a Question?
May 30, 2012 - 9:08pm

I teach a course in the spring called Information Fluency (rather a lame title, but I was suffering from lack of creativity when I submitted the course proposal years ago; maybe I should hold a “name this course” contest). It’s an upper division undergraduate course pitched to students who are planning to go to graduate school, giving them a chance to learn more about the way the literature of their field works as well as generally how to use library and internet tools for research. One of their assignments is to interview a researcher in their field. This year, since the students had a nice mix of majors from across the curriculum, we used reports from the interviews as an opportunity to analyze on how research traditions vary from one discipline to another and how these experts’ processes differ from those of non-experts. So for today’s blog post, I’m drawing on write-ups students did of their interview subjects, as I forewarned them I would. Consider this a collaborative effort.*

One thing that many students remarked on as they reported on their interviews: the activities that define research are enormously varied from one discipline to another. The process a researcher goes through to examine the historical context in which Shakespeare wrote one of his history plays is a world apart from what a researcher does to develop a new vaccine or what an ethnographer does when studying an isolated culture in Brazil. In each case a certain amount of creativity is required as well as lot of training, both in content and in methods. Because these students were for the most part close to finishing their majors and already well versed in both the basics of the discipline and its methods, they were able to articulate what disciplinary values they saw at work and were intrigued by the differences. Perhaps because of being closer to a general education than their teachers, used to taking courses in three or four different departments within the same semester, they were quick to recognize and name those differences.

For some of the interview subjects, travel was an important aspect of their process. The research they did had to be done in libraries far away, or in the field. For others, laboratories were much more important than libraries, and securing funding for research projects was itself a significant undertaking. The interview subjects varied in terms of how collaborative their work was. The scientists all had co-authors; the social scientists were a mix of solo and collaborative projects, and the humanists all performed solo acts. And yet, it became clear that all of them were working within an ongoing conversation. None of them was doing work that didn’t draw on and respond to the work of others.

There were some commonalities. Every interview subject conducted some sort of a literature review as part of any research project (though the concept of “literature review” is not so distinct in the humanities as in other fields). Every researcher described some strategies for keeping up with new developments in their area of expertise, all of which involved some scanning of new publications and some personal contact with individuals exploring the same territory. Though I had hypothesized that social media might be a growing piece of a researcher's toolkit only one of the interviewees used blogs and Google+ for connecting with other scholars; another used them as a way of gaining information about a social group she was studying. For most, presenting research at conferences was a common part of bringing their research to completion. For all, writing up results for publication was an important final step, and they seemed acutely aware of the pecking order for publication venues in their field. (In contrast, undergraduates mostly encounter articles within databases, called up by key words, not as artifacts within a particular journal which carries clout.)

Though most of the interview subjects were working within familiar and well-defined disciplinary frameworks, three were involved to some extent with interdisciplinary research. One played a pioneering role in establishing an interdisciplinary area of study and has seen it take root and flourish. She now edits a journal in the field and is editing a subject encyclopedia, which puts her in touch with just about everyone who is part of her interdisciplinary community. Another was invited to join a project that drew deliberately on experts from different disciplines, and the third, a biologist frustrated by the lack of public understanding of science, described delving into unfamiliar methodological territory to explore scientists’ reluctance to engage with non-scientists. Her experience, trying to read up in literature outside her usual field of study and using methods that weren’t part of her training, was probably closer in this experience to the novice-researcher status so familiar to undergraduates.

One thing the students all gained through these interviews was an appreciation that research is not a matter of finding answers in other people’s publications. Every scholar interviewed described how they had asked a question that nobody had asked before, a question they couldn’t answer themselves until they had completed the research. It struck me that so much of what undergraduates experience as “research” is very nearly the opposite, a process of uncovering answers others have already arrived at.

As the students in my course were conducting these interviews, they were also writing literature reviews. Though they were dab hands at writing "research papers" and many had conducted independent research projects in their majors (and the ones who presented their work at our annual undergraduate research celebration had done impressive work), none of them were very familiar with writing literature reviews. We looked at examples, discussed disciplinary differences, and talked about how they should be organized, but I think I need to do a better job of explaining the genre, because it was clearly a challenging writing experience for most of them. They were comfortable writing from sources, but not when they were actually writing about the sources. Disentangling their search from the map they were drawing of the literature was challenging.

So now that the semester is over and the caps have made their traditional parabolas through the air at graduation, I’m making notes about what I want to do differently with this class next year.

I’m also thinking about what these interviews said collectively about how real research is conducted. It makes me a little crazy when students abandon a truly interesting question because they can’t find sources to quote that provide the answer, or when they change their topic based on what they can find easily. Or (shudder) when they say they've written their paper, but need help finding five sources to cite. Clearly, they are not learning how to do research; they aren't even learning what research is. 

What I would really, really like is to figure out how to give every student the experience of not worrying so much about getting the right answers, but learning how to ask a really good question. The kind they won't find answered in the library.


*Thanks to Sam, Melissa, Meghan, Quinn, Ann, Liz, Laura, Tara, and Vicky, my co-authors - though any mistakes are mine.


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